Pols' Strategy Stands The Test of Time

New York Daily News, June 16, 1997
The Capitol Building was finally opened for business in 1899. Originally budgeted at $4 million, it cost more than six times that and took 32 years to complete, all of which goes to show what statehouse politicians can do when they really put their minds to a task.

The shiny paneling that runs through the Senate Chamber and the governor's office is 23-karat gold. The building's Gothic innards were constructed of polished granite and sandstone imported from Scotland. Six hundred stonecutters were hired to fashion the faces of gargoyles and assorted low animals believed to be an earlier generation of hack pols and lobbyists along the balconies and balustrades.

With state police for doormen, it qualifies as a splendid, secure luxury building, but without sunlight. The dimness is intensified by a huge skylight above the Great Western Staircase, that was painted over during World War II. Legislators feared the skylight would serve as a beacon for Nazi bombers.

Apparently, they thought the Luftwaffe would head straight for the capitol, that a surgical strike to the statehouse pols would send tremors of fear and chaos through the entire Republic, maybe even the rest of the free world.

That's everything you need to know about the Albany politicians.

To watch their elaborate posturings as the rent laws were on the verge of expiring last night was only to be reminded how well these guys regard themselves. And how they regard the truth.

"What we have been discussing is totally, totally unacceptable," said Joe Bruno, Republican leader of the Senate who equates the rent laws with "social engineering."

"There are 2.7 million people who fear for the roof over their heads," said his Democratic counterpart in the Assembly, Sheldon Silver. "The survival of the downstate region is at stake."

Judging from the tone of his oratory, Silver has a very healthy opinion of himself. Seems as if he wants one of his own members to introduce a bill changing his title from assembly speaker to protector of the region.

Vacancy decontrol, he went on, meant "the end of the middle class." Republicans had the good people of New York City right where they wanted them "ready to be thrown over the cliff."

But beneath the grandiosity, the sanctimony and the alarmism, Silver was really laying a convenient camouflage, for himself and his party.

Bruno may be a hypocrite: a gentleman farmer and free marketeer who never met a farm subsidy he didn't like. But as this rent law episode proves, Silver belongs to a party that's out of ideas and has been so for some time.

Over the past month, Bruno's position softened, melding into Gov. Pataki's more moderate proposal. Pataki was calling for vacancy decontrol with succession rights for immediate family, including same-sex domestic partners. In theory, no one would be evicted. Anyone earning $175,000 or more would have to pay market value for an apartment.

Now maybe that's not the best way to go, but Pataki's plan is far from the blasphemy that Democrats make it out to be.

"Emergency" rent laws have been in effect in New York City since 1943. And while the emergency has yet to abate, the laws have long since been gospel for New York Democrats, the last tribe of pols to hold such unchallenged beliefs.

To pretend, as the Democrats have, that the rent laws are fine as they are is to endorse a notion that simply isn't true. New Yorkers are the only people who read obituaries to find apartments. The inequities in the system are legion. Too much of the debate has been dominated by people who think they somehow have an inalienable right to live in Manhattan.

The Democrats knew this date was approaching, but unlike the Republicans, they had no plan. Hastily conceived hotlines do not a plan make. It took Joe Bruno, gentleman farmer, to shift the debate. Only now have Democrats discovered just how bad the zoning laws and Housing Court really are.

What do you expect from a party that will offer Ruth Messinger as its strongest to run against Rudy Giuliani? Messinger wants to put the rent regulations to a referendum. That's what passes for her "position." With ideas as formidable as that, it's more than safe for the same mayor who wants to privatize hospitals to pretend he's a Democrat, too.

The Republicans don't do anything without running it past their boss, Sen. Al D'Amato. His name is invoked in every deal. The Democrats have a United States senator, too. Once upon a time, he had the most fertile mind in Washington; his was a conceptual brilliance for public policy. But today, no one remembers his name. Last anyone heard, the senior senator with the bow tie was on some sort of sabbatical.

In the meantime, in the Capitol Building, Shelly Silver had a hell of a time cutting a deal with the Republicans. Just after midnight, the parties announced they had reached a deal in theory. The income limit for rent-regulated apartments was supposed to fall below $200,000. Instead of decontrol, there would be a vacany "bonus" for landlords.

"I'm glad we avoided a crisis," said Silver, protector of the status quo.

At least it didn't take 32 years.