Commentary: A Good Day for the Mayor, to Little Avail

New York Times, June 5, 1997

ALBANY, N.Y. -- New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani paid a hugely successful visit to Albany earlier this week, and the happy results were written all over his face.

Sitting in the office of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on Monday, he spoke of his deep concern for New York's rent laws and his campaign to save them. As the cameras whirred, he smiled contentedly.

Later that afternoon, the mayor held a second news conference, this one to keep reporters apprised of how he had made out in meetings with state Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno and other lawmakers. Once again, he beamed as he reasserted his commitment to preserving the rent laws and protecting tenants who are "very, very afraid that they are not going to be able to afford to live in New York City."

But while Giuliani toured Albany in a cheerful -- by mayoral standards even exuberant -- mood, the Capitol regulars he had come to visit were either conspicuously absent or downright dyspeptic.

Seated next to Giuliani at their joint news conference, Silver looked positively afflicted. As Giuliani spoke, the Democratic speaker averted his eyes, grimaced and made it very clear that posing beside the Republican mayor was not really his idea, or, if it was, that he now deeply regretted it.

The Republican Senate majority leader did not appear publicly with Giuliani -- perhaps at the mayor's request -- but he did give his own news conference to announce that no progress whatsoever had been made toward resolving the rent dispute.

For someone who had engineered the whole drama, Bruno seemed oddly annoyed at the way that it was playing out, even though it was totally in keeping with the classic Albany pattern.

"If you want to avoid going over a cliff, what do you do?" he asked querulously. "You have to make a turn. What I have been proposing is just make a turn!"

The Republican governor, George Pataki, was absent from Albany altogether, clearing space for the mayor to issue a purely pro forma denunciation of him.

The governor, Giuliani said, really ought to take a "stronger leadership role." Then he smiled.

For Giuliani, it was easy to succeed in Albany because his goals were so modest: staging a flattering "photo op." Like a visit to a plane wreck or a flood zone, the mayor's tour of the Capitol was designed just to show that he cared.

When Giuliani sat for the cameras with Silver, when he met privately with Bruno and when he publicly but bloodlessly castigated Pataki, he had done a good day's work of siding with the Democrats but not so offending the Republicans that they might turn on him.

The debate over the rent laws, which in this mayoral election year could have proved a disaster for Giuliani, has, so far at least, actually proved a boon.

Instead of giving his opponents an issue to use against him, it has solidified the mayor's reputation as a party unto himself, a political cross-dresser unencumbered by consistent ideology.

As Giuliani himself so memorably put it while performing in drag a few months ago, his best trick is playing "a Republican pretending to be a Democrat pretending to be a Republican."

From all Giuliani has said in the past about the virtues of competition, one would have to conclude that he is not a natural advocate of rent control.

But the mayor knows full well that, like Social Security, rent control is a potential career-killer, precisely because it represents a form of middle-class entitlement. And one thing voters don't take kindly to is having benefits -- merited or not -- snatched away.

So Monday genuinely was a good day for the mayor, because all the major players from both parties, were, for one reason or another, willing to play along. Neither Silver nor Bruno, and certainly not Pataki, is a fan of Giuliani, but none of them really pressed him. They may have been grumpy, but they either sat down with the mayor or got out of his way.

As for the rent laws themselves, the day was at best indifferent. By showing that he could have it both ways -- at once be recognized as an ally of rent control and remain at peace with its opponents -- Giuliani basically stepped free of the whole mess. And as evening fell, he simply drove off, leaving the rest of the crowd not one step closer to finding a way out.