Politically Knotted, Boss Dennis Rivera May Endorse Nobody

Dennis Rivera, president of the city’s hospital workers’ union, controls the most powerful and sophisticated political operation in the city. This simple fact explains why the four Democratic Mayoral candidates have been wooing him for months in a frenzied-and, at times, unsightly-effort to win his blessing.

All this intrigue has created a dilemma for the 50-year-old Mr. Rivera, a self-made power broker, the son of a women’s underwear manufacturer who now commands 360,000 union members and a $3 million annual political budget. For one thing, Mr. Rivera is friendly with all four major candidates. More to the point, the chaotic 2001 Democratic Mayoral primary is anybody’s race-and if history is any guide, Mr. Rivera would rather remain on the sidelines than risk being bound to a loser. (His union, Local 1199, stayed neutral in the 1997 Mayoral election rather than endorse the quixotic candidacy of Ruth Messinger.)

“We might end up not endorsing anybody,” Mr. Rivera told The Observer , in his first interview about this year’s Mayoral race. Asked if he was leaning toward any one candidate, Mr. Rivera said: “This is a very big career move for four people who have been our friends, so it’s very hard. If you asked Dennis Rivera what his preference is for now, it’s no endorsement …. You maintain your friendship with everybody-and you don’t harm anybody.”

Mr. Rivera also told The Observer that he has forged an informal alliance with Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, and Lee Saunders, the head of District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal employees’ union. According to Mr. Rivera, the three labor leaders have informally agreed to try to come together behind one candidate. If, that is, they support any one candidate at all: In their discussions, Mr. Rivera said, the trio also considered the possibility of sitting out the race altogether.

“We would be a formidable team,” Mr. Rivera observed of the possible pan-labor alliance. “The question here is, how do we make this happen? We have basically talked about the merits of each one of the candidates. One of the options that is available to us is the option of no endorsement-and that’s being discussed.”

The wooing of Mr. Rivera has made for some compelling backstage drama in a race thus far short on entertaining political theatrics. Public Advocate Mark Green, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer have all met with Mr. Rivera to plead their cases. And that’s not all: According to sources, businessman Michael Bloomberg, who is considering a Mayoral campaign on the Republican line, recently asked for a meeting to discuss his potential candidacy. Mr. Rivera reportedly has agreed to the meeting, though he would neither confirm nor deny it.

Adding to the intrigue and tension, the members of Mr. Rivera’s inner circle have scattered loyalties and alliances. Ken Sunshine, the public-relations consultant who represents Leonardo DiCaprio and Barbra Streisand, is a longtime close friend and supporter of Mr. Green. Bill Lynch, the veteran Democratic strategist and longtime ally of Mr. Rivera, is supporting Mr. Ferrer. And Jennifer Cunningham, a top aide to Mr. Rivera, has quietly been making the case for Mr. Hevesi.

“It is fair to say that each and every one of my friends tells me something different about what to do every day of the week,” Mr. Rivera said. “It’s very confusing, you know.”

Mr. Rivera’s self-professed confusion, as it happens, has its advantages. He readily acknowledged that sitting out the primary could prove to be the most practical course: “You maintain your friendships,” he said, “and at the same time you are free to make a decision either in a runoff or in the general election.” (There’s a strong possibility that the four-way Democratic primary will end with no candidate winning 40 percent or more of the vote, forcing a runoff between the two top vote-getters.)

Mr. Rivera, who runs the 210,000-member Local 1199 and the 150,000-member Service Employees International Union, is no stranger to such unabashed pragmatism. He quite happily enrages Democrats by cutting deals with Republicans if the moment moves him. In the 1997 Mayoral campaign, he declined to offer up the union’s customary endorsement of the Democratic candidate, Ms. Messinger, as he negotiated a pay raise for the union’s home-care workers from incumbent Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

And last year, when Mr. Rivera was waging a fierce campaign to win approval of a bill granting health-care coverage to some uninsured New Yorkers, State Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, the Legislature’s top Republican, invited Mr. Rivera upstate to talk things over. Mr. Rivera, a college drop-out who, in his youth, was once jailed for spitting at a hospital boss, spent a weekend riding horses on Mr. Bruno’s farm. In the end, Mr. Bruno supported the plan, in an extraordinary deal that seemed contrary to the majority leader’s conservative philosophy. At the time, Mr. Rivera described him as a “wonderful human being.”

“Nobody should assume anything about Dennis,” Mr. Sunshine said. “He will always do what he thinks is right for the union, and his record proves that.”

The record also shows that he is a force to be reckoned with in a tough citywide election. He gives his chosen candidate more money, donates more ground troops and has a more sophisticated outreach operation than any other union leader. From the union’s midtown headquarters, cyber-organizers can, with the click of a mouse, identify every union member in any election district in the state.

If Mr. Rivera and the other labor leaders unite, they will change the dynamic of a Mayoral free-for-all. The unions’ formidable get-out-the-vote operation was a key to Hillary Clinton’s stunning victory over Rick Lazio in last year’s Senate race, as well as to the outcomes of a score of local races around the state. Representing a combined total of 500,000 members-though not all members live in the five boroughs-Mr. Rivera, Mr. Saunders and Ms. Weingarten could very well decide who ascends the steps of City Hall in January 2002.

Setback for Ferrer?

Given all this clout, Mr. Rivera’s noncommittal talk amounts to a setback for one candidate in particular: Mr. Ferrer. Many political insiders have long believed that Mr. Rivera would throw his backing behind the Bronx borough president, a longtime friend. But, when asked about the perception of their alliance, Mr. Rivera told The Observer : “From a very personal point of view, the whole idea of having Fernando Ferrer as Mayor would make me incredibly proud as a Puerto Rican …. But the issue here is, the decision has to be made by all of our colleagues …. I am not an island. We have all our colleagues, and their opinions are very important.”

Adding to the complexity and tension-and potentially complicating any efforts to forge a pan-labor bloc-are Mr. Hevesi’s efforts to make inroads with Ms. Weingarten. Several weeks ago, the New York Post sent shock waves through the city’s political establishment by reporting that Ms. Weingarten was pushing Mr. Rivera and Mr. Saunders to back Mr. Hevesi.

Mr. Rivera was coy about his private conversations with Ms. Weingarten. Asked directly whether she had urged him to back Mr. Hevesi, he replied: “If that’s the case, she has never told me that. She said, ‘This is very hard.’ And it is hard.”

Mr. Rivera did acknowledge, however, that Mr. Hevesi’s chief strategist, Hank Morris, had been working overtime to win his support. According to Mr. Rivera, Mr. Morris told him that he should ignore the polls showing Mr. Hevesi in last place. He pointed out that Mr. Schumer (another Morris client) trailed badly before beating Alfonse D’Amato in 1998, and that Mr. Hevesi staged a comeback victory over Elizabeth Holtzman in 1993.

In the end, Mr. Rivera’s dilemma is a reflection of recent developments in New York Democratic politics: Labor is reemerging as a force after eight years of Republican rule, and the old coalition that brought David Dinkins to power in 1989 has fractured.

The victories of Mr. Schumer and Mrs. Clinton, who relied heavily on union-spon-sored voter-turnout drives, reenergized the unions’ political operations at a time when pundits were predicting record-low voter turnout among minorities in 1998 and 2000.

But even as labor reawakens after a spate of scandals in the mid-1990′s, there is no presumed leader for the Dinkins coalition, a loosely bound amalgam of labor, minorities and Manhattan liberals. Nor is it clear whether that coalition will resurrect itself in any identifiable form or coalesce around any particular candidate.

The disarray is most neatly reflected by the fact that many of Mr. Rivera’s closest allies and friends-Mr. Lynch, Mr. Sunshine and a host of others-are all old Dinkins hands. Now they find their loyalties divided among four candidates-as does Mr. Rivera himself.

“This is all so incestuous, in the sense that each and every one of us are friends and colleagues,” Mr. Rivera said. “It’s like a family trying to make a decision.”

He added: “If we see consensus around a candidate, then we will endorse. If not, then we won’t.”