Lachman provides insight on Albany


APRIL 26, 2009
    What are Albany Democrats thinking?
    That’s what state GOP Sen. Andy Lanza (R-Staten Island) is wondering these days.
    Democratic Gov. David Paterson recently introduced legislation to legalize gay marriage in New York, even though most agree that there’s not enough Democratic support to get the bill passed in the Senate, never mind the expected opposition from Republicans.
    On top of that, Democratic lawmakers last week announced a bid to legalize the use of medicinal marijuana.
    “Timing is important,” Lanza said. “I feel that right now, there’s a disconnect.”
    Quoting former President Bill Clinton, he said: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
    “When Clinton ran on that theme in 1992, it resonated,” Lanza said. “He picked up on what people were feeling. And right now, the consensus is that people are focused on the economy. People are afraid for their futures. That’s where the governor needs to be.”
    Not that issues like gay marriage aren’t worthy of debate, Lanza said.
    “But it’s almost as if these other things are being thrown out there to draw attention away from what else is going on in Albany,” he said.
    Meanwhile, it’s been interesting to see that while the Democrats have control of the statehouse and both houses of the Legislature, they still can’t move their agenda forward.
    More interesting still is to see Democrats and others cast the Republicans as the obstructionists, even as Democratic leaders have been reaching out to the GOP in a bid to secure votes they can’t get from their own party.
    A case in point is the long-stalled Metropolitan Transportation Authority bailout package. Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith has been unable to get a plan through because he can’t keep his own 32-member Democratic majority in line.
    But that hasn’t stopped transit advocates from slamming GOP lawmakers, including Lanza, in ads that blame Republicans for not getting on board with the Democrats.
    Democrats may disagree, but Lanza said the process itself is flawed, thanks to the one-party rule seen in Albany. In years past, he said, changes would be made to legislation to reflect lawmakers’ concerns.
    “We don’t have a process of discussion that leads to compromise on issues,” he said. “Right now, it’s just a hard-core looking for votes. It’s not about coming together. It’s about, ‘What’s your price?’ That’s not what’s needed here.”
    Lanza, for example, said he worked to soothe Democratic concerns over his video violence bill, which passed the Senate while the GOP was still in control.
    “If they were serious about something like gay marriage, they would sit down with folks, make some calls,” Lanza said.
    Republicans aren’t the only ones who think things have gone off the rails in Albany.
    “I told friends to vote Democratic in November because of the reform message,” said former Democratic state Sen. Seymour Lachman, who once represented part of the Island. “I’ve been disappointed.”
    Lachman, who runs the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College, said that his old statehouse contacts tell him that the Legislature is more dysfunctional today than it’s been “for 25 or 30 years.”
    “It’s the most secretive, the least transparent, the least effective,” said Lachman, author of the 2006 book “Three Men in a Room,” which examined Albany legislative dysfunction. “It’s very, very disconcerting.”
    One cause, Lachman said, was the demise of Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who promised to clean up Albany but got taken down in a hooker scandal of his own making.
    “That threw things off track,” Lachman said.
    Paterson, he said, “is a decent guy. His principles are in the right place. But can he bang some heads and get things done? I hope he’s successful.”
    But Lachman also wonders about Paterson’s priorities, including gay marriage.
    “That’s not something that is so urgent,” he said. “There are so many economic issues outstanding. We’re not tackling them the way we should.”
    Lachman, who this year testified before a Senate Committee on Rules and Administrative Reform, said change is still possible, beginning with fair distribution of resources to all Senate members and greater disclosure of member-item spending.
    “I believed the Democrats would make a difference in terms of reform,” he said. “And I still hope they will.”