NYC Mayor Tries to Dodge Flak in Rent Controversy

New York Times, June 13, 1997
NEW YORK -- While his fellow Republicans were holding fast in their bid to weaken the state's rent regulations, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was promoting the opposite message Thursday, hewing to his strategy of trying to contain any political damage from the dispute by portraying himself as an ardent defender of tenants.

The fate of the laws is in the hands of the warring potentates in Albany, and the mayor stressed that if it were up to him, not a single rule would change. But his Democratic rivals said they believed that they could hurt his standing by depicting him as cowering before other Republicans who oppose the current regulations -- refusing, in effect, to jump into the fray for the interests of his constituents.

The Democrats pointed out that Giuliani faces re-election in November, a year before state politicians do, so voters seeking an immediate outlet for their ire over any revisions in the laws could try to punish him for the views of other Republicans.

Giuliani has dismissed those notions, maintaining that he has strenuously lobbied Gov. George Pataki and state Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, the two most prominent Republicans seeking to scale back the laws. He said Thursday that he was now focusing on addressing the needs of anxious tenants, adding that with the expiration of the rules nearing, he saw little use in going to Albany.

"Right now, you would distract from what actually has to happen," the mayor said.

Asked whether voters would hold him responsible if the laws lapsed or were weakened significantly, he replied: "Some will. Most won't, if I read the polls correctly." He said he was "not particularly concerned. I am concerned for the people of the city. I think that this is a very big mistake."

Trying to distance himself from the fight and its fallout, he then emphasized a point that he has repeated since December: the future of the state rent laws is decided not by the mayor, but by Pataki, Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

The mayor made his comments at his second news conference in two days on the topic of rent regulations, an event where he announced no new plans but instead sought to soothe the fears of anxious tenants. He and his aides contended, for example, that regulations on 300,000 of the 900,000 rent-stabilized apartments in the city would not expire after Sunday because they are in buildings with tax abatements. Some state officials and landlords disputed that position.

As the mayor discussed his previous proposals to help tenants, the leading Democratic candidate for mayor, Ruth Messinger -- who has come under fire from other Democrats for failing to exploit the rent issue against Giuliani -- signaled that she would step up the attack.

Ms. Messinger, the Manhattan borough president, sought to link the mayor to U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, who, polls show, is viewed unfavorably by many city residents. She questioned several times why the mayor had not been able to persuade D'Amato to support the current regulations and to exert more influence in Albany.

"You cannot take 2.7 million people and put them on a more and more slippery slope and bring them up to a deadline and threaten them with the loss of their homes," Ms. Messinger said at a taping of "Sunday Edition," a television program scheduled to be broadcast Sunday on Channel 2.

"That's what's happened in Albany," she said, "and the mayor of this city has gone along with that. He has not gotten any results from his friendship with Al D'Amato, from his relationship with the Republican state senators."

Ms. Messinger's aides said they would try to take advantage of the mayor's reputation for being outspoken by contrasting his criticism of D'Amato, Pataki and Bruno, which they said was timid, with Giuliani's broadsides against such targets as diplomats who do not pay parking tickets.

The mayor's political advisers scoffed at such tactics. "Giuliani enjoys a political silhouette as an independent when it comes to this kind of political action," said Raymond B. Harding, the leader of the Liberal Party. "They may try that, but I believe that it will be an unsuccessful endeavor."

A poll of city residents conducted between June 5 and 8 by The New York Times showed that there were some rumblings of discontent about the mayor's role in the rent debate, though it did not appear that he had suffered serious political harm.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents approved of the mayor's handling of the fight over rent regulations; 36 percent disapproved. But 56 percent approved of his overall handling of his job, while 31 percent disapproved.

Thirty-one percent of respondents said they would hold Pataki the most responsible if the laws expired Sunday, and 10 percent cited Bruno. Giuliani came in third on the list, with 9 percent saying that they would hold him the most responsible, though he has no authority over the regulations.

The poll confirmed what even some Democratic political consultants acknowledge -- so far, the mayor has successfully navigated the shoals in the six-month battle. He has championed the position that is favored by most residents, but has been cautious enough in his criticism that he has avoided undoing his effort to mend his ties with Pataki.

"He has been out in front of it enough," said Bill Lynch, who managed David Dinkins' two mayoral campaigns. "But if it goes down, all the high-visibility politicians could be in harm's way, because there is going to be retribution."