"Thanks, Jeb!"

It didn't take long for Gov. Jeb Bush and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to hightail it out of Aventura Station 8 last week, after spending just fifteen minutes glad-handing dozens of Miami-Dade County firemen wearing bright red "Jeb!" T-shirts (supplied by their union, Local 1403 of the International Association of Firefighters).

The sight of Haitian and black activist protesters (and the TV crews covering them) on the lawn of the fire station had cut short this "Jeb!" campaign, sponsored by Local 1403. The union represents 1530 mostly white and Hispanic county firefighters; the protesters were on hand demanding that the governor call his brother, Dubya, to seek the release of the 235 Haitian refugees who crowded onto the Rickenbacker Causeway after their boat ran aground last week.

And while it was hilarious to see Local 1403 union officers Dominick Barbera and Gary Rainey with egg on their faces, the fact is that their campaign rally shouldn't have gone on in the first place. Despite a county policy barring political "forums" at county-owned facilities (instituted since the "Opa-locka Three" incidents and demonstrations of last year), the union went ahead with its plans to "thank Jeb" for his tremendous support of firemen's issues during his first term as governor. The event was also billed as a meet-and-greet with the overexposed Giuliani, whose political career was in the crapper before September 11, when the NYC firefighters and police who died at the World Trade Center "rescued" him.

Now it remains to be seen if the brass at Miami-Dade Fire Rescue will go after the firemen who organized the Bush rally with the same vengeance they used against the "Opa-locka Three." In the wake of 9/11, William Clark, James Moore, and Terry Williams, black county firefighters in the Opa-locka station, were wrongly accused of refusing to ride on trucks bearing the Stars and Stripes. The three men's sin was that they openly voiced strong opinions on racial inequality and discrimination at a time of national emergency, views they'd been expressing for years. And for years, drawing the ire of the predominantly white MDFR.

Although a department investigation earlier this year "cleared'' the three of any wrongdoing, then-fire chief David Paulison (now the U.S. Fire Administrator) ordered disciplinary action against Clark and Moore because they offended and distressed many of their colleagues by expressing unpopular views at an inappropriate time. It was another classic example of the trampling of individuals' First Amendment rights in ethnically Balkanized Miami-Dade County (see "Opa-Locka Three: The Sequel" and "The Opa-Locka Three," New Times, May 16, 2002, and October 25, 2001).

Yet union representatives who brought the Jeb and Rudy show to the Aventura fire station are not likely to face any disciplinary action, despite the fact that they misled county officials about the nature of the political rally. Hell, several union officers, including Rainey, first vice president Stan Hills, and treasurer Mike Kramer, have yet to face any disciplinary action after two county investigations revealed that they've been abusing their union leave time for the past three years (see "Firemen's Ball," New Times, October 17, 2002).

Current Fire Chief Charles U. Phillips was unavailable for comment. Department spokesman Louis "Louie" Fernandez said MDFR did not grant approval for the rally. In fact, Fernandez said, the department was not even aware that it was going on.

"It had nothing to do with the department," Fernandez explained. "[The rally] was arranged between Local 1403 and the county manager's office. We did not know anything about this event." In other words, the fire department and the union are like two steamships passing each other in the fog of political expediency.

County Manager Steve Shiver confirmed that his office authorized the rally after consulting with Robert Ginsburg, the county attorney. "It was considered to be appropriate," Shiver told New Times. Ginsburg said the county "generally opposes" the use of county facilities for political campaign rallies and related functions because "you are essentially creating a public forum that others can use for the same purpose at a venue that may not be appropriate for political purposes."

Ginsburg said he was assured by union officials ahead of time that they would not be staging a political rally. "It was more about Governor Bush thanking the firemen for their support and introducing them to Giuliani," Ginsburg recalled. Juan Mendieta, the county spokesman, said the union also told him that it was not going to be a political forum. "We checked it out and approved it on what we thought was not going to be a political event," Mendieta tortuously said.

This is not the first time Local 1403 finds itself in hot water regarding political activities at fire stations. When the union threw its support behind former County Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla in the 2000 mayoral race, then-chief Paulison ordered firemen to remove signs supporting the commissioner from their parked cars at county fire stations. The union objected, calling Paulison's directive a politically motivated maneuver by Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas.

How county officials did not realize Local 1403 was putting on a Grand Ole Party at the Aventura station is hard to understand, however. The flyers the union distributed to its membership clearly show it was planning a campaign rally. And the scene at the station house, located off Aventura Boulevard behind the mall, was all about re-electing "Jeb!"

Barbera and Rainey were handing out T-shirts left and right. Another firefighter exhorted his colleagues in their red T-shirts to show their support for their fallen New York brethren by voting for Bush. But the festivities came to a quick end once the TV crews from channels 4, 10, and 51, as well as CNN, started filming the protesters outside the station. Bush and Giuliani were spirited off in a black Ford Expedition before you could say "ground zero."

Among the protesters was union critic Faye Davis, a member of the Progressive Firefighters Association, a grassroots group representing minority firefighters. She held up a sign that asked Rudy why his administration hired only 300 black firemen during his two terms as the Big Apple's mayor. Davis said she found it ironic that the county allowed Local 1403 to hold the staged political event. "It's wrong," she said. "If any of us tried to do what the union did, we'd be subject to discipline."

Barbera refused comment for this story. "I've got nothing to say to you," the two-time union president said as he slipped out the back door of the station.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.

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