Pataki’s Gambit: Hires Tarpinian for Union Boost

A portion of Cliff Street near the South Street Seaport was

packed with sanitation workers on the sunny afternoon of April 1. Most of them

were in uniform; some were standing in front of Ryan Maguire’s Ale House.

Inside a long, narrow and extremely crowded union hall at 25 Cliff Street,

Governor George Pataki was being serenaded,inevitably, with the theme from Rocky . Hehuggedand backslappedhis way

through the rank and file, an excursion that took almost five minutes before he made his way through the hall.

“I’m very proud of all of you!” Peter Scarlatos, president of the

Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, yelled into a microphone as Mr. Pataki

doffed his jacket. “The Governor has always, always taken care of labor! Now

it’s our turn!” Enormous speakers buzzed with distorted sound, but the words

were audible, and the significance of the event was clear.

The sanitation workers’ endorsement of Mr. Pataki was the third

such demonstration of union support for the Republican Governor in the last two

weeks. Just as important-and eye-opening-the sanitation endorsement was widely

believed to be the handiwork of Greg Tarpinian, the Pataki campaign’s new labor

consultant. It is the mildest of understatements to say that Mr. Tarpinian is

an unlikely ally of the Governor. A left-of-center class warrior, Mr. Tarpinian

admitted that he has never voted for a Republican.

But this year he’s supporting George Pataki, the man elected in

1994 as the candidate of the state’s business community, the man who tossed

Mario Cuomo out of office with the slogan “Too Liberal for Too Long.”

In an election year that may feature a Pataki-Cuomo replay-only

this time with the former Governor’s son Andrew seeking to avenge his father’s

downfall-political insiders might have expected Mr. Tarpinian to be working

furiously for a Democratic restoration. But like many other leaders of

organized labor, he has been won over by Mr. Pataki’s pro-union rhetoric and

actions. Indeed, Pataki campaign officials say that union endorsements will

continue rolling in this spring-including some surprising ones.

Word is already out that the Teamsters, a major Tarpinian client,

and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, which won the right to have

unionized employees in the recently signed casino deal upstate, are poised to

support Mr. Pataki. And some relatively militant unions, including UNITE! (the

garment workers’ union), the Transport Workers Union and even the powerful

United Federation of Teachers, are all mulling Pataki endorsements, according

to union officials and those with knowledge of the Pataki campaign.

Throw in Dennis Rivera’s health-care workers, who endorsed Mr.

Pataki in late March, and Mr. Pataki is replicating much of the Hillary Clinton

labor coalition. And instrumental in putting all of this together will be Mr.

Tarpinian.

The Pataki campaign press release announcing Mr. Tarpinian’s

hiring described him as “a Democrat and nationally known labor expert.”

Colleagues in the labor movement say that “Democrat” is a mild description-sort

of like referring to Robert Moses as a “former parks commissioner.” “Lefty” and

“hard-core” were the words repeatedly invoked in discussions of Mr. Tarpinian,

who for 19 years has headed a pro-union group called the Labor Research

Association and now has his own consulting group, LRA Consulting.

In the past, Mr. Tarpinian has been an enthusiastic proponent of

what he once called “clean, class-based” politics. In pursuit of that goal, he

led a ferocious campaign in 1996 against workers’ compensation reforms

supported by the state’s business community and Mr. Pataki. Mr. Tarpinian’s

agitation included a brochure featuring a woman whose hands had been cut off in

a work-related accident.

As a consultant for the health-care workers’ union for over a

decade, Mr. Tarpinian had a hand in the $7 million anti-Pataki campaign which

the union mounted to defeat various Pataki budget proposals in the mid-1990′s.

“I’ve never worked with a Republican before-I’ve never even voted for a

Republican,” Mr. Tarpinian said in a telephone interview. “But my view is there’s

nobody out there right now who talks more from the heart about the plight of

workers.”

Does he find it surprising to be talking that way about Mr.

Pataki? “Yeah, it certainly is,” Mr. Tarpinian said. “If you’d asked me six

months ago or a year ago if I’d be saying these things, I’d probably have said:

‘No way.’” But several things happened, Mr. Tarpinian said. Mr. Pataki became

the only Governor in the nation to support legislation that would fast-track

union membership, and he pushed for a health-care deal that will lead to better

pay for health-care workers.

Rumbling on the Right

For some conservatives who eagerly supported Mr. Pataki eight

years ago, all of this is just further evidence that the Governor is selling

out to the left in order to win re-election.

“Between guns, abortions and cutting deals with unions, there are

a lot of upstate Republicans who will just stay home,” said consultant Roger

Stone, who is threatening to back a conservative candidate to challenge Mr.

Pataki. “That’s exactly what happened with Al D’Amato in 1998.” Mr. D’Amato

failed in his bid for a fourth term that year, losing to Democrat Charles

Schumer.

“George Pataki is unlikely to use the tagline ‘Too Liberal [for]

Too Long’ unless he’s running it in his own ads,” said Tom Carroll, president

of the anti-tax group CHANGE-NY. Mr. Carroll’s group was a major force in Mr.

Pataki’s campaign in 1994.

Other conservatives, however, are more conciliatory. “I guess the

Governor is developing a strategy to run for re-election and is co-opting a lot

of the Democratic moves,” said Michael Long, chairman of the state Conservative

Party. “When you govern, you wind up governing to a broad constituency. But the

fact is, we’re a much better state today because George Pataki is Governor.”

But if some conservatives shrug their shoulders over Mr. Pataki’s

election-year alliance with the likes of Greg Tarpinian, the left wing of the

labor movement is apoplectic. Referring to Mr. Pataki, Bob Master, political

director of District 1 of the Communications Workers of America, said, “Here’s

a guy who came in on a program of cutting taxes for the wealthy and cutting

services. If labor unions make deals that only narrowly service their

institutional interest, we end up with crumbs from the table.”

“How could Greg do this?” lamented another union official. “I

mean, we’re trying to target Republicans on a national level. We will never get

the reforms we need with President Bush in the White House and Republicans

controlling the House. But if we support a Republican Governor, we’re just

building the G.O.P. coalition.”

This isn’t Mr. Tarpinian’s first run-in with parts of the labor

movement. In the hotly fought contest over control of the Teamsters’ union in

the mid-1990′s, Mr. Tarpinian worked for James P. Hoffa in trying to oust Ron

Carey-often described as the “more progressive” of the two men. “There were a

lot of people who were very upset with Greg for his role in siding with Hoffa,

and he argued people had a knee-jerk reaction to what Hoffa was all about,”

explained one national labor leader of the dispute.

Even so, his critics praise his work, and Mr. Tarpinian is

already making his mark. A member of Dennis Rivera’s inner circle, he was a key

player in putting together the health-care deal that made Mr. Rivera’s

endorsement of Mr. Pataki all but inevitable. As those negotiations were going

on, Mr. Tarpinian said, Mr. Rivera introduced him to Pataki campaign

operatives, and talks between them began. At one of their first meetings, Mr.

Tarpinian let on that he was the person behind the graphic brochure assailing

Mr. Pataki’s workers’ compensation reforms. “They certainly remembered it. But

they had no hard feelings,” Mr. Tarpinian said.

Shortly after the health-care workers’ deal was signed, Andrew

Cuomo convened a conference-call press briefing with Mr. Carroll (now there’s another unlikely partnership) to

denounce the accord for its “Enron-like accounting practices.”

“The day that Andrew Cuomo got on the phone with an anti-union

organization that formerly supported the Governor-to me, that was something

that was inexcusable,” Mr. Tarpinian said.

Mr. Tarpinian denied having

anything to do with the sanitation workers’ endorsement, though he admitted

that any time a union affiliated with the Teamsters (as the sanitation workers’

union is) endorses Mr. Pataki, “it is a positive sign.” Mr. Scalatos, the

sanitation workers’ union president, insisted that the endorsement came because

of the Governor’s “great record,” though in 1998 the group remained neutral and

in 1994 it endorsed Mario Cuomo.

Ed Ott, policy director for the Central Labor Council, wouldn’t

criticize his union colleagues for endorsing or thinking about endorsing Mr.

Pataki. “This is a very competitive year, and anybody who thinks it’s not is

kidding themselves,” he said.