BUFFALO, N.Y. NBC AFFILIATE
FEBRUARY 3, 2009
FORMER LEGISLATOR WRITES TELL-ALL
ABOUT ALBANY’S DYSFUNCTION
By SCOTT BROWN
Seymour Lachman says everything in state government, from what’s in the budget to which bills get passed, is controlled by those three men who meet behind closed doors.
“Today, we are in many ways a laughingstock of the nation,” says Seymour Lachman.
When it comes to how New York State government functions, or its dysfunction, Lachman knows first-hand of what he speaks.
He spent nine years in the state senate representing Brooklyn before leaving in disgust four years ago.
He then wrote an insider’s tell-all book titled “Three Men in a Room.”
Lachman says everything in state government, from what’s in the budget to which bills get passed, is controlled by those three men who meet behind closed doors: the governor, the speaker of the assembly and the senate majority leader.
“My last budget, the chairman of the Finance Committee presented 2,340 pages of the budget. I had never seen it. And he said, ‘OK, guys, this has been approved by the speaker and the majority leader, you go out and vote on this in 20 minutes’,” says Lachman.
Scott Brown: “Did you have any idea of what was in there?”
Lachman: “No, how can you? I had no idea of what was in there.”
Brown: “Do rank and file members have any real power in Albany?”
Lachman: “No, not really.”
Indeed, the two leaders in the legislature have near absolute power over their members.
They control everything from:
- What committees lawmakers sit on;
- Whether they receive stipends of tens of thousands of dollars in addition to their salary that come with committee leadership positions;
- How large their office and staffs are;
- How much money they’ll receive for projects in their district;
- To how much money they’ll get from their party for their re-election campaigns.
Lachman says the leaders keep an iron-fisted control through a carrot-and-stick approach.
“I was put on the Finance Committee, and I was told by one of the leaders after taking an independent vote that, ‘Look, Lachman, you have all the skills and background, you can rise to the top or sink to the bottom, which would you rather have?’ ”
Brown: “And was it simply a question of whether you’d play ball or not?”
Lachman: “That’s right. Whether I would play ball on every bill that’s important to the leadership.”
And most members of the assembly and the senate do play ball.
Just look at how often members of the Western New York delegation voted the same way as their leader last year.
In the assembly under Democrat Sheldon Silver:
- Sam Hoyt voted 98.8% of the time with Silver;
- Mark Schroeder 97.3 % of the time;
- Crystal Peoples 96.5% of the time;
- Francine DelMonte 94.8 % of the time;
- And Robin Schimminger 91.8 % of the time.
In the senate, where last year Republican Joe Bruno was the majority leader:
- Dale Volker voted with Bruno 100% of the time;
- Mary Lou Rath voted with him more than 99% of the time;
- And George Maziarz also voted with Bruno more than 99% of the time.
According to New York University’s Law School, over the past two years, every single bill that leadership allowed to come to the floor passed, and all with virtually no debate.
For those who challenge their leaders, there is usually a price to pay.
Take the case of Buffalo Assemblyman Mark Schroeder. When he took office four years ago, Schroeder said he would not support Silver for another term as speaker unless Silver guaranteed that the legislature would pass a budget on time.
Once Schroeder didn’t vote for Silver, Schroeder suddenly found out he didn’t have a district office or a phone.
Today though, Schroeder downplays the incident.
Brown: “You were punished for taking on the speaker right?”
Schroeder: “No, I don’t view it that way.”
Brown: “We just went back through our files and you put out a press release saying Silver refuses to give me an office or phones, didn’t you think you were being punished?”
Schroeder: “Well I’m not going to use the word punished, maybe I wasn’t given the consideration that my constituents were deserving of, that was four years ago, now is now.”
Lachman now teaches politics and government at a college in New York City and heads a center there for government reform.
But he’s come under criticism from his former colleagues in the legislature for writing his book.
Brown: “Now, you were part and parcel of this system for about ten years. Shouldn’t you have done more, spoken out more, weren’t you part of the problem?”
Lachman: “No question about it, everyone is part of the problem. After five or six years I couldn’t take it anymore. I said to myself what are you doing to yourself? Are you giving up your conscience, your beliefs and certain values in order to get ahead, in order to have all these offices, all these staff members? And then the power and the money breeds arrogance.”
Brown: “Is any of this ever going to change?”
Lachman: “I think it will change, but it’s going to take a long time.
“It cannot change overnight, it cannot change during one session, but it must change because in the past, New York has always been a beacon of light for all of the other states to follow, and today we are in many ways a laughingstock of the nation.”