Bruno admits regrets over rent-control deal

by SARAH METZGAR
Albany Times Union, June 21, 1997

He blames defeat in negotiations on bad public relations

ALBANY -- Soon after Gov. George Pataki signed a controversial rent-regulation bill on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno expressed his disappointment and regret for the first time.

He also offered a rare glimpse into the political maneuvering behind high-level negotiations at the Capitol.

Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican, announced last December that he wanted to end the state's rent laws within two years. His position was in stark contrast to the position pushed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat: renewal of the existing laws.

Pataki, on May 12, announced a compromise proposal. Bruno slowly moved toward Pataki's position. But Bruno clung to his demand for "vacancy decontrol'' only to fold in the eleventh hour under pressure from Pataki and other Republicans who represent rent-regulated constituents.

As the old laws expired at midnight Sunday, Pataki, Bruno and Silver forged an agreement. Vacancy decontrol, which would have deregulated apartments as they became vacant, was dropped. The men agreed to a six-year deal that lowers the income threshold for eligible tenants and allows landlords to increase the rent by 20 percent when an apartment becomes vacant.

Silver was perceived to be the clear victor and received a standing ovation in the Assembly chamber Thursday night. Bruno has tried to put a positive spin on things since Sunday, saying that many of his objectives were met.

But he admitted Friday that he was disappointed. He had an impromptu exchange with a small group of reporters and ruminated about the six-month rent debate.

Q. On reflection, what do you wish you had done differently?

A. It's awfully easy to second-guess, and I guess we all learn from our experiences. Literally, we lost the PR battle. Because where we ended up, in terms of affecting tenants, is no different than what we had intended several months ago. . . . So, we lost it, really, in the press. The tenants and their leaders -- the paid people and the speaker -- were able to exploit that. There was no rational discussion. Because rationally, there is no one with common sense who really thinks that a vacant apartment going to market hurts anybody. But we lost it. . . . So if I was doing something different, I think we would have orchestrated it more in terms of communicating directly with the people involved and affected to help them understand that no one was trying to hurt them, no one was trying to dislocate them. . . . I was meeting tenants in the hall, in just the last week, who were still thinking that vacancy decontrol meant they were on the street after the lease is up.

Q. A lot of people blame the RSA (the Rent Stabilization Association, the chief landlord group) for not doing a massive campaign to help you, the way the Tenants & Neighbors coalition helped Shelly (Silver).

A. They would lose. . . . Let's face it, the tenant leaders and the speaker did a good job. It was tenants against landlords -- greedy landlords against the poor tenants. You know, the poor tenants making $200,000 or $225,000 -- those poor tenants. We lost it, and we lost it in the press.

You have to negotiate from a position. I established a position which I knew was to the far right. I knew where I would end up, and where I wanted to end up was somewhere along the lines where the governor was. And the governor came in with his plan too early. The governor never should have, in my mind, put that out when he put it out. . . .

Q. Why did you take what you yourself call an extreme position initially?

A. I knew the speaker would move for a full extension, and that's exactly what he did. If I started any other place, we couldn't get to middle ground. It was purely a calculation, and we were doing OK. And then the dynamics kind of changed.

Q. Did Sen. (Alfonse) D'Amato encourage you to move to the governor's position?

A. No. I talked with him a number of times about a lot of things, and he wasn't coming on heavy with me. He may have done some other things that I'm not aware of, but he never came on heavy with me in any way.

Q. Some of the landlord leaders feel that (Silver) wasn't pushed far enough -- that he had a couple more fallback positions that were not even tested, and the concession came too early. Did you want to go past midnight and explore what would happen?

A. I'm not going to second-guess what went on. I had made my statements as to what my expectation was, and I was prepared to do exactly what I said I was going to do.

But the dynamics changed, as you all know. You reported very well kind of what happened on Sunday. And in my business, I am then in a position where I (either) support the governor, and where he is with what's going on in an issue that's as sensitive as this, or I don't. I made a decision to support that position.

Q. Did you find it easier or harder after the governor came out with his plan?

A. It got harder. That established a middle ground, and where do you go from there? . . . The governor did a great job at protecting tenants. And I know Sen. D'Amato is greatly interested in the same thing, and they did that -- that's what got done.