Labor’s Lone Ranger

Dennis Rivera’s Tortured Path to a Mayoral Endorsement

Among the strangest events of this civil war-style, brother-against-brother Democratic mayoral race was when they booed health care workers leader Dennis Rivera on election night over at Mark Green's rally at the Sheraton.

It was strange because, to the liberals and trade unionists who made up the vast majority of those jamming the hotel's Imperial Ballroom, Rivera has always been a kind of folk hero, an unassuming, work-shirted warrior for justice with a legendary talent for organizing people in the melodic, sing-song accent of his native Puerto Rico. Legendary as well because, unlike many radicals and most labor fat cats, Rivera delivers for his members, using a potent mix of high-tech politicking and an almost mystical resolve to persuade everyone from archbishops to upstate conservatives to do the right thing for working families.

The boos were stranger still because, when they started, former mayor David Dinkins, whose successful 1989 campaign was virtually run from the offices of Rivera's Local 1199 on West 43rd Street, was speaking from the podium, extolling Mark Green. Strange too because initially Dinkins had been reluctant to endorse Green, but did so last summer with Rivera's encouragement.

Rivera himself never heard the boos because he wasn't there in person. It was only his image on a pair of immense wall-screen TVs hanging on either side of the podium.

And the boos were stranger still because no one in the room could actually hear anything Rivera was saying. It wasn't until the next morning that they read Rivera's accusation that Green had used "code words" to divide the city. But there was Dennis Rivera looming above the crowd, a huge, close-up image of his angular, handsome face, looking far younger than his 51 years, his high forehead kneaded now with concern and disappointment, the same way it did when he spoke of children without health insurance and of anti-union tactics.

It wasn't a loud, raucous booing. Nor was it something the crowd was doling out to everyone on the opposite side of the race. When Fernando Ferrer appeared briefly on the same screens there had been a handful of catcalls that were quickly shushed by others nearby. The boos for Rivera were more of a low grumble, a growl that rose in volume as more people broke from their conversations to see what was going on.

"I heard it and it made me look up," said a veteran labor organizer who, like most others in the city's union movement, has watched Rivera for years with a mix of admiration, puzzlement, and exasperation. "He's done damage to himself in this," he said.

That damage isn't because Rivera backed a losing candidate, or even that he was such a fervent defender of Freddy Ferrer in the days leading up to the race. Much the opposite. The people booing Dennis Rivera were mad because he had sent so many mixed signals to so many for so long about his own endorsement intentions, even encouraging many of them to work for Green in the first place.

From the start of the race, the candidates and the other unions had watched carefully to see what Rivera, head of the 210,000-member health care workers union 1199/SEIU and the state's most powerful labor leader, would do.

In his 12 years of leadership of the union, he has remained largely aloof from the city's labor establishment. At the same time, he has proved himself politically canny, even courageous. He was an early and major backer of Dinkins's candidacy, helping elect the city's first black mayor. He pushed other unions to support the strike, recognizing it as a major threat. In contrast, he sat out the 1997 mayoral race, believing that Democrat Ruth Messinger could not win. Other labor leaders endorsed Rudy Giuliani, only to look foolish a couple of years later, when they were forced to fill the streets with thousands of members to protest his labor policies. Rivera, ever the lone ranger, never formally backed Giuliani but nevertheless managed to win a 5.4 percent wage hike for the 60,000 low-income home health care workers his union represents.

His biggest coup came two years ago, when he launched a series of TV ads to win billions of dollars in funding for health care coverage for low-income families. The force of the campaign ads, more than a million dollars' worth, convinced both Governor George Pataki and Joe Bruno, leader of the Republican state senate, to go along.

But for nearly a year leading up to this year's Democratic primary, that keen sense seemed to desert Rivera. He wanted a candidate who would endorse his union's immediate goal—pushing home care workers' wages to $12 an hour—but who was also a potential winner. He zigged and then zagged, adopting a Hamlet-like stance of confusion and divided loyalties.

He personally helped launch the Ferrer campaign last fall, encouraging former Dinkins chief of staff and top political operative Bill Lynch to join Ferrer's team. Then, stymied by infighting among black and Latino politicians, Rivera tilted towards city comptroller Alan Hevesi, even telling his new-found ally, Governor Pataki, that Hevesi would be the next mayor. And then, when Hevesi's candidacy failed to ignite, Rivera talked publicly about staying neutral. At the same time, he participated in a long, tortuous courtship with Green, whose polling numbers held steady.

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