Silver Shows Majority Rules

NY Daily News, June 17, 1997
On one of the biggest Sunday nights Albany's ever seen, Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, New York City's newest hero, was huddled in his office with a handful of tenant leaders.

The clock in Silver's office showed 10 minutes to midnight, 10 minutes to the end of an era, 10 minutes to the expiration of rent laws that had protected millions of tenants for 50 years.

Silver, the son of Russian immigrants from Grand St. on the lower East Side, had resembled a cross between a riverboat gambler and modern-day Don Quixote. For months, he had refused to show his hand as he stood up for the city's tenants, and now at the final hour he knew he had won.

During the Republicans' all-out effort to end rent protection, he made it clear from the start that he would not budge on vacancy decontrol.

Joe Bruno, the Republicans' and landlords' point man, blinked and backed down. Gov. Pataki, who finally realized his anti-tenant stand had made him as popular as Son of Sam, wimped out.

Still, Silver was taking no chances. He wanted to check one last time with the tenant leaders before announcing the few minor concessions he had made to the landlords.

These include dropping the income limit for luxury decontrol from $250,000 to $175,000; limiting apartment succession rights to one generation; increasing slightly how much rents can be raised when apartments become vacant; a $100 increase for apartments renting below $300, and requiring escrow payments in Housing Court by tenants who request two or more postponements of hearings.

"What about the minimum rents for luxury decontrol?" one tenant leader reminded Silver. Currently, high-income families face decontrol only if their apartment rents for $2,000 monthly or more.

Realizing he had overlooked something, Silver phoned Pataki, whose original plan called for income checks on virtually any tenant regardless of an apartment's rent. The governor, already resigned to defeat, didn't put up a fight. The $2,000 cut-off stayed.

Luxury decontrol, unlike vacancy decontrol, will affect only 1,286 apartments, all in Manhattan. It was a stunning victory for Silver and the tenants.

Throughout all these months the speaker had weathered a well-planned and well-financed attack by the power elite. He withstood the landlords and their millions; the newspaper editorials painting him as a stubborn dinosaur, and the country club Republicans, so confident of victory they planned a big golf outing days before the state's rent laws were to expire.

But like Newt Gingrich, who chose to shut down the federal government in zealous pursuit of conservative ideology, Bruno and Pataki made one huge mistake: They forgot about the power of ordinary people when they get angry.

"You stand up for what you think is right," Silver said yesterday. "Editorial writers who drive into the city from wherever they come were not going to sway me."

Silver had seen the polls on rent protection and knew that an overwhelming number of city dwellers were convinced rents would skyrocket with vacancy decontrol. And most people in this city already believed they paid way too much rent.

Only the landlords and a bunch of New Right professors could possibly believe that a free market, given the housing scarcity in the city, would mean a rational and equitable system of rents.

So Silver chose to stick with common sense on this one and until the very end refused to entertain any concessions.

"Shelly played this magnificently," said Michael McKee, head of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition. "He stood like the Rock of Gibraltar and said, 'I'm not budging,' and he forced Bruno and Pataki to shadowbox with themselves."

Silver did something else. He refused to relegate the fight for rent protection to backroom dealing. He built a strong partnership with community groups, which launched a sophisticated campaign of radio and television ads and targeted fence-sitting Republican senators in the suburbs.

While Silver held off Bruno and Pataki, Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez quietly worked the grass roots. Lopez attended more than 25 town hall meetings the past few weeks, urging tenants to put pressure on his fellow lawmakers.

In the end, the combination of tenant protests, public relations and lobbying, together with Silver's poker-faced negotiating skills, produced a rare people's victory. And no one grew more in stature than the lower East Side's Shelly Silver.