Labor’s Love Won: Pataki’s Snuggling With Union Bosses

The leaders of the lunch-bucket crowd gathered for a

fund-raiser in a basement conference room at the New York State AFL-CIO

headquarters on March 12, just steps away from the State Capitol in Albany. The

fare was par for the course-cheese cubes and similar delights. The chatter was

about national and local politics. It could have been any Albany fund-raiser,

for just about anyone.

It could have been, but it wasn’t. The union’s guest of

honor was Governor George Pataki, a Republican who is preparing for a tough

reelection campaign next year against either one of two high-profile Democrats

who will be counting on strong support from the union movement. Albany watchers

sat up and took notice-and with reason. After all, when the AFL-CIO honors a

Republican Governor at its first fund-raiser of the legislative season and

raises $50,000 for his reelection campaign, that’s not just news. That’s a

signal.

Although Mr. Pataki hasn’t said whether he’ll run for a

third term in 2002, events like the union fund-raiser suggest that he is laying

the groundwork for another campaign and that he will aggressively court voters

from traditionally Democratic constituencies. The Governor already enjoys a

reputation as a moderate, environmentally friendly Republican. Now, with union

friends in high places, he is making inroads on a voter bloc that has been

revived in recent years, and that helped play a key role in electing Charles

Schumer and Hillary Clinton to the U.S. Senate. A senior Democratic Party

official said he was concerned about Mr. Pataki’s inroads on organized labor.

“Pataki is doing a very good job of laying the foundation to neutralize a big

part of the labor movement next year,” said the senior Democrat, who asked to

remain anonymous. “That could be a big problem for either Democrat. If labor

sits out the race, as it did when Pataki was reelected in 1998, that could harm

the Democrats’ chances.”

Denis Hughes, state president of the AFL-CIO, insisted the

fund-raiser had no bearing on the union’s eventual choice for Governor. At the

reception, however, Mr. Hughes called the Governor “A friend of the labor

movement.”

Not all union leaders agree with Mr. Hughes’ assessment that

the labor movement must “act in a nonpartisan way” to win “progressive

legislation” favorable to workers. And allies of the two Democrats vying for a

shot at Mr. Pataki next year, state Comptroller H. Carl McCall and former U.S.

Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, shrugged off the Albany event as little more

than labor kissing up to the man who signs their contracts. “I disagree with

the strategy,” said Larry Mancino, vice president of District One of the

Communications Workers of America. “I personally don’t think the present

Governor has done what he should be doing for working people here in New York.

I don’t believe in doing a fund-raiser for people we’re not going to be

supporting. We’re going to be supporting Carl McCall … without a doubt.”

Former Governor Mario Cuomo, father of the would-be

gubernatorial candidate, wouldn’t be happy to hear about Mr. Mancino’s

unqualified endorsement of Mr. McCall, but he surely would agree with the union

leader’s skepticism of Mr. Pataki. And he seemed unconcerned that the state

AFL-CIO would salute the incumbent. “I don’t see that anybody would be troubled

that interest groups are trying to make nice to the powers-that-be,” he said.

“They were certainly nice to me for 12 years. When you’re in power, they’re

nice to you. That’s why it’s so hard to change the campaign-finance laws,

because the incumbents-whether Democrat or Republican-benefit from it. It’s an

out-and out-attempt to purchase good will, and everybody knows it.”

The state AFL-CIO may have been nice to the elder Mr. Cuomo

when he was Governor, but it never held a fund-raiser for an incumbent Governor

before. What’s more, the Albany fête for Mr. Pataki was the second labor-Pataki lovefest in less

than a week. The first was perhaps even more remarkable. It took place on March

9 at the midtown headquarters of the Service Employees International Union,

headed by one of the state’s most powerful union leaders, Dennis Rivera. About

250 union members, most of them black and Latino, showed up for a mid-afternoon

rally to thank Mr. Pataki for asking President Bush to suspend naval bombing

exercises on Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico. Mr. Bush readily complied,

though he has yet to halt the bombing permanently. The Vieques exercises have

been a political hot-button issue for years, and Mr. Rivera attempted to

persuade President Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton to halt the bombing, to

no avail.

“To this day, I am perplexed,” Mr. Rivera told The Observer . “The Puerto Rican

community has voted more than 90 percent for Bill Clinton in both elections.

And at the same time he was prepared to take the heat on the Marc Rich pardon,

he was not prepared to take some heat from the Navy [by banning the bombing

exercises]. It’s unconscionable and unforgivable. If George Bush ends up

canceling all future maneuvers in Vieques, the facts are that Bill Clinton

didn’t do it and a Republican President did it.”

And Mr. Rivera is prepared to give full credit to Mr. Pataki

not only for his intervention, but for helping to close the deal.

An Ironic Twist

Addressing the union

members, Mr. Rivera made a clear reference to this ironic turn of events-a

Republican Governor calling a Republican President to get something done for a

heavily Democratic voting bloc. “Probably some of us would not have gotten our

phone calls returned from the new President,” Mr. Rivera joked. Probably not,

since Mr. Rivera put his members-all 320,000 of them-to work to elect Hillary

Rodham Clinton to the Senate.

Mr. Rivera has a complex relationship with Mr. Pataki; while

he has tortured the Governor on occasion on health-care issues, he also has

been quick to praise him. “I don’t consider myself a personal friend,” Mr.

Rivera mused, when asked if he was close to the Governor. “I consider him to be

a person who is very easy to talk to. His demeanor isn’t one that carries any

airs. We might have some disagreements in terms of policy, but on the other

hand I find him to be an easy person to deal with.”

Mr. Pataki has also shrugged off their past differences.

“It’s the nature of advocacy,” he told The

Observer . “I understand that. I do what I believe is in the best interests

of the people. That’s my job.”

Mr. Rivera’s presence at a pro-Pataki event, therefore, was

not completely startling. Then again, neither was the presence of another

Democratic speaker-except for the fact that this speaker’s brother-in-law wishes

to evict Mr. Pataki from the state’s Executive Mansion. Environmentalist

attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has sued the U.S. Navy for the

environmental degradation brought about by the decades of bombing on Vieques,

helped warm up the crowd for Mr. Pataki. Mr. Kennedy’s sister, Kerry, is

married to Andrew Cuomo, suggesting the possibility of a Shakespearean family

drama next year as Mr. Cuomo assails Mr. Pataki-as he already has done-as a

mediocre Governor. Mr. Kennedy has never hesitated to praise Mr. Pataki,

particularly on environmental issues.

Mr. Rivera and Mr. Kennedy got the crowd going, but it was

Mr. Pataki himself-never thought of as a passionate orator-who stole the show.

“This isn’t an abandoned island; this isn’t a desert

island!” Mr. Pataki said of Vieques. “There are 10,000 people on Vieques! There

are children who are born and raised on Vieques! And just imagine not just the

health consequences on those children, but the emotional stress that a child

faces when they hear these bombs and have the ground rattle and see the ash in

the sky! And they never know when it’s going to happen!”

Eventually, he delivered the kicker: “No mas bombas en Vieques! No more bombs in Vieques!” This was once

the rallying cry of college radicals who were protesting Vieques in the early

1970′s. Now a Republican Governor who faces two prominent Democrats was yelling

it to hundreds of union members, who were chanting back “No mas! No mas!”

“Smart politics,” said Ken Sunshine, Mr. Rivera’s

public-relations consultant. Indeed. Like the AFL-CIO’s Mr. Hughes, Mr. Rivera

insists that the rally had nothing to do with next year’s gubernatorial

contest. “I think that in 2002 we’ll be making decisions in the best interests

of the members of our union, and we’ll take that question at that time,” he

said. And supporters of Mr. McCall can’t believe that the union’s predominantly

minority membership will pass up the opportunity to elect the state’s first

black Governor.

Maybe. “The Governor has been romancing labor, and labor had

been romancing back,” said consultant Norman Adler, who works for both

Democrats and Republicans. “You’ve got a Republican Governor who is pretty open

and accessible to the labor movement. The labor movement knows there are two

more budgets and two more legislative sessions before the next election, and

they’ve got to do business with him. And people are not entirely sure he won’t

get reelected.”

“I think when George

Pataki has acted right, we have praised him,” Mr. Rivera said. “For example,

when he attempted to cut Medicaid spending, we were fierce opposition. [But] we

prefer to be allies and friends as opposed to being at each other’s throats.”

Something to remember come 2002.