TRENTON - As many as 12,000 off-duty and retired New Jersey police and firefighters - including thousands from southern New Jersey - crowded outside the Statehouse in bone-chilling cold Thursday to promote public safety and protest staff cuts they say have thinned their ranks to unsafe levels.
Public safety workers also object to proposals by Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney to make them work longer before retiring and significantly raise their contributions for health benefits.
"Traditionally, police officers and firefighters do not rally," said Bill Lavin, an Elizabeth firefighter and president of the Firemen's Mutual Benevolent Association, representing 5,500 full-time firefighters. "This today is an emergency response."
The pension fund for police and firefighters, teachers, state, county and local government workers and judges is underfunded by $54 billion. The health care system for workers and retirees is underfunded by $67 billion. Christie says both systems will go belly-up without changes and argues that to save them, he is seeking a greater contribution from workers.
In the crowd, dozens of police and firefighters from southern counties waved flags to declare their union had made it to the day's rally.
"We wanted to show we made it up here," said Dominick McClain, a firefighter from North Wildwood. "We realize we're all in this fight together."
"We sent three buses up here from Cape May (County) alone," said Sgt. Thomas McQuillen, of the Sea Isle City Police Department. They had joined busloads from Atlantic, Cumberland and Ocean counties in trekking to the closed-off portion of State Street.
Many said they had lost patience watching state lawmakers attempt to change the terms of pensions and benefits for police and firefighters.
"They went about it all the wrong way," said Eugene Sanguinetti, a police captain in North Wildwood. "They can't do that legislatively. They should have used the collective-bargaining process. That's what it's for."
About 20 legislators stepped up to say they stood with the protesters. But not all articulated what they would do to preserve pensions and benefits at current levels while tackling a $54 billion hole in the state public pension system.
To McClain, the show of support was nice, but not enough.
He said his union, FMBA Local 56, has been without a contract since 2009. They, like all police and firefighters, also have been paying 8.5 percent of their salaries into a pension fund since 1984, a commitment McClain said the state had not matched by skipping its own payments.
"Talk is cheap," McClain said. "I think we'll be watching more carefully than ever who's voting for what, who's doing what. Talk on its own is easy."
Lavin said attendance at the rally swelled because public safety workers are tired of hearing rhetoric from the governor that devalues their profession and tries to separate them from other taxpayers.
Christie, who scheduled a news conference inside the Statehouse for the same time as the rally, called the demonstration a selfish act and said it would have "an absolutely zero" effect on his decisions.
This is a "me-first rally. Pay me first. Give me my pension first. Give me my health benefits first. Give me my high salary first," Christie said. "They can have their fun today, that's fine. It doesn't change the numbers."
Long Beach Township Detective and State PBA Delegate Kevin Lyons said Ocean County law enforcement filled nine buses and that about 500 police officers made the trip to Trenton.
"It was just a sea of blue. We had firefighters and cops from all over the county who spoke, and we are all resolved to be unified. We're not turning our back on our oaths no matter what, and we're going to protect the public. What Christie needs to do is not to go back on his word," Lyons said after the rally.
Lyons said what really impressed him was that the governor had the gumption to call an 11 a.m. news conference during the rally. Christie's rally was called the "Me First" rally, he said.
"And it is ‘me first.' When there's a fire and the fireman says, ‘It's me first, I'm going in first,' and if there's a robbery, a cop is always going to say, ‘It's me first, I'm going in.' But for Christie, me first for him is to the buffet line," he said.
Atlantic City police Officer and state Policemen's Benevolent Association delegate Keith Bennett said he was amazed by the number of people who attended the rally. At least 14 Atlantic City officers and three buses carrying about 100 officers from Atlantic and Cape May counties traveled to Trenton.
"It was incredible, and that amount of people shows how much people care about their pensions and benefits," Bennett said.
Bennett said the mood at the rally was hopeful and many of those in attendance were inspired by what union leaders and politicians had to say.
"I'm going to take back to my department the message of hope that these politicians were all saying that they're all going to be fighting for us to go to collective bargaining and that they're going to stand up to the governor. It truly was a message of hope," he said.
About eight police officers from Barnegat Township attended the rally.
"All the members were pretty angry with what's been going on, but there was a lot of overwhelming support today. I think this shows we're all going to stick together and we're not going to take this stuff lying down. Gov. Christie made promises we expected him to keep, and he hasn't kept any of those promises," Barnegat PBA 296 President Timothy Bradshaw said.
Long Beach Township Patrolman Mark Stanish attended the rally and said it has been tough in recent months for members of law enforcement to get respect.
"I'm not asking for sympathy or any more than I deserve. I'm just asking to be left alone and let me do my job. I mean, some of the things we do you couldn't pay us enough. I wish someone could be original and like cops," Stanish said.
Stanish said all of the legislators who spoke Thursday echoed the same message that Christie has an agenda and he's trying to conquer and divide.
"And if you get the citizens against us, there's more of them than us. It's easy to make us look like the bad guys. I've never lost hope. The institution of police and firefighters in New Jersey has gone through tough times before, but we can't afford to give up. No matter what happens to us, we have to go to work every day," he said.
Staff Writers Juliet Fletcher and Donna Weaver contributed to this report