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Summer 1997
City Journal Summer 1997.
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A New Lease on Ineptitude
William J. Stern
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Could Governor George Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno have handled the fight against rent control any more ineptly or given any stronger proof of their incompetence as political generals? One wonders if they understood at all that they were entering into an epochal political battle.

Bruno announced months ago that he was prepared to let the state's rent laws sunset on June 15, when they were scheduled to expire. He would agree to a complete phase-out of the laws over the course of a year or two, he said, but that was it. For a long time he stuck to his guns, with (it should be acknowledged) admirable courage. And Pataki? A month before June 15, he publicly came out in favor of vacancy decontrol as an alternative to Bruno's free-market plan. What did they get in the end? An eleventh-hour "compromise" with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver that allows a bit more luxury decontrol and slightly higher rent increases when tenants move out. In short, they got a bone, so they wouldn't appear to be slinking away from the negotiations with their tails between their legs. "Extremists on both sides are going to be unhappy," said Pataki in praise of the deal—as if the rest of the U.S. were dangerously radical for managing without rent control.

It didn't have to be this way. There was no reason for Pataki to weigh in so early. He could have waited until June 14, allowing Bruno's proposal to sit on the table as the Republican offer until the very last moment. Then he could have swooped in, offering vacancy decontrol as the moderate alternative to the extremes staked out by Bruno and Silver.

Nor could Bruno and Pataki be bothered to coordinate a Republican strategy to generate support outside of Albany for getting rid of rent control. The Democrats, who played the game like pros, began running lurid, mendacious television ads in New York City as early as February, describing the dislocation and astronomical rents that decontrol would supposedly bring in its wake. In the weeks leading up to the vote, they organized demonstrations in Albany and the city, parading the tenants whose lives, they claimed, stood to be wrecked.

Pataki and Bruno just sat there. Why didn't they buy some television time to put pressure on upstate Democrats, the same way Silver made things hot for New York City Republicans? You can see the ads now: Sheldon Silver comes into view, and the announcer intones, "Who is Assemblyman X working for: Shelly Silver or you?" Or: "We pay to house New York City's prisoners; do we really need to pay for its socialist rent-control bureaucracy too?" How hard would it have been to stage a counter-demonstration or two? Pataki and Bruno might have brought out the young tenants who pay higher rents because rent control has choked off the supply of new apartments, the small landlords who can't make a decent living, and the construction workers who would build all the new housing that rent control's demise would bring.

Why didn't the governor make a strong positive case in television ads that ending rent control would increase the supply of housing and decrease rents? Economists and policy wonks had already gathered up irrefutable data, and the editorial boards of the Times, the Post, and the Daily News endorsed their views—the first time in memory that the three papers were in agreement on a major policy issue. Even a New York Times Magazine cover story eloquently called for rent control's end. Yet the potential wrath of New York City voters seemed to paralyze Pataki—even though he had won the governor's office while carrying just 28 percent of the city and even though 50 percent of New York City residents said they favored vacancy decontrol.

One is bound to ask if the governor and his staff are up to mounting a concerted campaign of principle. Pataki is a 9-to-5 governor, averse to the long hours and political single-mindedness necessary to bring about true change in New York. And he has surrounded himself with unremarkable aides, men like his chief counsel, Michael Finnegan, and his chief of staff, Brad Race. By comparison, just think back to Governor Carey's high-powered lieutenants, men of distinction like Steve Berger, John Dyson, Peter Goldmark, Robert Morgado, and Richard Ravitch.

Ending rent control has been a major goal of New York's GOP policy thinkers for years. Now Republicans are utterly discredited on the issue. It would have been better if the governor and Senate majority leader had been Democrats supporting rent control—at least that way an intellectually rigorous opposition to rent control would have continued to grow outside the political establishment. Now the cause is dead for a decade, and the state's Republican officials stand revealed as usiness-as-usual apparatchiks of the welfare-state status quo.

 

 


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