Delegates from the International Association of Fire Fighters unanimously voted to censure a Maryland Republican congressman and a Democratic state senator representing Montgomery County at the labor organization’s annual convention in Ontario, Canada, last week.
The Professional Fire Fighters of Maryland, or PFFMD, in separate resolutions, submitted their formal disapproval of U.S. Rep. Andy Harris and state Sen. Cheryl Kagan. The state labor organization represents over 10,000 active and retired members of 25 local IAFF organizations in the state.
The resolutions rebuked their elected officials for not supporting legislation to help protect the health and safety of firefighters, and in Harris’ case, for canceling a scheduled meeting with a union delegation. The union also endorsed Harris’ opponent running to represent Maryland’s Eastern Shore-based 1st Congressional District, Democrat Heather Mizeur.
“We don’t take censures lightly,” said Jeff Buddle, who serves as the president of the PFFMD and the Montgomery County local IAFF. “We seriously consider them. We believe the actions of Congressman Harris were egregious enough and impact more than just Maryland’s 1st Congressional District; they impact our firefighters nationwide.”
According to the resolution, Harris has “repeatedly voted against or refused to support important IAFF legislative initiatives,” citing Harris’ vote against a 2019 law signed by former President Donald Trump extending a deadline for first responders to submit 9/11-related healthcare claims. Harris also voted against a 2022 bill intended to ease approval of workers’ compensation claims for federally employed firefighters for certain illnesses, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or mesothelioma.
The IAFF resolution also called out Harris for refusing to cosponsor the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2018, now a law, requiring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to catalogue cancer incidences in firefighters on a voluntary basis.
“Because I believe in ‘right to work’ laws, unions don’t support me — and this firefighters union is no exception,” Harris said. “However, the volunteer fire companies across the district, who protect the vast majority of my constituents, continue to appreciate the work I do to support our men and women in service.”
But Buddle said the censure is about doing the right thing for first responders.
“This isn’t about right-to-work, it has nothing to do with unions. It has to do with protecting firefighters who have gotten cancer and providing for their families,” he said.
Buddle said Harris also canceled a scheduled meeting with PFFMD members during a legislative conference in Washington, D.C., on March 10, 2020.
Melissa Bragg, president to Worcester County Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 4916, attended the canceled meeting at Harris’ office in the U.S. Capitol. After waiting for about 30 minutes, the group of five state and local IAFF leaders were ushered to the hallway and told Harris would not be able to see them because of an emergency COVID-19 meeting, Bragg said.
There was no follow up from Harris’ office to meet with the group, some of whom were also Harris’ constituents, she said.
“If you meet with us, listen to us, and you ultimately still disagree, that’s fine, but at least listen to us,” Bragg said. “The least he can do is take care of his people that take care of his people.”
Harris said he did not meet with the PFFMD that day because the meeting was scheduled “during the COVID emergency.”
“Due to breaking COVID developments and updates during that time, a lot of my meetings had to be rescheduled or passed on to my staff, which is the usual way that most groups interact with Congressional offices,” he said in the statement.
Mizeur, a former state delegate, said the Harris censure “is not surprising.”
“Anyone who has looked at Andy Harris’s record knows he has repeatedly worked against the interests of our brave first responders,” she said. “The Professional Fire Fighters of Maryland are strongly supporting my campaign because they know I will fight to protect them with the same tenacious spirit they bring to protecting us.”
Also receiving a reprimand from the powerful labor union was Kagan, who currently serves as vice chair of the Maryland Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
The IAFF Local Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association rebuked Kagan for actions they say stalled the progress of a bill during the 2022 legislative session and for being the only member of the Montgomery County delegation in 2016 who didn’t oppose a county-level collective bargaining measure that the union believed would have made it harder to negotiate.
“Through her actions, Senator Kagan prevented legislation specifically designed to protect the health and safety of fire fighters in Montgomery County as well as across the State of Maryland from advancing to the floor of the Maryland State Senate for full consideration,” according to the resolution.
The bill would have prohibited the burning of carcinogen-coated wood called strand board during firefighter trainings. Oriented strand board is similar to plywood but made from flakes and strands of wood and can release gas when burned, according to Buddle.
The bill had passed the Maryland House of Delegates 128-0 on March 21 and needed a committee vote in the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee to advance to the Senate floor. According to the resolution, Kagan was absent from the March 30 committee hearing and then delayed the committee vote on April 7 until the next day. The session ended without the committee’s vote.
Buddle said he reached out to Kagan by email on April 8 to see if she had any questions about the bill and was surprised when the committee didn’t vote on the bill.
Kagan called the group’s censure of her actions “bizarre.”
“I think it’s a petty personal vendetta,” she said.
Kagan said there isn’t enough time in the session to get every proposed bill through the legislative process.
Kagan touted her history of passing legislation intended to help the public safety community, including her work chairing a commission to improve the state’s emergency response system.
“I am one of the best friends that public safety has had,” Kagan said.