Pataki Will Pay at Polls for Bruno's Power-Play Folly

NY Post, June 13, 1997
THE rent laws expire in three days. This is the hour for straight talk.

This perfidy against the middle class is happening because of one man: Joe Bruno, the Republican majority leader of the state Senate.

This is Joe Bruno's power play. This is his first opportunity to kill rent protections since he was installed as senate leader in 1995 by Sen. Al D'Amato and Gov. Pataki.

If the laws are allowed to expire at midnight Sunday, tenants in 2.5 million rent-regulated apartments will become vulnerable to drastic rent increases, landlord harassment, evictions, and the cancellation of lapsed leases.

Three district attorneys -- Queens' Richard Brown, Manhattan's Bob Morgenthau, and Brooklyn's Joe Hynes -- have predicted a wave of tenant harassment if the law is not renewed.

Joe Bruno is about to take almost 3 million tenants over a cliff.

There is no reason why the present rent laws can't be extended for several weeks to avoid this mass chaos, and to nurture a more civil and cooperative climate for negotiations towards a compromise.

In 1993, the last time the rent laws expired -- and when Ralph Marino, not Joe Bruno, was the GOP senate leader -- the law was extended five separate times, from June 15 until July 7, when a deal was struck -- without mass panic.

In his recent sermon from the pulpit of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Cardinal O'Connor proposed that the current law be extended for a year while a diverse commission studied the complex issue.

But Bruno says he won't extend the law even for a day.

Bruno is now implying he won't even try to pass his own deregulation bill, after promising for months to pass it this week. This is because he doesn't have a secure majority in his own house. City and suburban GOP senators don't want to have to vote.

It now seems Bruno will try to kill rent controls without even holding a public vote, just by letting the law expire.

This one upstate fanatic, who was installed by Pataki and D'Amato, may be dragging his creators over the cliff with him and the tenants.

Yesterday's New York Times contained an amazing poll on the rent law and the political ramifications of its demise.

Almost 80 percent of city residents said they did not want the law to die on Sunday night. This included a majority of homeowners and Republicans, not just self-interested renters.

Seventy percent believed "rent control and rent stabilization are necessary to provide affordable housing." This margin included 56 percent of homeowners.

Seventy-three percent said "rents would go up a lot" if controls were eliminated, including 68 percent of homeowners.

What Pataki doesn't grasp is that his own base of support in the city feels threatened by Bruno's power play.

The Times poll revealed that Pataki's own approval rating has nose-dived 10 points in the city, to 31 percent, in the last three months.

Pataki's acceptance had been growing steadily -- until rent became the most emotional issue in years, about three months ago.

In the poll's most stunning revelation, 31 percent said they would hold Pataki responsible if the rent laws expire. Only 10 percent said they would blame Bruno. Nobody said they would blame Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has already passed a three-year extension of current rent protections.

The end of rent protection will do to Pataki what the shutdown of the federal government did to Speaker Gingrich. It will inflict a permanent scar of blame.

Nine percent said they would blame Mayor Giuliani, even though he has been an advocate for extending the existing rent laws.

This blaming of the mayor suggests that voters may punish all Republicans, even unfairly and indiscriminately, for Bruno's fanaticism.

It is necessary to remember that a big reason behind why Pataki was elected in 1994 was that the voter turnout in the city was below normal, compared to 1982 and 1992.

The loss of rent protections is the once-in-a-decade personal issue that affects millions of people directly. It can trigger an avalanche of additional voters. Especially when the perceived culprit is on the ballot the very next year.

Rent regulation has existed for 50 years.

It is necessary to protect the middle class.

The middle class has come to feel it is an entitlement, the way seniors see Social Security.

There is room to compromise by expanding luxury decontrol, perhaps by ending protections for households earning more than $150,000 a year.

But vacancy decontrol is the third rail of New York politics.

It George Pataki touches it, he will end up jobless and wearing Don King's electrified hairdo.