Ticking of the clock helps speed agreement

Albany Times Union, June 16, 1997
ALBANY -- Apparently political uncertainties -- and primarily the sight of the gallows -- have pushed New York's leaders to achieve in a few days what they previously couldn't accomplish in a half-year.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has milked the rent issue all year, presenting himself as the warrior for the little guy -- including the $250,000-a-year Manhattanites he sought to protect from the perils of the marketplace -- and portraying the GOP as rich-coddling curs intent on displacing the middle class. He fought the good fight, refused for months to even consider reforming the half-century-old rent protection system and became a hero to the special-interest groups opposing reform.

"This is not a political game I am playing,'' Silver said Sunday night. "It is a basic system that keeps the middle class in the city. It keeps a roof over people's heads.''

But on Sunday night, those protections were going to expire no matter what Silver said, and then how would he be viewed? Would he be seen by his constituents as a man of principle who refused to bend, or a bungler who played the game of brinkmanship one round too many?

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Brunswick Republican with what he considers a philosophic opposition to government interference with free-market economics -- apparently not including the farm subsidies that aid his rural constituents -- vowed to end the rent control system as New Yorkers have come to know it. But in the end, he had to compromise to maintain the support of downstate Republicans in the Senate, lawmakers who feared the wrath of a couple million tenants.

"This is not about terminology,'' Bruno said. "It's not about who wins and who loses. This is about protecting almost 100 percent of the tenants in stabilized units.''

Insiders said Bruno was under incredible pressure -- mainly by GOP forces worried about maintaining their edge -- to fold.

Gov. George Pataki was perhaps in the most precarious position of all. After staying out of the debate for months, Pataki presented what he called a compromise plan to preserve rent protections for nearly all current residents. But the tenants and opponents made crystal clear that since they couldn't directly hold Bruno accountable -- the senator's district doesn't come anywhere near the rent-regulated apartments of New York City and its environs -- they were going to target Pataki. And Pataki knows he can't win re-election next year if he loses big in New York City.

What happened these last few days is a lesson in legislative politics.

Bruno softened his stance, conceding on succession rights for gay and lesbian tenants. Silver budged a tad on Friday, saying for the first time that he is open to reform as long as it doesn't eventually bring an end to rent regulations. And Pataki, clearly in the middle, worked feverishly to salvage an agreement and, in the view of some pundits, his job.

Still the political fallout is uncertain.

"I think the Republicans get hurt more than we do,'' said Democratic Assemblyman Ronald Canestrari of Cohoes. "It was their brainstorm. Long term, it's hard to say. In politics, it is the long-term effect that will matter.''

Although the anger of the night may not last until the next election, it was abundantly clear Sunday night that tenant activists plan to hold Pataki responsible for their stress. However, while vowing to vote Pataki out of office, several of the activists admitted they hadn't supported the governor in the past and wouldn't have voted for him in the future, regardless of the rent issue.

"He has really put us through a lot of trouble,'' said Marge Pavlica of White Plains. "I don't understand how he can't see it from the tenants' point of view.''

Pataki, who once lived in a rent regulated apartment in New York City, says he fully understands the concerns of tenants -- and has repeatedly said that he wishes they understood that his plan would protect virtually all of them. But the tenants holding vigil outside the Capitol Sunday night didn't want to hear explanations or excuses.

"D'Amato and Pataki put Bruno in there,'' said Bernice Siegal of the Queens League of United Tenants. "We will get him voted out of office.''

Said Brian Chenensky of Manhattan: "George Pataki wants to make it impossible for middle-class people to live in New York City.''