Firefighter union backs Duncan

Montgomery executive, O'Malley sought primary endorsement


The Professional Fire Fighters of Maryland, a union that represents 6,000 workers statewide, endorsed Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan yesterday over his Democratic primary rival for governor, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"I'm not here to bash Mayor O'Malley," LeRoy Wilkison, president of the union, said in an interview. "This election hopefully will be decided on the issues, not on the personalities, and Doug has a 12-year track record with his labor management relationships, and it's been an excellent relationship."

Duncan's team was crowing about the endorsement yesterday, which both Duncan and O'Malley have been lobbying for.

After the vote Wednesday, O'Malley officials called several city union officials to try to figure out how they lost the endorsement, union officials said.

Wilkison said that 14 local affiliates make up the Maryland union and that 10 of them participated in the vote; two chapters, Frederick and Martin State Airport, were absent, and two were approved for membership in the state union that day and did not participate. He would not comment about the final tally.

Baltimore union officials said that six of 10 affiliates sided with Duncan: Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, and chapters from Hagerstown and Cumberland.

All three of the Baltimore region's firefighting unions abstained from voting in the endorsement procedure, arguing that such a move should be delayed until after the legislative session to avoid upsetting any of the candidates and their General Assembly supporters. They also complained that the state union held the endorsement vote without hosting a candidates forum.

"We didn't think they were going to do the endorsement process this early," said Rick Schluderberg, president of Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734. "I don't fault John Sparks. He did an end run."

Sparks is president of the Montgomery County Career Firefighters Association (International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1664), which has endorsed Duncan. He praised Duncan, saying that he has forged a true partnership with Montgomery County's firefighters. He also said that his group invited Duncan and O'Malley to speak to the state association at its Ocean City convention in September, but that only Duncan appeared.

"Look, the man understands the dangers of our profession, that we put our lives on the line 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the citizens that we protect," Sparks said. "And he understands that we should be fairly compensated and have a decent retirement package."

Duncan and the Montgomery County Council signed off this year on a generous contract with the Montgomery County Career Firefighters Association that was criticized by some elected officials as being an election-year ploy. In addition to salary increases, the contract allowed firefighters to retire after 20 years of service, down from 25 years.

David Weaver, director of communications for Montgomery County, said the county vies with the federal government as well as other counties to keep its firefighters and that the contract was necessary to provide competitive benefits.

"The pay boost was an effort to bring our firefighters in line in terms of salary with other firefighters in the Washington metropolitan region," Weaver said. "We previously ranked near the bottom in terms of pay in comparison to other jurisdictions."

The Baltimore Retired Fire Fighters and Fire Officers Association also endorsed Duncan this week, according to his campaign.

Despite the statewide group's support, Baltimore's two firefighting unions are likely to endorse O'Malley, their leaders said.

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