In Rent War, Pataki Is Nicked, but Dodges Disaster

New York Times, June 18, 1997
NEW YORK -- New York Gov. George Pataki went into the fight over state rent regulations with the hope of emerging as a statesman and conciliator, defending the free market while bringing warring Democrats and Republicans together.

Instead, his performance in the dispute was marked by a cascade of political miscues, producing a legislative result that bore little resemblance to what he proposed as a compromise.

But for all the problems that have plagued Pataki this month -- the wavering public performance, the tenants protesting at his doorstep, the landlords denouncing him as spineless -- the Republican governor may yet emerge from the politically unseemly battle less damaged than had seemed possible as recently as last weekend.

By dropping at the last minute his call for phasing out the rent laws and thus agreeing to the bulk of the Democratic demands, Pataki may have succeeded in saving himself from political catastrophe.

While it remains to be seen just how much damage he suffered among New York City voters, who have never looked particularly kindly upon him, Pataki's capitulation could shield him from the lasting political damage Democrats hope to inflict on him from this fight.

No tenants were being thrown out on the streets, and no landlords were out jacking up rents at the stroke of midnight Sunday; and once the final details are worked out, the rent-regulation system will remain in place for another six years.

In short, Pataki has clearly been nicked, but in the long run, he might have dodged a bullet.

"Confronted with a difficult problem, he saw it going in the wrong direction and moved decisively, if not quickly, to limit the damage to himself," said Philip J. Friedman, a onetime Democratic political consultant.

Ultimately, Pataki's position might be relatively secure on both sides of the political equation. Landlords are complaining that Pataki caved in too soon. But anyone with serious knowledge of the politics of Albany knew that the chances of the Republican plan for rent decontrol passing were remote.

In fact, Pataki can now argue that landlords fared well under this agreement, with its provisions for hefty rent increases on vacant apartments and the removal of regulations on more apartments rented by wealthy New Yorkers.

Even if property owners do not accept that contention, they have no place else to turn when it comes time to write campaign checks next year, as the Governor surely knows.

The tenant side of the equation is a bit more complicated, but works only slightly less in Pataki's favor. Tenants were extraordinarily upset with Pataki. And the state Democratic Party, with a well-planned television campaign, made certain that tenants associated Pataki and U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato with the effort to end regulations.

And Pataki's opponents said Tuesday that there is great opportunity here. "This is what people are looking at: a lack of leadership on a critical effort," said state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who is considering running against Pataki in 1998.

But there are two factors that are working in Pataki's favor, politicians noted Tuesday. The first is that the election is 17 months away. If history is any guide, it is unlikely that the passions of today will be this strong in November 1998.

The second is that Democrats agreed to extend rent laws by six years, an eternity by Albany standards, which will complicate Democratic efforts to present a second Pataki term as any serious threat to rent regulations.

D'Amato, despite his close ties to what happens in Albany, may have fared even better than the governor. Polling showed that few New Yorkers held D'Amato responsible, a point noted unhappily by Democratic leaders Tuesday.

"Remarkably, he's slipping away from this one," said Judith Hope, the state Democratic Party chairwoman.

Still, Democratic leaders said Tuesday they viewed the outcome as a victory, arguing that this fight will at least make certain that challengers to Pataki and D'Amato will not have to worry about a weak turnout in New York City.

"George Pataki was not well defined in New York City voters' minds, and now several hundred thousand voters will forever remember George Pataki as the man who led the fight to end rent protections," Ms. Hope said.

But Pataki's advisers have concluded that even in the worst case, they can only be hurt so much in a part of the state where he never did very well in the first place.

"All the outcry of, 'We will not support the governor,' anyone who said that didn't support him in the first place and won't again," one of the governor's advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Tuesday. "We're not living in a dream world here. Do you really think anybody on the Upper West Side has ever voted Republican or is going to vote for Republicans?"

When Pataki defeated Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994, he received just 25 percent of the New York City vote, and 17 percent of the vote in Manhattan. Still, even some Democrats are agreeing with the sense in Pataki's camp. "The anti-Republican, anti-Pataki vote is firm and it's a little more militant today than it was six months ago," Friedman, the consultant, said. "But that's not critical. And there's no guarantee that it will remain equally militant a year from now."