New York

Way to Go, Joe


It’s harder to lose an election to the New York legislature than it was to be removed from the old Soviet Politburo. Pataki: An Autobiography, 1998

The paradoxical hero of the closing chapter of the governor’s mostly ignored memoir was none other than Joe Bruno, the senate majority leader who last week branded his old friend a liar. Just as ironically, that chapter was the tale of George Pataki’s first senate budget vote in 1993, when he was, as he almost is again, the solitary Albany voice against a “tax and spend” plan that he warned would kill jobs. Even stranger, Pataki is now said to be selectively targeting legislators with primaries—despite his Politburo metaphor—in a scramble to prevent an override of his expected veto.

The chapter was as much a breach of legislative protocol as was Pataki’s vote against a budget backed by the senate Republican conference, then headed by Ralph Marino, who was deposed shortly after the governor’s election in 1994 and replaced by Bruno. Pataki filled the chapter with direct quotations from a confidential meeting of his fellow GOP senators, describing Bruno, who was relegated to a “lonely seat near the door at the rear of the room,” as a repeated thorn in Marino’s side.

Then a 16-year incumbent, Bruno yelled: “How can we do this? Every year we spend more; we tax more. It’s just wrong. How long are we going to buy into this crap?”

Marino ended the one and only conference discussion of the $64 billion budget—nearly $30 billion less than the one Pataki is now threatening to veto—after 10 rambunctious minutes. “I expect all of us to vote for the budget,” he declared, leading the delegation directly to the senate chamber. Bruno did vote for it—saying nothing during the floor debate, Pataki noted—”his red face letting everyone know his true feelings.” When Pataki beat Mario Cuomo a year later, he installed Bruno as leader and drove Marino into retirement, writing in his autobiography that Bruno’s “conservative beliefs are strong, genuine and deeply rooted in lifelong convictions.”

Pataki assailed the budget then for increasing spending far greater than the rate of inflation. He wound up doing the same as governor again and again, even last year when everyone knew that 9-11, the recession, and his own billions in tax cuts were combining to put the state deeper in the red than it had ever been before. For his re-election, the governor allied himself, at taxpayer expense, with the teachers’ and health care unions, an alliance he’d jettisoned in his own mind by the time the polls closed in November.

Indeed, Pataki’s threatened vetoes include the $275 million that will pay for the teachers’ union contract he jointly announced with Mayor Bloomberg, the only time in memory that a governor has appeared at the settlement of a municipal labor agreement. It led to Pataki’s getting the union’s endorsement, a major blow to Democratic nominee Carl McCall, who had based his campaign on education issues and who, though he is out of politics, even appeared this Saturday at a mass, teachers’-union-organized rally in Albany to denounce Pataki’s budget.

A serial seducer, Pataki has moved on to the likes of Grover Norquist, the national anti-tax leader close to Bush who was welcomed in Albany recently. Pataki can barely remember who one-night stands Randi Weingarten and Dennis Rivera are. Bruno, on the other hand, is a bit too slow and old-fashioned for such fancy bed work. His stunning willingness to pass billions in new taxes earned him the biggest cheer of all from the 30,000 at the rally (even louder than the one for Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, who managed to appear on the same Saturday when fellow Orthodox Jew Joe Lieberman refused to debate until nightfall). As one Republican state senator told the Voice: “Pataki reneged on the $275 million, and Bruno couldn’t believe it. He said we promised to pay for it.”

Bruno’s alliance with the unions last year was so tight that most of them backed Marty Golden, the GOP councilman from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, against Vincent Gentile, an incumbent Democratic senator with a decidedly pro-labor voting record. It was the first time the unions, who routinely endorse incumbent Republican senators, backed a GOP challenger against a Democratic incumbent, a sign of hospital honcho Rivera’s extraordinary ties to Bruno. (Teacher boss Weingarten was neutral, in another, though lesser, bow to the GOP leader.) A Voice visit on election day to Golden’s headquarters—at the John Hughes Knights of Columbus Hall on 13th Avenue—found a basement meeting room packed with union volunteers and banners.

Curiously, Golden was one of only two Republicans to vote against the revenue bill last week, though he simultaneously appeared, beaming, on the front page of every tabloid, standing behind Bruno, Silver, and Bloomberg at the announcement of the legislative deal. Golden’s old opponent Gentile, who was subsequently elected to the City Council, voted on Monday in favor of the city’s share of the income and sales tax hikes, making the union preference for Golden even more inexplicable.

While the Golden endorsements highlight the bond between Bruno and the unions, no one expressed it better than lifelong lefty Rivera, who told the Times in January 2002 that “getting to know” Bruno was “one of the most beautiful experiences” of his life. A horseback-riding partner of the senate leader, Rivera called him “an incredibly wonderful man,” despite Bruno’s long-term hostility to abortion and gay rights, rent stabilization, gun control, welfare benefits, and a host of other liberal causes.

The legislature’s unprecedented support of income and sales tax increases at both the city and state levels will generate enough new revenue to balance the budget the council must approve by June, without a dime of the $600 million in union concessions that Bloomberg has been demanding. Bloomberg spokesman Bill Cunningham told the Voice that the mayor will still seek concessions, especially “involving a new pension tier and efficiencies in the benefit funds,” to help close the gap for the next fiscal year, which begins midway through 2004. But Bruno and Silver’s tax bonanza has taken the need to achieve any labor savings off the table for the upcoming budget, allowing the unions to behave, as they did at a Friday press conference at City Hall, as if the legislative largesse was a union gap-closing contribution.

The press conference was labor’s attempt to pressure the mayor to rescind the 3,000 layoffs already underway. Cunningham did tell the Voice that Bloomberg would pull back on some of the layoffs “if any particular union” whose members are affected “is prepared to agree to offer real and meaningful savings to the city.” With only 10 days before the layoffs go into effect, Cunningham was doubtful however that there was enough time to stop the layoffs. “What’s more likely,” he said, “is that if we can identify true savings and achieve a new level of productivity with a union, we could bring these people back and get them working.”

With Pataki insulated from the tax and transit hikes by the legislature and the MTA, Bloomberg is the chief executive who may well be associated with them in the public mind, especially after he explicitly supported the legislature’s taxes last week. Having already engineered the largest property tax boost in city history, the mayor will soon pay another political price when that increase helps push the Bloomberg-appointed Rent Guidelines Board to approve record-breaking rent hikes. Having gone further than any liberal Democratic mayor could realistically go to close daunting deficits with new revenue, he still faces a union stonewall, willing even to cynically surrender thousands of jobs rather than make concessions such as the administration of benefit funds—that ask little or nothing of workers.

As salutary as the legislative restorations are for the city, especially in education, it is a shame that this year’s budgetary drama may end without commuters or unions making any contribution to the city’s fiscal health, while hundreds of school aides and sanitation workers make the ultimate, “job-killing,” sacrifice.

Research assistance: Felicia Mello, Cathy Bussewitz

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