Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) got a lackluster reception on Tuesday when they faced a union crowd at a presidential forum hosted by the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington D.C.
The two GOP senators were among the nine likely 2016 presidential candidates from both parties featured at the event.
In anticipation of some hostility to the conservatives who braved the event, union president Harold Schaitberger urged the audience at the beginning to “give every candidate the courtesy and the attention they deserve.” He reminded the crowd that unions are engaged in disagreements with Democratic and Republican leaders alike, though he did note there are a “large number of Republican governors, many who just want to eviscerate us.”
Schaitberger told the New York Times that his “leaning-right union” is hardly a liberal bastion, however.
Cruz was welcomed to the stage with applause but didn’t seem to modify his hardline message to make it more palatable to the unions.
Through much of the speech, the crowd sat “completely silent,” according to one report:
IAFF crowd completely silent for Cruz speech, where he focused on repealing Obamacare. So far crowd far more enthusiastic about Jim Webb.
— Rebecca Ballhaus (@rebeccaballhaus) March 10, 2015
In his remarks, Cruz expressed his gratitude and “awe to be in the presence of heroes,” but his staunchly conservative approach earned scorn on social media from at least one attendee, who said Cruz disrespected the audience.
The Texan’s crowd-pleaser line — “We need to repeal every word of Obamacare” — fell flat and yielded no audible applause on Tuesday.
Cruz was the first Republican to take the stage at the gathering. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) was initially scheduled to speak first but due to a scheduling conflict, he delivered a one-minute address via video instead.
Later at the event, Rubio took the stage and expressed his gratitude to the first responders who assisted his daughter after a 2012 golf cart accident.
The Floridian appeared to tailor his comments to the union crowd, with a focus on the struggling American economy and his own personal story of overcoming his working-class roots. He noted he has two relatives who are firefighters in Miami,
“We’re sensitive to the issues you care about,” Rubio said
“You’re an important part of the ability of our governments to respond. And we’ll continue to be allies and advocates for the causes that are important to your profession.”
Former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) was the lone Republican governor, former or current, to appear in person.
In his speech, Pataki touted his experience working with first responders during 9/11 and also offered criticism of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who suggested in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference that his fight against the unions in Wisconsin was at least somewhat comparable to the fight against the Islamic State jihadists (also known as ISIS).
Pataki said Walker was “flat out wrong” for making that comparison.
Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) are equally loathed by unions in their respective states and did not participate in the forum. A representative from the International Association of Fire Fighters did not respond to a request for comment on whether they were invited.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) delivered the closing remarks at the event and earned a standing ovation from the crowd for praising his commitment to supporting unions.
“There are two important things you did not hear from any of today’s Republican speaker. One is a commitment to collective bargaining. The second is a commitment to funding public safety.”
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