"This jacket speaks louder and more eloquently than any speech that can be given on the floor"
Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney s
Credit: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

While others might spring for a light jacket, or no jacket at all, during New York City’s balmy summer season, Rep. Carolyn Maloney isn’t thinking about comfort when she wears a firefighter’s jacket to various events — even the Met Gala.

She wants to make a statement.

Since February, Maloney, 73, has been hard to miss thanks to the oversized bunker jacket (gifted to her by a group of New York City firefighters) that she’s sporting to draw attention to her Never Forget the Heroes Act.

Introduced by Maloney earlier this year, the bill would secure decades of funding for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The fund helps first responders and others now suffering from illnesses related to the rescue and recovery missions at Ground Zero following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Maloney has vowed to wear the firefighter jacket, which she considers “fashion with a purpose,” until the bill passes, she tells PEOPLE. So far she’s worn it to speeches and events, even matching it with a neon yellow gown for the Met Gala in May.

“Every time I wear it, I feel like I have a hero’s coat on,” she says.

Championing bills that support 9/11 victims and survivors, Maloney can name many people who she has seen suffer in the wake of the attacks, which killed thousands.

“A lot of these people, over the years, I’ve worked with them on passing 9/11-related responses. They became friends of mine. I feel deeply and strongly about helping them. I think we have a moral responsibility,” she says.

There are countless heartbreaking stories, Maloney says: widows who have lost their husbands, sick parents with young kids and construction workers and volunteers now very ill after stepping up in the aftermath of the attacks.

Maloney was saddened to learn this week that Luis Alvarez, a former N.Y.C. police bomb squad detective whose cancer is linked to 9/11, is receiving hospice care.

Alvarez recently testified in front of Congress with former Daily Show host Jon Stewart to advocate for his fellow first responders just before his 69th round of chemotherapy.

For the Democratic congresswoman from New York’s 12th District, the coat has becomes a means of awareness.

“Anytime anyone sees me wearing the coat, I can feel it tugging on their conscience, and I can feel their remembering,” Maloney says. “And many people then have to tell me where they were on 9/11. This jacket speaks louder and more eloquently than any speech that can be given on the floor.”

At the Met Gala, surrounded by A-list stars wearing the work of acclaimed fashion houses, Maloney says her jacket meant she was wearing “the best designer in New York.”

“Fashion is often a statement,” she says.

In February, Maloney joined other female legislators by wearing white to celebrate the suffragettes, in another example of how, she says, clothes can be political.

As the year goes on and temperatures warm, Maloney jokes, “It’s getting hot now, so we’ve got to pass this bill soon. It was fine in February, but now it’s getting hot.”

She likely won’t have to wait much longer: Her bill passed through the House Judiciary Committee last week and is expected to easily pass the full House.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has said he also supports funding for the first responders.

Congesswoman Carolyn B. Maloney
Rep. Carolyn Maloney at the Met Gala in May.
| Credit: John Lamparski/Getty Images
Congesswoman Carolyn B. Maloney
Rep. Carolyn Maloney at this year’s Met Gala.
| Credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

“It’s truly a bipartisan bill,” Maloney says, adding that’s she’s hopeful it will pass some time in July.

The congresswoman credits the coat for many of her 320 co-sponsors (out of the 435 representatives in the House), saying that it’s a “conversation starter.”

Money for the fund was last extended, for five years, in 2015. That meant to last until December 2020, but the fund announced in a February statement that claims were increasing and money was running out much more quickly than anticipated.

In recent years, more and more 9/11 first responders have been diagnosed with illnesses that have been linked to their participation in rescue and recovery efforts following the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With more illnesses, there have been more claims on the fund.

As a result, compensation to victims is already being cut, Maloney says.

“Really what the firefighters, and the fire officers and others gave this nation was priceless, absolutely priceless,” she says. “Many gave their lives. There is no way we can repay them, really no way we can repay them for what they did for us that day and what they do for us every day.”