GOP State Sen. Roy Goodman: A Maverick on a Tightrope

New York Times, June 14, 1997
NEW YORK -- With leaders of his own party pushing plans that would phase out rent regulations in New York City, state Sen. Roy Goodman of Manhattan's East Side finds himself in a familiarly uncomfortable position: bucking the Republican leadership.

Few legislators have as many rent-regulated apartments in their district: about 80,000 by Goodman's count. And no legislator has as many affluent rent-regulated tenants, many of whom could lose their benefits if Albany negotiators expand the number of luxury apartments that lose their rent ceilings.

But neither the Republican governor nor the leader of the Republican-controlled state Senate appear worried that their plans could prove politically harmful to Goodman, the Republican chairman in Manhattan and a 29-year veteran of the Senate.

Nor, really, is Goodman. Many political strategists, Republicans and Democrats alike, say he probably has little reason to fear political repercussions, even if Gov. George Pataki and legislative leaders simply allow rent restrictions to lapse when the state law expires Sunday night -- showing how successfully he has played the role of maverick over the years.

"He is unbeatable," said Hank Morris, a veteran Democratic political consultant who has been working with tenant groups and Democratic legislative leaders who are fighting to maintain the existing rent system.

"He IS that district," Morris said. "He typifies that district more than a Nathan's hot dog typifies what Coney Island used to be."

Even in the traditionally convoluted politics of New York City and state, Goodman's standing is particularly unorthodox. He has been re-elected for nearly three decades on the Republican and Liberal lines, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 3 to 1 in his district, which runs from 14th Street to 96th Street and from Fifth Avenue to the East River. He has done so by advocating positions on rent regulations, housing, gay rights and abortion that are considerably more liberal than those of the suburban or upstate Republicans who have dominated the state Senate.

And so, in his restrained, almost courtly fashion, Goodman has often been at odds with his party's leaders. It has cost him considerable clout among Republican legislative leaders in Albany, who tolerate Goodman's independence but are not generally inclined to reward him for it.

Goodman's political differences with his party in Albany, though, have apparently cemented his position with his constituents at home. And even with an issue as divisive and emotional as rent regulations, with Goodman's support for the existing system that restricts rent increases on nearly 1.2 million apartments representing a decidedly minority view among Republicans, the political dynamic is unlikely to change.

"Since the Flying Burrito Brothers passed away, Senator Goodman has become the predominant tightrope walker," said Jay Severin, a Republican political strategist who is based in New York City.

"For a long time, he has defined the notion of the politics of pragmatism," Severin said. "Roy Goodman made a brand of Republicanism work that fit his constituency."

Goodman describes himself as "a Rockefeller, Javits, Giuliani Republican." That means he is often conservative on fiscal and tax matters, but moderate or even liberal on social questions: a blend he likes to describe as "centrist" Republicanism. There are not many Rockefeller Republicans left in New York, either in the state Senate or among the party's rank and file.

In addition to opposing proposals by Pataki and Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno to phase out rent regulations on apartments when existing tenants leave, Goodman is paying particular attention to plans for expanding the number of high-income tenants who would lose all restrictions immediately.

That program, called luxury decontrol, now covers only households with a joint income of more than $250,000 annually for two consecutive years and whose rent is more than $2,000 a month. Republican leaders have proposed lowering that threshold, which Goodman believes would affect too many middle-class tenants.

Goodman, who has owned an apartment in a cooperative building for 35 years, said he is working hard to get Bruno to modify his tough stand against renewing rent regulations. But it is unclear whether he can have much impact on the majority leader, who comes from upstate Rensselaer County.

Whether New Yorkers in his district would ultimately hold Goodman responsible if Republican leaders should prevail -- and the rent system is either modified significantly or jettisoned entirely -- also remains unclear. Many political strategists say that East Side voters are likely to differentiate between the Republican leaders' positions and Goodman's views.

But one politician was less confident. City Councilman Andrew Eristoff, a Republican who also represents the East Side and who was once Goodman's counsel, said he has been hearing from many constituents who are upset about the possible elimination of rent controls and who may blame all Republicans.

"This is one of the most sophisticated districts in the city, if not the state," said Eristoff, who is up for re-election this year. "Many of our constituents have grown up with Roy Goodman as a state senator, and they know he has taken independent stands on many issues. There is no one who is, I think, more closely identified with protecting rent regulations. Does that mean he will not suffer any impact? I don't know."