I hadn’t actually been to Dennis Rivera’s office in several years, so I was surprised to see that he’d moved down two floors, trading in a capacious space with rich paneling, numerous photographs and posters, and a large private terrace for a more austere chamber with none of those. Sheetrock walls. No pictures of Bill Clinton or Jerry Brown (whom Rivera endorsed instead of Clinton in 1992). No “movement” posters of the sort that had festooned the old digs. A desk – a table, really – with a laptop, a phone, a cell phone, a few folders, and an issue of Custom Classic Trucks, reflecting an evident, if rarely bruited, hobby.
Rather spartan, I say. “Yes. The idea is to be spartan,” he says. “And more efficient.”
It’s just a word, but it’s worth pausing on, because “efficient,” in the hothouse of progressive politics in which Rivera has his roots, is not something people strive to be. Republicans are efficient; Stalin was, at certain grim tasks; Fascists were especially so (Mussolini and his trains). But for the progressive democrat – and Democrat, the party on whose national committee Rivera sat until he resigned the post earlier this year – efficiency has historically been an unprized trait, held in far lower esteem than the more fragrant qualities of solidarity, passion, and the moral satisfaction that comes with having failed on behalf of a grand cause.
And this is the issue raised by Rivera’s March 19 endorsement of George Pataki’s reelection bid. The move was certainly efficient; in all likelihood, Pataki will win, and Rivera extracted a $1 billion health-care package with nice raises for most of his Local 1199’s 220,000 members. Politicos accept on one level that, as Rivera puts it, “at the end of the day, I’m the president of the health-care-workers union,” and so he has to look out for his members first. But his admirers have always expected Rivera to be something more than that. Labor’s desiccated state when he came on the scene in the eighties was a function of many factors. But a crucial one – maybe the crucial one from the point of view of trade-union activists – was the decision by old labor skates like Lane Kirkland and Jackie Presser to cut deals with leaders of a fundamentally anti-labor party (the GOP) and divorce their unions from what progressive types like to call “the broader social-justice movement.” Rivera always seemed to understand this.
But Dennis: Isn’t this what you just did?
In all these years, he’s hardly aged a day. He’s 51 now, and I’d bet he hasn’t put on five pounds since college. But some things have changed. At one point, back in the days of failed grand causes, we were kind of friendly. I remember being the only journalist admitted to a series of meetings in the summer of 1991, at which the task was to choose a slate of progressive candidates for the City Council; every Saturday morning for several weeks, I was permitted to eavesdrop as Rivera plotted strategy with Bill Lynch and Harold Ickes. Then I wrote something he didn’t like, and from that moment on, whenever I called him on a topic he deemed nettlesome, he wouldn’t call back (I’m not the only journalist in town who can say that, by the way). So it’s a good sign that, on short notice, he’s agreed to see me. It’s a sign of something else, I think, that as I take my seat, he hangs back along the wall behind his desk, standing up, hands in his pockets.
He wants me to know the history. Pataki’s first budget included $4 billion in Medicaid cuts, and Rivera mounted a $7 million ad campaign against the cuts that drove the governor’s negatives up to 63 percent. Afterward, Pataki called, Rivera remembers, and said “he wanted to have a relationship with our union.”
Since then, it’s been one triumph after another, and not, Rivera keeps emphasizing, strictly for his members, but for people generally. Health-care coverage for 1 million adults and half a million children. Worker-retraining programs, capital construction programs, a $150 million rehab of Interfaith Hospital in Brooklyn. Then, after September 11, Pataki told Rivera that fiscal straits would require more Medicaid cuts, even though the governor had promised earlier that there would be no cuts for three years. “I said, ‘Governor, this backs away from a pledge you had made to us,’ ” Rivera says.
Thus was born the health-care legislation passed in Albany in January. Briefly: The privatization of Empire BlueCross BlueShield led to a windfall for the state of roughly $1 billion. In most other states where this has happened, the money went into a foundation dedicated to a broad range of health-care services. A similar process was under way in New York. As Tom Robbins reported in The Village Voice on February 19, a shaky coalition of 130 health-care providers in different arenas (aids, cerebral palsy, and so on) agreed, after months of tortuous negotiation, on the basic structure and language.
Then, in one night in Albany, it collapsed. Pataki and Rivera agreed to shift that $1 billion to Medicaid restoration, which means money for the institutions where Rivera’s members work, and raises for those members. The foundation wound up with a booby prize of $50 million. Legislators voted for all this in the form of a bill that hadn’t even been printed.
The bill, and the process by which it passed, was attacked by everyone. But Rivera is unapologetic. The new law, he claims, will do more for poor people than the foundation would have. “I have absolutely no doubt about it,” he insists. “In what way would it benefit our society for these institutions to be gutted after September 11? If you take away billions of dollars from the health-care community, our capacity to give people care is impaired.”
Critics of the package dispute that, noting, for example, that it depends on federal money that is at best a roll of the dice. More generally, Rivera’s critics see the measure, and his endorsement of Pataki, as evidence of the emergence of a new and more ideologically elusive Rivera who is not to their liking. One case in point: 1199 has been a major financial supporter of the Working Families Party. On March 7, Robert Polner reported in Newsday that Rivera had polled his members, asking them whether they might vote for Pataki on a ballot line the union would create called the “Healthy Families Party.” The similarity in nomenclature clearly signaled a possible attempt to create intentional confusion in November and hurt the WFP. “We at this moment are not contemplating creating a ballot access line,” Rivera says. “But we’re not ruling it out. We’ll make a decision based on what’s in the best interests of the health-care community and our union, but I doubt we’ll do that.”
At the national level, he says, the Democratic Party remains preferable to the GOP. But about Pataki, he is “entirely comfortable and happy to have arrived at this situation.” Speaking of the governor’s two chief rivals, he takes pains to suggest that these fellow Democratic travelers have traveled farther afield than he: “Andrew Cuomo, who’s a good friend, when he wanted to attack our deal, had a meeting with Change-New York, which has been an archenemy of government. And I just saw the picture of Carl McCall in Israel holding a gun. So we have a metamorphosis of people who are in political office … We have the same stripes that we’ve had.”
Maybe so. At least, that’s the efficient way to look at it.