Bronx will bury Velella if he breaks his rent vow

New York Post, June 6, 1997

On MAY 9, powerful Bronx Republican state Sen. Guy Velella stood before 300 anxious and angry tenants in the cafeteria of St. Brendan's school in the heart of his blue-collar district.

Under insistent questioning, Velella made a promise not to support any compromise that would hike rents or weaken tenant protections.

Myra Goggins is the president of the Northeast Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. She recalls this Cafeteria Covenant vividly.

"Velella promised us he would not vote for vacancy decontrol," she says. "He made that commitment in front of 300 witnesses."

Under vacancy decontrol, landlords could charge any rent they want after a tenant moves out or dies. It would end all rent protections in about 10 years.

Albany reporters yesterday bombarded Velella with questions about whether he would vote against vacancy decontrol next week. The deputy Republican leader of the Senate would not answer the question.

He just made feeble attempts at diversion, shifting the focus and responsibility elsewhere.

Up until yesterday, he has said for years he favored extending current rent laws as they are.

Today, Guy Velella is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

He is trapped between his constituents and his fanatical legislative leader, Joe Bruno. He is trapped between a public promise and party loyalty.

Velella has no place to hide.

And Albany Republicans have a rigid code of lock-step party discipline. Ralph Marino was dumped as party leader in the Senate for the sin of independent thinking. Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross has been dumped for the same deviation.

Velella is staring at corpses as he wrestles with his conscience.

By every projected head count, Velella will be the crucial vote when Bruno brings his vacancy-decontrol bill to the floor next week.

"Velella is the 32nd vote to kill rent controls," veteran Democratic state Sen. Franz Leichter told me.

"Bruno needs 31 votes for a bare majority. But no politician wants to be the one deciding vote on such an emotional issue like this. If Velella decides not to be the 32nd vote, there may not be anyone who is willing to be the 31st vote.

"Velella has to be praying for a deal before he has to vote."

Velella has been searching for an exit from this dilemma. Recently, he told a few friends that he had a commitment for a judgeship this year in The Bronx from Democratic Party leader and Assemblyman Roberto Ramirez.

That would save Velella from having to face the voters again if he violated the vow he made at St. Brendan's last month.

But yesterday, Ramirez told me -- after persistent questioning -- "No judgeship for Velella this year. That's guaranteed. Quote me."

Ramirez also bolted shut another potential escape hatch for Velella.

In the last two elections, Bronx Democrats have not run an opponent against Velella, and have given him the Democratic ballot line -- even though he seems beatable in the Throgs Neck-Pelham Parkway-Mount Vernon district.

Ramirez told me, "I could not imagine any circumstances under which Velella could get the Democratic line in 1998."

This means Velella could lose his seat if he violates his Cafeteria Covenant. There are 40,000 rent-regulated apartments in his district.

Two other city Republicans -- Roy Goodman and Frank Padavan -- have been forthright supporters of extending rent regulations.

But Velella is a lot more conservative. He endorsed Ron Lauder against Rudy Giuliani in the 1989 GOP primary for mayor.

And as director of the GOP Senate campaign committee, he has received $435,000 from three landlord PACs.

Tenants from Mount Vernon who met with Velella Tuesday in Albany say he was a "complete weasel." He mouthed all the reassuring generalities, like "I'm on your side," but he ducked all the real specifics.

An essentially back-room and neighborhood politician like Velella is not used to being forced into the broader media spotlight. He is comfortable saying one thing to one group, and the opposite to another, and never being called upon to reconcile the contradictions

But the fierce rent war affects too many people directly for Velella to slither in the shadows, below the media's radar screen.

Rent protections expire in nine days.

Tomorrow, more than 100 tenants will converge on Velella's district to canvass tenants door-to-door and work phone banks.

It was boxing legend Joe Louis who said that Billy Conn, "can run but he can't hide."

It appears that Guy Velella can no longer hide.

And he may not be able to run again if he votes against his district and breaks this public promise, no matter how reluctantly given.

Copyright ©1997, N.Y.P. Holdings Inc.