Ads Escalate Political War on Rent Laws

New York Times, April 28, 1997

NEW YORK -- In a sharp escalation of the fight over rent regulations, New York State Democratic officials said Sunday that they would start an advertising campaign urging voters to hold Gov. George Pataki and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato personally responsible if the state Legislature allows rent control laws to expire in June.

The campaign, set to begin Tuesday on television and radio shows, is intended to push the state's two most powerful Republicans to use their influence to preserve the rent laws, which restrict rent increases in more than one million apartments in New York City and its suburbs.

Pataki and D'Amato have until now largely avoided the thicket of what has emerged as the most heated political debate of the year.

The advertising campaign is modest -- costing about $100,000 -- and its placement on television news broadcasts and all-news radio stations means that Democratic strategists are aiming more at opinion leaders and less at the general public. But party strategists said that they believed the advertisements could affect both the dynamics of this year's debate in Albany and next year's statewide elections, when D'Amato and Pataki will be facing re-election. Both men are counting on winning a substantial number of votes in the New York City area, and thus would be expected to have a keen interest in the outcome of the rent debate.

The advertisements could have one other political effect. Most politicians say they believe that Pataki and D'Amato have held back as part of a strategy in which they will emerge at the last moment of the dispute, helping to forge a compromise between Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats, and Pataki has almost acknowledged as much. The advertisements, which point to past positions and statements by both men that appear to be inimical to rent regulations, will complicate their efforts to claim political credit for any such compromise.

So far, the driving force behind the effort to change the rent laws has been Sen. Joseph Bruno, the Republican leader of the state Senate, who has vowed to let the laws expire at midnight on June 15. But the advertisements suggest that Pataki and D'Amato, who wield considerable influence over Bruno, should be held just as responsible as Bruno.

"Who's really behind the threat to end rent protection for two million New York tenants?" the announcer in the advertisement says. "It's the Republican team of Governor Pataki and Senator D'Amato."

Republicans swiftly denounced the state Democratic Party's advertisements, the latest episode in which a New York state political party has tried to affect the course of legislation through hard-hitting television advertising.

"It's a rather desperate attempt to try to distort the governor's record and my record," D'Amato said. "It has no substance. No credence. I have publicly said you cannot permit middle-class families and working families and poor families to go without protection. Can't do it."

"People who are trying to politicize this and frighten people are wrong," the senator said. "They should be ashamed of themselves."

Pataki's chief spokeswoman, Zenia Mucha, said, "It's truly unfortunate that the Democratic Party wants to engage in fear-mongering instead of good government."

Still, the advertisements by the state Democratic Party serve to point out a central, if little-remarked-upon fact in this fight: Pataki and D'Amato are the most powerful Republicans in the state and have the clout and the motivation to heavily influence the outcome of the dispute, given the 1998 election contests and because rent control is something of a third-rail in metropolitan politics.

Bruno, the guiding force in the effort to eliminate rent regulations, was installed in his position by Pataki and D'Amato, and is thus considered highly susceptible to pressure by the two men on this issue.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company