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Why rent regs will die

Posted by MikeW on May 23, 1997 at 09:16:49:

If you want to know why the rent regs are going to die next month, read the following article from todays NY Times

ALBANY, N.Y. -- For two and a half years now, Democrats have rummaged about for silver bullet issues that might sink Gov. George Pataki's re-election chances, from budget cuts to fund raising to transit fare hikes. Now comes the debate over rent regulations.

Many Democrats believe the rent laws will be Pataki's Vietnam, a quagmire of a battle that he can't possibly win, fought on a terrain (New York City) that he doesn't quite understand.

For weeks, culminating in Tuesday's rally by thousands of tenants in Albany, they have been leveling sharply partisan attacks on the governor, urging rent-regulated tenants to punish him at the polls next year unless he accepts a Democratic bill that will keep most rent protections in place.

But though the rent fight poses some obvious political problems for Pataki, it is far from clear that the issue is as toxic for him as Democrats and tenants claim.

The threat of retribution by city residents who vote in the 1998 gubernatorial election may ring hollow to the governor, largely because he wasn't the first choice of most New York City voters in the 1994 race; three-term incumbent Gov. Mario Cuomo was, by a large margin.

Pataki's aides and many independent political analysts say that for this reason and a variety of others, he is now well positioned to weather the fierce political storm over the rent laws, one that has virtually paralyzed the Legislature.

"I think he's pretty safe," said Fred Siegel, a professor of history at Cooper Union College. "If he takes a hit, it's not a huge hit. And it's not as big a hit in the city as people think."

Having tried to remove himself from the line of fire on contentious issues in the past, Pataki surprised politicians in both parties last week by releasing a relatively detailed proposal at a relatively early point (by Albany standards) in the debate: more than a month from the expiration of the rent laws June 16.

The governor's plan calls for eliminating rent protections on apartments as they become vacant, a policy that would gradually phase out a system that restricts rent increases on 1.1 million apartments, almost all of which are in New York City.

By releasing the plan, Pataki made himself the primary target for tenants' groups and Democratic politicians, who contend his plan will encourage landlords to harass tenants into vacating apartments and will sharply drive up rents across the city. But the move also demonstrated the governor's confidence that most tenants will find his plan reasonable.

Indeed, Pataki's aides argue that the plan will defuse rent as a factor in next year's gubernatorial campaign. The plan would immediately eliminate protections for only a few thousand tenants, those earning more than $175,000 a year, while allowing all others to maintain their protections until they move out or die.

So even if the plan were enacted -- and it is likely to be softened in talks with the Democrats -- the vast majority of New York's 2.5 million rent-regulated tenants would still be living in regulated apartments come Election Day 1998.

Tenant organizers and Democrats say that any changes in the laws, no matter how small, will cause a backlash against Republicans in general and Pataki in particular. If, for instance, vacancy decontrol is enacted and harassment of tenants suddenly increases, the governor will get the blame, the tenants' leaders say.

But even if such a backlash occurs, many political analysts say, the governor will probably suffer only marginal political damage, mainly because he is not counting on many New York City votes in his 1998 re-election calculus, anyway. In 1994, Pataki won election with only 25 percent of the vote in the city. He received only 17 percent of the vote in Manhattan, where changes in rent regulations would probably have the greatest impact, and only 12 percent in Greenwich Village.

Pataki's aides and supporters say the 1994 numbers show that the overwhelming number of tenants complaining about the governor's plan will never vote for him, regardless of his rent position. Several noted with glee that Tuesday's rally was supported by unions that have long been hostile to Pataki and was amply attended by fringe political groups, like Workers World Party.

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who favors preserving the rent laws, told a town hall meeting in the Bronx on Wednesday that threatening the governor is counterproductive. "Governor Pataki sits and thinks, 'Wait a second, I got 30 percent of the vote in New York City last time. How much worse is it going to get?'," Giuliani said. "So if you want to persuade Governor Pataki, you have to do better than trying to frighten him with not being re-elected."

Even if the governor were to lose some votes in the city's Republican strongholds -- Manhattan's Upper East Side and Queens -- as a result of his rent position, the impact might be negligible, since his overall approval rating in the city has sharply increased since 1994, according to several polls.

"In general, his numbers are getting so much bigger that even if he loses support among rent-regulated tenants, overall it may be hard to notice," said Joseph C.A. Mercurio, a Manhattan political consultant who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans.

The governor's call for phasing out the rent laws is also likely to help him with wealthy real estate developers, who are major contributors to the Republican Party, and could improve his standing upstate, where many voters view the rent laws as unfairly subsidizing wealthy tenants at the expense of landlords.

"This is not going to hurt Pataki in the rest of the state; in fact, it helps him," said Siegel. "He comes across as reasonable to most of the state."

Still, there are pitfalls for the governor, and the Democrats have said they plan to exploit them. The Democrats contend, and many Republicans privately agree, that if the law expires, Pataki will be blamed for any problems that tenants suffer.

The Democrats also say that Pataki cannot afford to lose even a few votes in New York City, since his statewide margin of victory over an unpopular incumbent, Cuomo, was only 2 percentage points.

Democratic strategists contend that with a strong turnout in the city driven by anger over changes to the rent laws and a slight decline in Pataki's support upstate, the governor will be vulnerable.

"Politicians the second time through do worse in their bases and they have to do better somewhere else," said Hank Morris, a Democratic political consultant in Manhattan. "If Pataki loses New York City by as much as he did last time, he loses. Because he'll never get the same vote upstate."

But for the Democrats to have a real chance at unseating Pataki, who has more than $5 million in his campaign war chest and whose poll numbers have been steadily rising, they will need a strong, well-financed candidate. So far, one hasn't emerged. And Pataki's advisers are confident the issue will blow over by the time the election rolls around.

"The beauty of this is that it all gets resolved 18 months before the election," said one Pataki adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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