Who Won the War?/Bruno's strategy on rent laws may have helped the opposition

by Michael Slackman
Newsday, June 17, 1997
Albany - When Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno began his attack on the state's rent laws, he inadvertantly helped revitalize the fortunes of the floundering, and in many ways moribund, state Democratic Party.

Republicans and Democrats alike said yesterday that by declaring war on tenant protections a full seven months ago and by consistently ratcheting up the rhetoric, Bruno gave the Democrats a cause to rally around and the time to organize. He also pumped life into tenant groups that saw their memberships swell, along with their influence and fund-raising abilities.

``There is the potential here that the Republicans have awakened a sleeping giant,'' said Democratic political consultant Hank Morris, who worked for the tenants in the rent fight.

``He went out way too early,'' said one Republican insider, who acknowledged that helped Democrats and tenants get the upper hand in the debate.

One day after Gov. George Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Bruno (R-Brunswick) announced a conceptual agreement that essentially extended New York rent regulations for six more years, political observers on all sides said Bruno misplayed his hand and, in the end, walked away the biggest loser. Pataki, whose popularity had started to sag, managed to emerge largely unscathed by bringing about a deal, experts said.

Bruno's perceived drubbing comes as Republicans are poised to push through the most significant changes to the rent law system since legislators abandoned vacancy decontrol in 1974. Republicans forced concessions from the Democrats and tenants on key issues, from requiring that rent be placed in escrow during disputes with landlords to winning the ability to increase rents by more than 20 percent when apartments become vacant.

``Shelly agreed to the most dramatic changes to the rent laws in 55 years,'' said Zenia Mucha, Pataki's director of communications. ``Everybody compromised here. But that is what you are supposed to do in government.''

But because Bruno spent months insisting he would not accept any deal that didn't offer a clear path to phasing out of the regulations - a point he ultimately gave in on - the other concessions were widely viewed as limited.

``Had he not staked out the extreme far ground he might be able to save face with this,'' said Scott Sommer, chairman of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenant union in New York City.

Bruno said yesterday that he disputed the critics who second-guessed his strategy. During two news conferences yesterday, Bruno insisted he accomplished what he set out to do, though he redefined the bottom line he sought. The majority leader said the final deal would bring many apartments to market value, and that, he was now saying, was all he ever wanted.

``We got where we wanted to be,'' Bruno said. ``I'm not concerned about what you call it. I'm comfortable that we got three-fourths of what we wanted.''

But Bruno lacked the bravado and certainty of his appearances throughout the months' long war over rent regulations. When asked why he was redefining his bottom line, he paused and then said he was done taking questions.

By contrast, the Democrats were marveling at their good fortune. Just seven months ago it would have been unthinkable to have a collection of Democratic officials from all levels of government united behind one issue. But last week people from Comptroller Carl McCall to Rep. Charles Schumer (D-Brooklyn) gathered for a rent-related news conference.

``It got us together like we haven't been in years,'' said one Democratic insider.