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.

Several unions endorsed Green with full expectations that Rivera would be right behind them. Some were members of his own parent union, the Service Employees International Union. So intent were the SEIU unions on having a joint endorsement that they even had a name for it: "Speaking With One Voice."

For Local 32B-J, SEIU, which represents 70,000 building service workers and had recently emerged from a trusteeship imposed after its autocratic former boss, Gus Bevona, was ousted, the election was a kind of coming out party. "We had made a decision we were going to build influence in New York City," said local president Mike Fishman. The union signed up 8000 members for a new political fund and enrolled more than 1000 as election-day volunteers. The local announced its endorsement for Green in August, when Rivera was in jail in Puerto Rico, having been arrested in protests against the Navy's bombardment of Vieques. Reporters asked Fishman if he'd spoken to Rivera about the move. He said he had.

Last week, Fishman declined to discuss the conversation, but Rivera said it had gone like this: "Mike said, 'If we endorse [Green], you will not endorse anyone else?' And I said, 'I believe that to be the case.' "

Others had a similar impression. Local 6 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees endorsed Green based on his position on their issues, but its leaders expected to be part of a major labor push, led by 1199. So did the garment and textile union, UNITE—Green's first big labor endorsement. "The information I had—and it proved to be wrong—was that Dennis was close to endorsing Mark Green," said UNITE president Bruce Raynor.

A few days before the primary, as Ferrer's poll numbers climbed and Green's dropped, Rivera made his decision. "The entire rationale of Mark Green's campaign was that he was going to win. This was no longer true," Rivera explained. In a leap that stunned union allies and others, Rivera jumped aboard Ferrer's bandwagon.

As Ken Sunshine, Rivera's longtime friend and advisor who backed Green consistently and urged Rivera to do the same, put it, "Fights in the family are always worse than fights with enemies."

Several days after the runoff, there was another odd scene when Rivera hosted Republican mayoral nominee Michael Bloomberg at his union headquarters, where Rivera and several of 1199's leaders met with the candidate for over an hour. There wasn't really much to talk about, Rivera acknowledged later. "He struck me as a nice guy, but certainly not someone we could endorse. He did not connect with the officers. He didn't clearly understand our concerns," Rivera said.

But Rivera had invited the media, and he marched Bloomberg downstairs in front of the cameras and into the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center Gallery. The room is where the local's famed Bread and Roses cultural project presents art displays, and on the walls that day was an exhibit of photos of blue-collar workers. Bloomberg, whose campaign is predicated on his business acumen, heads a non-union company with some 8000 employees. In his autobiography he gloats about how in the early 1980s he "violated every. . .union regulation on the books" to get his financial data computers installed in business offices all over town.

"We are very thankful to him for coming and talking," Rivera told the press, adding that Bloomberg had urged him to call him "Mike." The visit gave Bloomberg a rare photo opportunity with black and Latino leaders and a rarer one yet to stand in a union hall. A few days later, Rivera was asked again about the reason for the invitation to Bloomberg. "It is fair to say we were incredibly unhappy and angry about what had happened," the union leader said, referring to the Green campaign, its television commercials, and the anonymous calls and flyers.

Rivera found himself in another paradox during the Ferrer campaign, one that the candidate and Rivera's friends have loyally remained quiet about. It had to do with his response to Giuliani's demand for a three-month term extension. To many New Yorkers, no single issue defined Freddy Ferrer more favorably in comparison to Mark Green than his refusal to go along with Giuliani. And Green's agreement with the mayor turned thousands of supporters, including many blacks and liberals, against him overnight. Many people believed the mayor's proposal would be yet another disenfranchisement of the city's black and Latino voters.

Rivera thought otherwise. On September 27, the morning after Ferrer's meeting with Giuliani, Rivera had breakfast with the candidate. "Freddy said, 'I just had a meeting with the mayor and he told me this thing. What do you think I should do?' I said, 'I don't know, Freddy, we just had the primary and you only got 7 percent of the white vote. Giuliani is incredibly popular. I think that you should probably do this.' "

Rivera didn't hear from Ferrer again until 5:00 p.m. that afternoon, when Ferrer called to say he had decided to reject Giuliani's proposal. "I said, 'Wow.' Then I hung up the phone and said, 'There goes the election.' " He added: "The history is that he basically was right and I was wrong."

Rivera told the story as he sat glumly on the carpeted stairs at the Sheraton, not far from the ballroom where his picture had been booed a week earlier. He was there now to stand on a crowded platform with Ferrer and other Democrats to call for unity on behalf of Mark Green.

It was a difficult thing to do, Rivera said, because he was still angry about Green's negative TV commercial and the anti-Ferrer rhetoric contained in anonymous flyers and phone calls. "I think there had to be some coordination," he said. "But Mark Green told me he had nothing to do with it and I believe him."

Perception, however, can be more important than reality, and it would be a mistake to underestimate the hurt and anger Green's ads caused for many, Rivera included.

Rivera himself was once on the receiving end of similar, painful criticism. When he ran for president of 1199 in 1989, the union was racked with internal dissension. His two opponents were African American women, both former presidents whose misadministration, according to Rivera and his supporters, had nearly destroyed the union. One of the opponents, Doris Turner, minced no words about what she believed was the basis of Rivera's candidacy. "Deep down underneath, it's a racist struggle," she told the newspapers.

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