'Tenants' smokescreen

NY Post, June 13, 1997

If truth-in-advertising laws applied to New York City politics, the Tenants and Neighbors Coalition -- tenacious supporters of the city's archaic rent laws -- would have to rename itself "New Yorkers for a Moribund Metropolis." Or maybe something even more honest, like "Tenants and Neighbors for Democrats."

Not so long ago, the coalition was barely distinguishable from any number of organizations that thrive in New York City's entitlement-oriented environment. Executive Director Billy Easton, for example, is a self-styled "community organizer" -- and, until recently, his group's membership totalled in the low hundreds in a city with millions of "tenants and neighbors."

But last December, state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer) announced his intention to kill rent regulation as we know it -- and all of a sudden the coalition was swimming with the big fishes.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) is all but joined at the hip with the coalition -- and Easton meets regularly (albeit behind closed doors) with state Senate Minority Leader Martin Connor (D-Brooklyn) to plan strategy ostensibly aimed at preserving the current rent regs.

Such heavy Democratic artillery as Local 1199 of the Health and Human Services Employees Union and the 100,000-strong United Federation of Teachers are heavily involved in the rent campaign. Local 1199, in fact, appears to have turned over its formidable telephone bank to the coalition.

And Democratic State Chairwoman Judith Hope is stumping for retention of the current system; Hope, the centerpiece of one recent City Hall press conference, ripped state Republicans for -- get this -- accepting a lot of campaign money from landlords over the years.

This recurrent refrain -- that the GOP has been bought by landlord interests -- does raise one riddle: If the Republicans need real-estate money, why would they want to phase out rent regulation? The landlords would then see no need to give them any more money.

In any event, we await with interest the next round of campaign-finance disclosures, which will indicate who's really paying for the media blitz allegedly underwritten by Tenants and Neighbors.

The Democratic Party, to be sure, is deeply involved in the rent-regulation campaign. Political consultant Hank Morris -- who works solely for Democrats and is Rep. Charles Schumer's hired gun in the latter's upcoming challenge to Sen. Alfonse D'Amato -- has been hard at work on behalf of the coalition as well.

Actually, the coalition-Schumer-Morris-Democratic nexus is just the most tangible manifestation of the party's effort to cash in -- in a manner of speaking -- on tenant fears.

Silver's ongoing refusal even to discuss the rent matter is clearly an effort to provoke a crisis in Albany -- in hopes of damaging Gov. Pataki, D'Amato and Bruno, and cutting into the GOP's controlling majority in the state Senate.

Rest assured that Silver's position has nothing to do with sound public policy. If he cared about that, he'd long ago have agreed to talk.

As it is, the current rent laws expire at midnight Sunday, unnecessary chaos looms -- and the Tenants and Neighbors Coalition is finally playing in the big leagues. As to whether that's good for real live tenants and neighbors, we have our doubts.