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Ultimately, the presidents of both unions would be indicted on dubious criminal charges, of which they were later cleared, and the city's fire chief would find himself under investigation.
@body:During the 1980s, politics inextricably linked the firefighters and police unions in a joint battle with the city power structure, even as Ortega was assuming his place in it.
It had only been a few years since city labor groups had won the right to collective bargaining, and relations were still tense between the police chief and the union (PLEA).
The unions, most notably the firefighters, were working for passage of a ballot initiative that would require city councilmembers to be elected from districts, instead of at large.
Gordon Lange was PLEA president, one of the original founders of the fledgling union that had only recently bested the old-line Fraternal Order of Police to become the bargaining agent for officers.
Pat Cantelme headed the firefighters union and was a rising political star, a man many believed could someday win the mayor's seat.
Ortega's mass firings in the Seventh Avenue Seven case galvanized PLEA, and Cantelme jumped into the fray.
Unionists saw the hasty dismissals as "another incident of Chief Ortega losing his temper," Lange recalls. "There's a complaint, and the next day we've got guys that are arbitrarily fired. There's really no investigation that we can see."
Two union officers--grievance chairman Mike Petchel and newsletter editor Joe Petrosino--wrote articles criticizing the chief's handling of the case in the union newsletter. Ortega threatened to fire both of them, too.
When Lange tried to discuss the situation with Ortega, his job was also threatened.
Lange says he tried to tell Ortega that the First Amendment protected the officers from being fired for expressing their views. "The bottom line in that meeting was I said, 'We're going to go to battle over this issue.' I said he could not fire our editor for what was said in that paper just because he didn't like what was said," Lange recalls. "Then he made the statement that, by the end of the year, either him or I was going to go over this issue."
Ultimately Lange would go--fired over charges that later proved untrue.
At the time of the Seventh Avenue Seven case, Lange and other union leaders called for a march on police headquarters to protest Ortega's dismissal of the officers and his threats against Petchel and Petrosino. Several hundred officers gathered one Saturday for an unprecedented show of union strength in Phoenix.
They rallied at the American Legion Hall on Seventh Avenue near downtown, then marched to the police building. Lange walked at the head of the march. Joining him, in a show of support, was firefighter Cantelme.
"Ruben was sitting on the top floor [of the police station] and he saw this union march going to the police headquarters and he just went livid," says Duane Pell, former city councilmember and one of the founders of the firefighters' labor movement. "He was going to put a stop to that."
It did not take long for Ortega's wrath to rain down on the unions and the fire department.
The vote on single-member district elections was approaching in 1982 when, out of the blue, more than a dozen firefighters--including Cantelme--were arrested on cocaine charges.
"The headlines were firefighters involved in major drug trafficking, a system of drug trafficking that, because of the convenient location of fire stations throughout the city, made perfect locations for firefighters to distribute cocaine," says Pell, describing the allegations.
Most of the firefighters were cleared and no major drug ring was ever found. Cantelme's case, based on a thin allegation that someone may have once seen him present when cocaine was being used, was never even brought to trial, even though Cantelme demanded a trial to clear his name.
Cantelme retained his union post, but his political star was forever tarnished.
Despite the preelection assault on the firefighters' union, city voters approved the new council-election system. However, it would prove little threat to Ortega's power. He would continue to pursue charges against Cantelme in the future. Failing to nail Cantelme at the time, Ortega turned his sights on Fire Chief Al Brunacini.
Unlike the police chief, who left the streets for administration early in his career, Brunacini spent years sweating his way up through the fire ranks. Brunacini was respected by his men, and enjoyed a friendly relationship with the firefighters' union. (Brunacini later would author one of the nation's definitive textbooks on fire command.)
The fire department handled its problems pretty much in-house, observers say, because of the natural rapport between Brunacini and his men.
"Ruben couldn't handle that," says Pell. "He thought that was the most terrible thing in the world, that management would even sit down and allow employees to have any input into discipline or whatever else the problem was."
Getting along with the unions was not a popular stance with Ortega and his old-line backers, Pell and others say. Ortega set out to show that he could play hardball not only with his own union, but with union sympathizer Brunacini as well.