A former Baltimore County firefighter and the son of a fire chief, O’Connor once took part in the rescue after a 1987 train collision that left 16 dead and 175 injured.

Now, as a lobbyist for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), he often sees the immediate impact of his work. And he understands changes are sometimes made after difficult, even tragic circumstances.
“Kevin goes about his business and keeps it close to his vest. But he gets results for his membership,” said Chuck Harple, former political director for the Teamsters. “Kevin is as loyal as they come. His word is his bond.”

His lobbying duties often touch on his personal life. O’Connor had lobbied hard for legislation to expand firefighters’ line-of-duty death benefits onto their family members, if the firefighters die from heart attacks or strokes. When President Bush signed the bill in December 2003, the first family to benefit was that of an ex-colleague of O’Connor’s.

“That makes everything worthwhile,” O’Connor said, noting the bittersweet victory.

As head of government and political affairs for the IAFF, O’Connor is more than familiar with what effective advocacy can deliver for his union, from quality equipment on the job to better pensions.

O’Connor never saw himself coming to the nation’s capital, however. He became a firefighter in 1985 because of the job’s capacity to help others.

“The most gratifying thing was the lives I could save through my training,” O’Connor said.

While on duty, he received commendation for bravery and saw action during the horrific train collision in Maryland  — at the time, the deadliest in Amtrak’s history. O’Connor remembers the aftermath of the crash as a “war scene.”

He also became chairman of the county pension fund — more than $2 billion — in the front office and, when a spot opened up in the local union’s leadership in 1991, he ran for election and won.

O’Connor’s career soon took him more and more to statehouses instead of five-alarm fires as he continued to move up the union ranks. By 2000, he came to Washington as a key senior aide to IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger.

During the past eight years, the IAFF’s membership has grown and, consequently, so has its influence on Capitol Hill. Firefighters became modern-day folk heroes after Sept. 11, 2001, and politicians, like everyone else, seemed to gravitate toward the courage they displayed during the terrorist attacks.

This past election cycle, IAFF’s political action committee contributed close to $3 million to candidates and parties, giving about three-quarters of its funds to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The IAFF also was the biggest donor to Republicans among unions, percentage-wise. O’Connor is credited by many for the union’s effectiveness.

“He has a wonderful ability to listen to his members, lobby with their best interests at heart and translate their issues into effective legislation. Kevin’s display of honesty and integrity on the job make working with him a pleasure,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

The union’s endorsement is highly sought among presidential candidates on either side of the aisle, with both Barack Obama and John McCain, as well as others who ran in the primaries, stopping by its presidential forum in 2007. The firefighters’ early endorsement of Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) in the 2004 Democratic primary is partly credited for turning around his presidential campaign and steering Kerry towards his party’s nomination.

“When I was down and out in 2003 and my presidential campaign was being written off, the firefighters dug in deep and stood with me. Firefighters never forget their friends,” Kerry said. “This is a union that multiplies their impact and extends their reach because they fight so hard for their candidates.”

{mospagebreak}But the IAFF’s political work is not based on partisan interests, unlike most of the labor community, which tends to be automatically Democratic.

Instead, the union is geared more toward the needs of the firefighters.

O’Connor describes its membership as “diverse” and divided “pretty evenly along party lines.”

“The way we conduct our politics and our lobbying is reflective of how to best advance our agenda,” O’Connor said. “If you predicate your delivery based on your relationships alone, you come up short.”
That bipartisanship has won friendship as well as respect from Republicans. Steven Law, general counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, appreciates that openness.

In 2004, Law, then the deputy Labor secretary, was leading an effort to modernize overtime rules for firefighters and police officers. Several unions came out against the rules, but O’Connor promised Law his union would work with the department on amending the regulations instead of just opposing them.

“I give Kevin a lot of credit because he stuck to his word. They didn’t join in on the fight, which would have been the easy thing for the firefighters to do at the time,” Law said. “He just keeps his word, no matter what.”

O’Connor has a full plate to lobby on over the next year, pushing for everything from healthcare reform to collective bargaining rights for his members.

But the most immediate item on the agenda — as with most of Washington — is the stimulus package being designed to trigger an economic recovery. State government funds need help; funding for firefighters may disappear into the financial crisis.

“As the markets tank, that money is going to come under attack,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor is also looking forward to working with the Obama administration. In Obama, the lobbyist sees a president who comes to office with “a cleaner slate than anyone else in the last 50 years.”

His powerful fundraising base and grassroots campaign leaves Obama free of special interests, according to O’Connor. Those in Washington will have to work with Obama’s agenda, instead of creating it.

“From our perspective, that’s good for us because we have a case to make,” O’Connor said.