Once again, David has beaten Goliath

New York Post, June 17, 1997

IN THE end, Grand Street dunked on Wall Street.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the schoolyard basketball player with a yarmulke, turned out to be a hero through negotiating skill, timing and stubbornness.

About 2.5 million tenants outlasted 25,000 landlords plus $1 million in campaign donations.

There will be no vacancy decontrol. Current rent laws are extended for an extraordinary six years.

Bruno blinked, and maybe Al D'Amato winked.

The little-known, full-time organizers of the Tenants and Neighbors Coalition -- Mike McKee, Billy Easton and Martin Brennan -- prevailed over Leonard Litwin, Lew Rudin and all the millionaire residential landlords.

They devised the effective strategy of laser-targeting vulnerable city and suburban Republican state senators like Guy Velella, Nick Spano and Serphin Maltese, demonstrating that these lawmakers were out of step with Mayor Giuliani, Roy Goodman, John Cardinal O'Connor and the City Council. And traitors to home rule.

Tenants are protected from rent gouging and evictions. And the expansion of luxury decontrol to include households making over $175,000 a year is more than justified.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno vowed to kill all rent controls, using doomsday rhetoric ever since his speech last Dec. 8 to a group of landlords. He was saying he would impose vacancy decontrol even after midnight on Sunday.

Even after Speaker Silver offered a written proposal that offered an increase in the formula for the vacancy bonus, Bruno was calling it 'absurd" and 'laughable."

What was REALLY absurd and laughable was Bruno's fanatical intransigence.

For seven months, Bruno was acting like a guy sitting with four aces.

But he was in denial. All he had was a couple of sixes. And he overplayed that pathetic hand.

Guy Velella buckled. Nick Spano told him he didn't want to have to vote in public. Upstate Republicans told him it wasn't worth it. Polls showed Pataki had nose-dived 10 points in popularity and would be blamed by most of the voters if rent protections were terminated.

Pataki can count, and he likes his job.

Bruno has a working majority of just five seats, and he started to see them slipping away in the next election. Then he would no longer be the majority leader with a car and a big office and reporters from New York City hanging on every word of this upstate farmer and horseman.

So at the midnight hour, Bruno blinked.

Then Bruno faced reporters in a press room and made no sense at all. He tried to paint a loss as a win with double-talk.

He sounded like Karl Malone mumbling riddles after Michael Jordan's Game 6 heroics.

He sounded like Mike Tyson after Evander Holyfield knocked him senseless last November.

But the landlords know they made a gigantic power play and lost. All day yesterday, the property owners growled in private over their lost opportunity and their squandered campaign contributions.

A few even spoke for attribution.

"I think it stinks," Bonnie Haber said. Her family owns 14 apartment buildings in Queens and Washington Heights.

At 30, Martin Brennan is the youngest of the troika of tenant organizers who came out of this war with clout, respect and a real statewide organization for the first time.

Joe Bruno turned out to be the best organizer since Joe Hill.

Brennan, who brought his generation's computer and technology expertise to the campaign, was saying yesterday that he and his compadres, McKee and Easton, had no time to celebrate Sunday night. 'Sunday night, we were still working on details and brass tacks," Brennan was saying. 'I didn't get to sleep until 4:45 a.m. And then I was up at 6 a.m., doing radio interviews."

Brennan had started the day picketing with tenants in Maltese's Queens district, jumped on a bus with activists, and arrived in Albany about 6 p.m.

Winners don't need much sleep. 'The six-year extension of the law is a tremendous victory," he said. 'We got eviction protections for present and future tenants. 'We proved a grass-roots mobilization can defeat all the power of special-interest money."

Brennan also paid tribute to Shelly Silver, the grandmaster of Albany inside politics, who had the serenity of a dead-eye shooter being underestimated. 'The tenants had a great leader," Brennan said. 'This was Shelly Silver's finest hour."