Senator's Quandary Over Rent: Bruno or Tenants?

New York Times, June 14, 1997
Y>ONKERS, N.Y. -- Just a few months ago Nicholas Spano could slip in and out of restaurants, movie theaters and other public places without creating much of a stir -- even though he is a state senator of considerable rank.

But now Spano, a Republican from Westchester County, suddenly finds himself flanked by bodyguards in many places he goes to, and he has been the subject of scorn and ridicule in pamphlets and fliers circulating in his district.

The reason for this striking change is simple. Spano has emerged as one of the prominent players in Albany in determining the future of the state laws that limit rents for millions of tenants across the New York City metropolitan region.

Spano is one of a handful of Republican senators, all from districts with high concentrations of tenants, who could be the swing votes either to save or to phase out rent regulations.

In a political culture that discourages risks and demands absolute loyalty to party leaders, the dilemma these senators face is extraordinary: whether to follow the Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, and Gov. George Pataki, Republicans who want to eliminate the laws gradually and can exact revenge on dissenters, or to side with their constituents who are demanding by the thousands that the senators stand up to their bosses.

The loyalties of senators like Spano may be tested on Sunday, when the Democrats in the Senate will attempt to force a vote on a bill that would extend rent regulations. Because of the slim five-vote Republican majority, how Spano and his colleagues vote could determine the fate of the rent regulations.

Spano says he wants the current rent laws to continue just as they are. But at the same time, he says he will not vote yes on a Democratic bill to do just that, because it would embarrass the Republican leadership of the Senate. As a result, many tenants' groups remain suspicious of his loyalty to their position.

In his district Spano has spent the last few weeks casting himself as a staunch defender of tenants. He has sent out letters and attended dozens of rallies and town hall meetings to get one message across: He is doing all he can to get Republican leaders in Albany to soften their position.

But the pressure has been building on Spano and his colleagues as Bruno has threatened this week to let the laws expire on Sunday unless the Democrats who control the Assembly agree to a compromise that would gradually phase out the rent laws over the next few years.

"Will you stay on our side?" an elderly tenant named Anne Anderson implored Spano the other day as he paid a visit to Village Hall in the nearby Hudson River community of Irvington. "This is a very serious thing."

Spano nodded in agreement. "We recognize that," he responded. "We're continuing to fight to reach some agreement on this."

But many tenants and the groups that represent them have questioned Spano's commitment to them, noting that in April he sided with Bruno in blocking a vote on a bill that Senate Democrats sponsored to extend the current rent regulations for four years.

Nevertheless, Spano said he will not join Democrats when they attempt to do the same thing on Sunday -- describing the expected maneuver as a procedural one intended to do nothing more than embarrass Bruno. "There is no point in antagonizing the majority leader," he said. "The bottom line is that Joe Bruno determines what bills the Senate addresses."

The animosity toward Spano runs so deep that he has received death threats, and the windshield of his truck was shattered by a pellet gun while it was parked outside his home in Yonkers one evening in April. (Ever since, two Yonkers police detectives have been assigned to stay by his side during his public appearances.)

Beyond that, tenant groups have vowed, in rallies, pamphlets and hundreds of phone calls to his office, to hold him responsible on Election Day next year if tenant protections are weakened in any way.

"No matter what he says he is trying to do, we are going to judge him by the outcome," said Dennis Hanratty, the chairman of the Westchester Tenants Coalition. "He's not going to be able to say 'I did all I could do.' That isn't good enough. We'll hold him accountable."