John Feal (right), a first responder to ground zero on 9/11, gets a fist bump from Sen. Charles Schumer as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand looks on before a news conference to promote legislation dealing with radio airwaves in emergencies.
This week, as the nation prepares to observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Roll Call looks back at how Capitol Hill responded to the attacks and how that day's events changed — and didn't change — life in Washington.
John Feal has made nearly 100 trips to Washington, D.C., since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — a decade’s political education that turned a construction worker into a professional lobbyist and a prospective Congressional candidate.
“For the Walsh amendment, I went down about seven or eight times; back then, I didn’t keep records,” he said, recalling his first legislative victory in 2005 that secured a $125 million compensation fund for injured 9/11 workers. “But it opened my eyes to how things work in Washington. Before, I was naive and gullible.”
Since then, Feal, a first responder who almost died after a steel beam crushed his foot at ground zero, has become perhaps the most prominent advocate on Capitol Hill for the police officers, firefighters and contractors injured or sickened during rescue and recovery work at the World Trade Center.
He is one of a tightly knit group of citizen activists born out of 9/11 who continue to wield their moral authority and tell their stories in Washington in support of a stream of related causes made all the more powerful by the grief that brought them to the political stage.
Relatives of victims who worked tirelessly for the establishment of the 9/11 commission, the implementation of its recommendations and compensation for family members are now fighting for wireless spectrum dedicated to first responders and working to expand the reach of the 9/11 health care bill that President Barack Obama signed into law in January.
One group, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation Inc., has even hired a major Washington lobbying firm, Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates, to help secure millions of dollars in federal funding for security at the site, according to the lobbyist managing the account.
Feal made a total of 91 trips to Washington from his home in Nesconset, N.Y., to push lawmakers to pass the 9/11 health care bill, which included $4.3 billion in long-term federal funding to treat medical ailments of eligible first responders.
He has already learned a lesson that Washington lobbyists take as gospel: A record of legislative success encourages people to write checks.
“This year has been my biggest year so far ... because the [health care] bill gave us so much popularity,” he said.
In 2011 his organization, the FealGood Foundation, saw a spike in donations, allowing it to spend more than $100,000 on services for first responders still suffering from the effects of 9/11.
With a second battle won, Feal has set his sights on future opportunities, advocating legislation that would reserve wireless spectrum for first responders so they can more easily communicate in disaster situations.
Feal also said he plans to run for Congress in 2014 as a Democrat. He said he would establish residency in New Jersey because his Congressman, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), and the Members in neighboring districts have become some of his best allies and friends.
Mary Fetchet, an activist whose 24-year-old son, Brad, was killed on 9/11, spent the early part of the decade working for the establishment of the 9/11 commission.
“It was like quicksand — once you were there, you were there for years,” Fetchet said. “We became subject matter experts in a lot of areas like intelligence reform and information sharing.”
She parlayed her experiences and new contacts into another large operation. Today her organization, VOICES of September 11th, helps provide social services to about 13,000 families affected by the attacks.
Another activist, Charlie Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, was killed on 9/11, was one of the most prominent critics of Ken Feinberg’s management of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
“He was a gadfly but a constructive force,” Feinberg said.
Still a familiar name in Washington, Wolf met last month with Attorney General Eric Holder to lobby for an investigation into allegations that the phone lines of families of 9/11 victims had been hacked, along with hundreds of others, by the British tabloid News of the World.
But others, like the Jersey Girls — the four widowed women from the New Jersey suburbs who became the public face of the family-led crusade for the commission — are noticeably absent.
“The commission would not have been appointed without them because it was opposed by the president and by a number of leaders in Congress,” said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean (R), who, as chairman of the 9/11 commission, heard from them regularly. “When we were being stonewalled, they were our ground troops.”
“I’m in New Jersey now and I have not seen them in years — literally,” he said.
The women, once media savvy, did not return Roll Call’s requests for interviews and have been relatively silent for years. Several of the activists they worked with described a sense of disenchantment after the commission issued its report.
“The memory of 9/11 was diminishing,” said Carol Ashley, who picketed Congressional offices, managing much of the research for the team of activists led by the Jersey Girls. “Our influence was diminishing.”