Top Republican Critical of Governor in Rent Fight

New York Times, June 21, 1997
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno criticized his fellow Republican, Gov. George Pataki, Friday for undercutting him during the battle over rent legislation and said the governor strongly urged him during the final hours of negotiations to accept a deal Bruno strongly disliked.

He reluctantly went along with the agreement rather than defy the governor, he said. "I made a conscious decision it was time to buy in," said Bruno , a Rensselaer County Republican who led the fight to abolish rent protections.

Bruno made his remarks just hours after Pataki signed legislation that keeps the rent system largely intact for six more years while granting landlords substantially larger increases for vacant apartments. The Legislature approved the bill late Thursday night, ending one of Albany's most ferocious struggles in memory.

That final accord was a far cry from the original plan that Bruno offered in December when he fired the opening shot in the rent war, calling for an end to most rent protections within two years. During impromptu remarks at the state Capitol Friday morning, Bruno said that he had taken that extreme position, which he described as "far right," purely as a bargaining tactic intended to force concessions from Democrats.

His real goal, Bruno said, was closer to the position later advocated by Pataki, who called for lifting rent protections on apartments only after tenants have moved out or died, a policy known as vacancy decontrol.

But in a gently chiding tone that was infused with weary resignation, Bruno said that Pataki had fatally undermined the Republicans' effort to win vacancy decontrol by releasing his own plan too early in the game.

The governor unveiled his proposal, which featured vacancy decontrol as its centerpiece, on May 12, about a month before the laws were scheduled to expire.

"The governor came in with his plan too early," Bruno said. "The governor never should have in my mind put that out when he put that out."

In saying that, Bruno echoed the comments of tenants' lobbyists and Democrats who said that the governor made a strategic error in releasing his plan in mid-May, giving his critics a month to mount a public relations campaign attacking him and his proposal. They contended that Pataki would have served his own cause better by offering his plan just days, perhaps even hours, before the June 15 deadline for the expiration of the laws, thereby placing Democrats under intense pressure to accept it.

Aides to Pataki could not be reached for comment about Bruno's remarks, the first time the majority leader has publicly criticized the governor's handling of the rent fight.

Bruno also said that he thought the Republicans and their landlord allies had "lost the PR battle," as Democrats and tenants groups exploited tenants' fear of losing rent protections and disdain for landlords.

"Let's face it, the tenant leaders and the speaker did a good job," Bruno said, referring to Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, who led the fight to preserve the rent laws. "It was tenants against landlords. Greedy landlords against poor tenants."

Asked if Pataki gave in to Silver's demands too quickly during the deadline negotiations on June 15, Bruno demurred. But he strongly suggested that by the end of the day, Pataki had so totally undercut Bruno's position that he had no choice but to agree to a compromise plan that was not to his liking.

Faced with either following the governor and accepting the compromise or letting the laws lapse, Bruno said: "I made a decision to support that position. And then we made the most of where we were to get where we are."

Though Pataki and the leaders reached agreement on the rent issue early Monday morning, it took them four days to hammer out the thorny details of a bill. During that period, the rental market in Manhattan picked up considerably, several real estate agents said Friday. In the days before the accord, when the fate of the regulations was uncertain, both landlords and prospective tenants had pulled back to see if the system would change significantly.