By Ray O’Hanlon
Joe Finley is a quiet talker. But he has plenty to say. Much of it is inspired by the events of Sept. 11, the day that changed his life and that of so many other New York City firefighters.
Finley is running for Congress, though given the delicate state of his lungs, it would probably be more accurate to say that he is walking for the House of Representatives.
His goal is to win the November vote for the Second District in New York, a Long Island seat covering about half of Suffolk County and a piece of neighboring Nassau County. The seat is currently held by Democrat Steve Isr’l.
Finley is inclined to characterize his opponent as the professional politician and he the amateur, underdog and outsider. But that only applies to politics. Finley, married and a father of two, is every bit the pro when it comes to putting his life, as opposed to his fledgling political reputation, on the line.
Politics, of course, is as open to irony as any profession.
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Joe Finley’s lungs will never be the same again because of what they inhaled at Ground Zero on Sept. 11 and in the days that followed.
One of the more recent initiatives launched by Rep. Isr’l, along with fellow Democrat Joe Crowley, is intended to secure $90 million in federal funding for the long-term monitoring and medical screening of those who worked at Ground Zero.
Finley would benefit from such funding. He would be grateful for it, no doubt, but, like his opponent, he knows that politics, as with life, goes on regardless of whether the other guy is doing you a favor or giving you the back of his hand.
Isr’l is a Democrat and Finley is a Republican. There’s an election looming and that’s all there’s to it.
Well, in this particular race, perhaps a little more.
Finley, who is 46, has no track record in politics. He was never a trustee or selectman or even dog catcher in his hometown of Northport, L.I. He was, and is, a New York City firefighter, the latest in a long line of such men in an Irish-American family tree that goes back to a great-great-grandfather fighting in the American Civil War.
For all too many firefighter families, Sept. 11 was the ultimate nightmare. Losing a loved one, even for the noblest of reasons, is something that all such families dread.
Finley’s family had already gone through that bad dream. Finley lost his father, Lt. John Finley, in the infamous 23rd Street fire in Manhattan in 1966. He was 10 years old at the time. That fire claimed the highest number of fatalities, 12, in the department’s history. It would only be surpassed, well surpassed, on 9/11.
Given what had occurred so many years before, the Finley family was due its bit of better luck.
And so, as it happened, Joe Finley was off duty on that lustrous early fall morning last year.
“I was planning on going fishing when my wife, Maryellen, called. I knew from the tone of her voice that something was very bad,” Finley recalled.
Like off-duty firefighters all over the New York area, Finley immediately knew just how bad it was. He had undergone specialist training for a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. He was what they call a “first responder,” an expert in collapse and confined space rescue as well as helicopter rescue.
Finley knew about the one-acre floor footprints in both towers, the number of floors, the colossal scale of the disaster that was unfolding.
“After the 1993 attack we had training exercises and training material that included an illustration of the towers with a big target on them,” he said. “But we were anticipating something like a Sarin gas attack.”
Finley knew it wasn’t gas on the morning of the 11th. It was a more familiar enemy: fire and smoke.
“I got my uniform on and headed for a rallying point in Queens,” he said. “From there we drove to Manhattan in a bus. We arrived at Ground Zero a little after 11. The towers had come down. It was like the end of the world — no sounds, no sign of life, just this gray dust everywhere.”
Finley’s unit was, and is, his father’s old one: Ladder 7 based at 29th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan, or “Truck 7” as he calls it.
One of Finley’s first priorities was to locate his truck.
“I eventually found our rig, but when I got close I could see it wasn’t our guys on it,” he said.
The guys had gone into the towers. Nine of them would never make it out.
For days afterward Finley’s hands, like so many others, clawed at the smoking ruins. And like so many others, he didn’t think twice about doing it despite the increasing warnings of hazardous material floating in the air around Ground Zero.
The result is a lung condition that confines Finley to more passive duties with the department.
But Finley’s passivity doesn’t extend into the political sphere although his consideration of a campaign for office has been slower and more reluctant than his joining the rescue effort a year ago.
In some respects, Finley’s bid for Congress is reminiscent of fellow Long Islander Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s. For both, tragedy has been the spur. McCarthy ran after her husband was killed and son badly wounded in the 1993 Long Island Railroad massacre.
For McCarthy, it was a tragedy that befell her immediate family. For Finley, it’s a tragedy that has befallen his extended family, the FDNY.
Finley said that his decision to seek office has been “a gradual thing.”
He was approached with the suggestion of running by a member of Congress after he spoke about 9/11 at a national prayer breakfast. He spoke at several more such events and the approaches and offers of support continued to mount.
Finley also found himself honing his ideas on issues as he spoke. National security and the need to be a voice for those who daily defend the nation was an issue he referred to in detail, not just at the prayer breakfasts but also on a visit to Ireland earlier this year where he met with the Tanaiste Mary Harney.
After the tragic death of Finley’s father, his family was against his joining the fire department. So he worked in the advertising business for a number of years. But the pull from the fire house was too strong and sustained. In 1990, he joined up.
The switch to politics is causing less anguish, though is clearly not a decision to be taken lightly. Maryellen, a registered nurse, and the couple’s two children, Brendan and Megan, are behind a decision that could result in a big change in their lives.
“It’s a very delicate thread that brought me here,” Finley said, but the support of my family has been tremendous.”
Finley is the only Republican in the field so he faces no primary. But the November duel with a young incumbent will be a tough one.
“If we get out our message, we will win the race,” Finley said.
Should he win, Finley will face the conundrum that all non-career candidates do if the maiden campaign is successful. At what point does he relinquish the mantle of non-career amateur and take on more the guise of the professional politician that Washington and the voters back home eventually but invariably demand?
The answer will have to a wait until after the election. For now, Joe Finley wants to be seen as a firefighter as much as a fighter for social security or a better homeland defense.
When he married Maryellen McSheffrey 18 years ago, the couple honeymooned in Ireland. Finley’s Irish roots are scattered around the island. His wife has cousins in Louth.
The newly weds spent considerable time and energy attempting to track down one particular relative in the days after their wedding. The search involved a lot of knocking on doors and cold-call introductions.
A congressional campaign is not dissimilar. There’s a lot of approaching strangers, asking questions, making promises and securing one important commitment in return.
Convincing people that you might be related is one thing. Convincing them that the kind of bond forged by a vote will not be wasted is quite another.
But Finley is quietly confident as much as he is quiet and confident. It’s his way and his manner.
“It’s looking great,” he said, referring to a campaign that is around-the-clock and exhausting.
But Joe Finley believes he is doing it for the guys on the truck. Those still with us and those who never came back.