by Andrea Bernstein
Conservative Party's Crusade Was Funded by Landlord Lobby
NY Observer, May 5, 1997
"Right now we're in danger of not only having rent control renewed, but made even worse by the bill pending in Sheldon Silver's Assembly. Your signature on the enclosed letter to Silver, and your generous contribution to the Conservative Party, will put our campaign to end rent control into high gear." So exhorted an urgent letter from Michael Long, state chairman of the Conservative Party, to 35,000 "fellow taxpayers" earlier this spring. Mr. Long was making good on a promise he'd uttered at a gathering of party faithful last February, when he vowed to do "everything we can to put as much pressure on as many legislators" as possible to end the state's rent regulation laws. Do Conservatives have an ideological affinity for decontrolling rents? Mr. Long naturally says Yes. But an Observer review of 1996 campaign filings found that, just as landlord groups were gearing up for an all-out war on rent regulations, real estate interests gave at least $65,000 to the 160,000-member third party. Of that, $45,000 came from the Rent Stabilization Association Political Action Committee, and another PAC associated with the Rent Stabilization Association known as the Neighborhood Preservation Political Action Fund. That makes the landlord lobby the single largest contributor to the Conservative Party last year -- with most of its contributions. $35.000. coming in October, just two months before State Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno brought the rent wars public in a speech before, of all people, the Rent Stabilization Association. The lobby's big contributions went to a party that regularly files hundreds of pages of donor lists, most in the $25 to $250 range. Mr. Long dismissed any connection between the contributions and his sudden activism on the issue of rent control. "Ever since the party was formed, 35 years ago, we've been opposed to rent control," he said in a telephone interview from his Bay Ridge liquor store. "Did we see an opportunity? This might be a year we can make serious changes. That's why we're looking to do more things." Said Joseph Strasburg of the Rent Stabilization Association: "R.S.A. was supportive of the Conservative Party before I came on the scene here, based on the fact that, ideologically, they support a free-market approach to rent regulation. You support those organizations that support your position or are at least open-minded." But Mr. Strasburg is well known for his clever deployment of campaign contributions. A study by the New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters found that the more than $200,000 doled out by his Neighborhood Preservation PAC had made it the fourth largest PAC contributor to state legislative campaigns in 1996. (The top three were teachers, health care interests and trial lawyers.) Though tiny, the Conservative Party wields tremendous power in Albany -- a fact of which Mr. Long is well aware. "Here at the Conservative Party, we know the power we can have in Albany when the taxpayers are on our side," his letter boasted. "In 1994, even though we had only 125,000 registered Conservative voters, we delivered 328,000 votes for Governor Pataki on our Conservative ballot line... " That was more than twice the Governor's margin of victory that year. Mr. Strasburg agreed with that assessment. "Just like Ray Harding's Liberal Party was instrumental in getting Rudy Giuliani elected, if not for the Conservative Party, Mario Cuomo would still be Governor," he said. It's a power that makes tenant groups view the party as a serious opponent. "The Conservative Party plays a very important role in any close election in New York State," said Billy Easton, executive director of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition. "The threat of withholding endorsement is a very serious matter. There are a lot of elections where the Conservative Party can tip the balance. And they can play the same role as Joe Bruno—adding another extremist voice for total decontrol, which makes the Governor's position look moderate." Meanwhile, Mr. Long has collected 3,000 letters to Speaker Silver, which he promised to release at a press conference in early May. Nor will that be the end of it. "I certainly hope to do more" to up the ante on this issue, Mr. Long told The Observer. "I hope to do a lot more."