VICTIMIZED BY FRUSTRATION: After Firefighters voted out Uniformed Firefighters Association President Gerard Fitzgerald after one term by a better-than 2-1 margin, he said he had been hurt by the lack of a pension improvement for the large segment of his membership that is under Tier 3, a delay in negotiating a new contract because he wanted to await the result of a police-union arbitration, and the FDNY's failure to create a plan to protect families from being infected once Firefighters contracted the coronavirus. One FDNY source said Mr. Fitzgerald was blamed for not fighting harder to keep members who had children with pre-existing conditions from being restored to regular duties.

In a stunning upset, Andy Ansbro, a former cop turned Firefighter, has unseated Uniformed Firefighters Association President Gerard Fitzgerald by a decisive 4,735 to 2,113 tally.

Mr. Ansbro, who joined the Fire Department in 2001 and was later promoted to Marine Engineer, bested Mr. Fitzgerald in every borough but The Bronx. Two trustees representing firefighters in Queens and Brooklyn also were defeated.

Out After One Term

Mr. Fitzgerald was elected to the top post in 2017, winning a runoff after a four-candidate race failed to produce a majority vote. He previously served as UFA vice president.

"This upset is contrary to the conventional wisdom with UFA elections that somebody from one of the smaller specialty units like 'Marine' could win," said a source close to the union. "It used to be almost tribal: Engines stick with Engines, borough-based."

But during the 1970s and particularly the 1980s, the UFA  was known for high turnover among its presidents, although it was not unusual for it to return to office someone it had voted out just an election or two earlier.

Mr. Fitzgerald said in a phone interview June 23,  the day after the ballots were counted, that he believed the defeat, and the surprisingly large margin of it, was the result of frustration among the UFA rank and file on several fronts.

Contract, COVID and Tier 3

Where numerous uniformed unions, including the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, had negotiated new collective-bargaining deals over the past six months, "We didn't get involved with the contract," he said, because of his decision to await the outcome of an arbitration proceeding—which has been delayed because of the coronavirus—involving the Police Benevolent Association.

A bid to gain pension improvements for the majority of union members who came on the job beginning in 2010 and therefore are in the less-generous Tier 3 of the pension system died in the City Council, Mr. Fitzgerald said, when Speaker Corey Johnson decided to focus on other state legislation sought by progressive forces.

And he said problems the FDNY had early on in its response to the coronavirus had a visceral impact on a sizable segment of his rank and file.

Including UFOA members, Mr. Fitzgerald said, "about 30 percent of the members [got] sick," early in the crisis, and shortages of personal protective equipment within the FDNY became another issue in the campaign. 

It also didn't help, he said, that the department lacked "a plan to protect our families" from being infected once firefighters got the virus. "We had members with pregnant wives or newborn children who couldn't interact with their families," he said. "Everything was very frustrating."

Change at His Expense

The UFA leader, whose term ends July 31, acknowledged he was surprised by the defeat, as well as the wide margin. "Well of course I'm disappointed," he said. "The members spoke. They were looking for change, and I guess I was it."   

Noah Mueller, a 14-year Firefighter who's a delegate for both Ladder Co. 40 in Harlem and the 11th Battalion, said in a phone interview that he didn't believe either the contract or the Tier 3 situation were decisive factors, explaining that many union members realized there were circumstances beyond Mr. Fitzgerald's control regarding both of them.

Rather, he said, "I think the general feeling was the response wasn't strong enough to numerous concerns with COVID." 

Principal among them, Mr. Mueller said, were cases in which Firefighters shared homes with people who would be particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus: elderly parents, wives who were pregnant or had pre-existing health conditions, and children with pre-existing conditions.

Sought Accommodations

To avoid infecting those family members, Firefighters sought to have a program created that would allow them to use substitute lodging. They also asked to have the department assess staffing for individual shifts to determine whether enough Firefighters were available for duty who didn't have vulnerable family members that those who did could remain at home.

In his own company, Firefighter Mueller said, there were two members who sought such accommodations: one whose wife was undergoing chemotherapy and another who shared a household with an aging parent.

But, he said of FDNY management, "They didn't allow anyone to be excused from normal duty. They sent everyone back to the field, even with guys who were [normally] in off-line assignments." While this stance was rooted in staff shortages, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, given the large number of firefighters of all ranks who contracted the virus and were sidelined for at least a week and often longer, there was discontent about whether Mr. Fitzgerald pushed the issue hard enough.

"We wanted to know if the union had even asked the city if they compiled a list of people" with vulnerable family members so that a determination could be made whether it was a small-enough group to grant accommodations, Mr. Mueller said.

'Wanted Stronger Presence'

He said that both Ladder 40 and Engine Co. 37, with which it shares a firehouse, had endorsed Mr. Ansbro, whom he described as a friend. He said one other catalyst early in the crisis was when Mr. Fitzgerald did a TV interview and said his members had sufficient personal protective equipment. While they never ran out, Firefighter Mueller said, the feeling was that his remark conveyed a lack of urgency about the situation.

"The consensus was," he said, "we were looking for stronger leadership, a stronger presence in the media, maybe."

Another veteran of Ladder 40, Frank DeSanna, said that among Mr. Ansbro's assets that overcame the tendency of Firefighters to support those who were still in that rank was that he's "a real intelligent guy [who] has a computer-science background. 

In his campaign material, the challenger listed his service as a UFA delegate when he was assigned to Engine 58 in Harlem and most recently as a Marine Engineer rep. He ran unsuccessfully for UFA vice president in 2017.

Rudy 'Mobilized' Him

He said in a campaign flyer that he "began attending UFA rallies when Mayor Giuliani attempted to shut Firefighters out of Ground Zero in 2001," and committed to increasing the UFA's public visibility by going to emergency-response scenes to "speak to the media about our lack of resources and its effect on fire operations."

UFA Vice President Robert Eustace was unopposed for a full term after winning a special election for the post in Jnuary. The man he defeated then, Eric Bischoff, this time won a three-way race for Staten Island trustee.

Recording Secretary Vincent Speciale gained another term, defeating Gerald Singleton 3,632 to 3,175.

UFA Treasurer Edward Brown, Sergeant-At-Arms Michael Schreiber and Manhattan Trustee Christoper Viola were unopposed for new terms.

But Brooklyn Trustee John Kelly, was another incumbent who was routed in his bid for re-election, with Douglas Carroll out-polling him, 1,177 votes to 730. And Queens Trustee Matthew DesJardin lost a closer content, 903-783 to Dennis Tveter.

Bronx Trustee William Greco handily won his contest with Thomas Kelly, 829 to 365.

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