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.
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
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
“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.