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Associated Press

Labor Leader Rivera Becomes The "Guy To See"


January 16, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Hospital workers union leader Dennis Rivera, who moved to New York City from his native Puerto Rico just 24 years ago, has become "the single most important kingmaker in New York politics," one top political operative said Wednesday.

"When he speaks, Albany doesn't just listen, it acts," said Howard Wolfson, a key adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton's successful U.S. Senate race two years ago. Wolfson now runs the Democrats' congressional campaign committee.

"In the land of 800-pound gorillas, he's a thousand-pounder," added Blair Horner, the chief Albany lobbyist for the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Rivera's latest display of political muscle came early Wednesday when both houses of the state Legislature adopted a multi-billion dollar health care package. The bulk of the money will go to boost salaries for hospital and nursing home employees.

The package was put together largely in secret by Republican Gov. George Pataki, state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Rivera.

When the package encountered trouble from Silver's Democratic Assembly majority on Monday night, Rivera went to work.

By midday Tuesday, Rivera had union supporters rallying on the steps of the state Capitol. Just who they were trying to sway was in question. On hand to support Rivera were the governor and Silver and Bruno, the two most powerful legislators in Albany.

"I was up until 4 a.m. with your president, Dennis Rivera, with the speaker, with the governor" reaching a deal on the plan, Bruno told the union members.

Rivera had once again used the power of the 210,000-member Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, the largest health care union in the nation, to get his way in Albany.

"At this moment, from a political-governmental point of view, he's the guy to see," said Norman Adler, a veteran political operative who represents both Republicans and Democrats. Among New York's labor leaders, Rivera "is standing there by himself," Adler said.

Rivera was born in Puerto Rico in 1950 and founded a health care workers union in the commonwealth. Moving to New York City in 1977, he was soon employed by Local 1199 as a union organizer. He was elected president of the New York City-based union in 1989.

Over time, Rivera has built the union into a political force by increasing the activity of its political action committee, making key endorsements and hiring an experienced political staff.

"He came to the realization that two parties govern the state of New York," Adler said, noting the union support of Republicans and Democrats. "Up to then, 1199 was a union that supported Democrats, period."

"He has the unique combination of access to large amounts of political capital such as money for lobbying and campaign contributions and a very large union with a motivated membership," NYPIRG's Horner said.

Rivera's telephone banks are considered among the best in the nation when it comes to turning out voters for Hillary Clinton and others.

While Rivera tries to downplay the use of political muscle, he conceded Wednesday that, "It is fair to say that we have a very active membership, probably the most active membership of any union in New York state."

He also has money that he spreads across both sides of the aisle.

During the first six months of last year, state records show his union was, at $153,000, the single biggest contributor to state Senate Republican campaign committee and, at $154,000, the single biggest contributor to the Assembly's Democratic campaign committee.

In the midst of negotiations for the new health care package, Rivera's union endorsed Republican state Assemblyman John Ravitz for an open state Senate seat in Manhattan to be decided at a special election on Feb. 12. It was a move warmly welcomed by the Senate's GOP majority.

"I would assume they weren't offended by it," Rivera said Wednesday, adding that the Ravitz endorsement was "done on the merits."

Rivera hasn't just used favors to get his way.

In 1995, during Pataki's first year in office, Rivera and hospital lobbyists turned out 20,000 people in New York City to demonstrate against Medicaid cuts proposed by the new governor.

In 1996, facing a possible overhaul of the state's health care finance system that could cut payments to hospitals and nursing homes, Rivera launched a television advertising campaign by warning that "innocent people will die."

In 1999, Rivera was back on TV with new ads complaining about budget cuts proposed by Pataki. One featured an elderly woman asking, "Governor Pataki, why are you picking on me?"

The messages weren't lost on Pataki, or the Legislature. Generally, a way was found to appease Rivera.

In 1998, Local 1199 remained neutral in the governor's race.

Over the past two years, Pataki has been assiduously courting Rivera while preparing for what is expected to be a tough battle for a third term against either former federal Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo or state Comptroller H. Carl McCall.

"We have a very tough decision to make," a cagey Rivera said Wednesday when asked about his union's coveted endorsement in the race.

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