Pols Fear Wrath Of Voters

by By MICHAEL FINNEGAN and JOEL SIEGEL
NY Daily News, June 17, 1997
The historic battle over rent controls ended yesterday with top Republicans fearing a voter backlash and blaming one of their own, State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, for their new political woes.

It was the Republican from Rensselaer who opened the struggle in December with a startling vow to end rent control "as we know it."

That was a major miscalculation of the support rent regulations enjoy among New Yorkers, and it tied fellow Republicans to an unpopular position that could dog them through the 1998 statewide elections, analysts said.

"What he [Bruno] didn't realize was the emotional intensity of the issue. . . . It was not containable," said Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz.

Reflecting their displeasure, several GOP senators lashed out yesterday at their leader in an unusual breach of solidarity. Some wondered whether their discontent over his decision to expose city GOP senators to tenant anger could spur a move to topple Bruno, though most said his leadership post was safe.

"We got beat up. . . and didn't accomplish anything. If you are going to get beat up, you might as well end it in January," said State Sen. Joe Holland (R-Rockland).

Gov. Pataki's aides also expressed displeasure, saying privately that the extreme nature of Bruno's opening stand caught his fellow Republican by surprise and placed him in a political squeeze.

Pataki, expected to seek reelection next year, felt pressured to propose a compromise between Bruno's plan and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's demand to preserve the status quo.

Pataki found himself negotiating away his own compromise. Rather than calming tenants, his plan angered them, too, strategists said.

Bruno yesterday admitted the issue "took on a greater magnitude than I thought it would." But he said, "I am smiling, I am confortable," and expects "no fallout at all."

Democrats, however, signaled they will try to harvest tenant resentment against Republicans for political gain, with Pataki and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y), also is up for reelection next year, the likely targets.

City Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Queens), who is pondering a run against Pataki in 1998, rapped the governor for not bringing about a compromise sooner.

"There was a terrible vacuum of leadership. . . . The end doesn't justify the means. And the means used here was to terrify and hold hostage millions of people," Vallone said.

Several independent strategists said Mayor Giuliani, a Republican seeking reelection this year, probably emerged from the fight unscathed because of his support for rent regulations. Others, they said, might have to be on guard.