Few city dwellers realize that decisions made in Albany determine tax rates, infrastructure repair schedules, economic development subsidies, even air and drinking water quality. In fact, the recent opening of the initial phase of the Second Avenue subway was probably the first time many realized that the city’s subways and busses are run by a state agency, the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Seymour Lachman, the former state senator from Brooklyn, now an Upper Eastsider, says he loves the new Q train line, and luxuriates in its location just blocks from the rental apartment in the East 60s that he shares with his wife of more than 50 years, Susan. But nobody knows as well as Lachman does just how difficult it is to get anything done in Albany.
After serving five terms as a state senator, Lachman penned an exposé of bribery, kickbacks, embezzlement and general malfeasance in Albany, called “Three Men In a Room,” published in 2006. Not much has changed since then: “Over the prior 15 years,” he said, “33 Democratic and Republican legislators in the Assembly and State Senate have been forced to leave office due to criminal charges, ethical lapses, or alleged wrongdoing.”
When Lachman, 83, launches into what’s wrong with state government, he speaks in a voice loaded with authority, vividly describing his disillusionment with the pay-to-play culture of Albany. He has now expanded and revised his book, once again with his colleague, Robert Polner. “Failed State: Dysfunction and Corruption in an American Statehouse” was published this month.
Born in the Bronx, Lachman’s family moved to Brooklyn when he was young. He became active in community affairs early in life, and by 34 was selected to head the New York City Board of Education.
“I was teaching then at the City University of New York,” he chuckled. “They wanted someone who could bring people together, but also, somebody no one had heard of so no one would object.”
He was subsequently elected president of the board, and sponsored the first Holocaust studies curriculum, which was replicated by school systems throughout the country.
A Democrat, he was elected to the New York State Senate in 1996, and served five terms. He also served as president of the National Association of Jewish legislators.
In his book, Lachman meticulously explains how the wheels turn in Albany, where those who go along get plum committee assignments and extra money for their districts. He is adamant that “individual legislators are powerless.” Decisions about budget, agenda and legislation, are made in secret meetings between the Assembly speaker, the Senate majority leader and the governor — the legendary Three Men in A Room — he said.
The juicy details are all there — how Lachman was told in no uncertain terms that he could receive tens of thousands of dollars more in members’ items if he agreed to vote with the leadership on major issues. A negative response would doom his senate career.
“I wouldn’t go along,” he says.
According to Lachman, “the legislature lacks an internal democratic process. Members cannot do anything on their own. The leaders have ironclad control. No bill gets through the legislature without the support of the leaders.”
Lachman’s bursting résumé also includes a long stint as distinguished university professor of government at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College on Staten Island, where he was a founding director and dean emeritus. He is also the former chair of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry.
In 1993 he co-authored “One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, which was an alternate selection for the Book of the Month Club.
Among his other books are “The Man Who Saved New York: Hugh Carey and the Great Fiscal Crisis of 1975” and “Mr. New York: Lew Rudin and His Love of the City.”
As long as Lachman served in the State Senate, Brooklyn remained home until three years ago, when he and Susan decided to move into Manhattan.
“Both our children are grown and we have 11 grandchildren,” he said. “I’m free now — to lecture, write, do whatever I like. Susan loves Manhattan,” he continued. “She has a doctorate in sociology and recently retired from teaching. Now she runs to lectures, concerts and the theater, and we both walk everywhere.”
To solve the issues in Albany, Lachman’s prescription calls on New Yorkers to vote for a constitutional convention in the fall. By law, the referendum is on the ballot every 20 years.
Most news these days is Trumped, but Lachman says he’s “hoping that readers of Our Town, and others who are concerned, will wake up to the dangers of continuing the status quo.”
Lachman acknowledges that successful disruption doesn’t guarantee something better will emerge, “but if we don’t take this risk, we’ll face another 20 years of dazzling dysfunction.”
Former New York state senator SEYMOUR P. LACHMAN was the founding director of Wagner College’s Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform and author of “Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story of Power and Betrayal in an American Statehouse.” He is now dean emeritus of the Carey Institute and serves on the college’s board of trustees.
In addition to this article about “Failed State,” check out the following news stories:
- March 16, The Chief, “Transformed Political Climate,” on the firing of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, featuring remarks by Seymour Lachman
- March 23, WCNY (Syracuse NPR affiliate), Susan Arbetter interviews Seymour Lachman about “Failed State”
- March 26, New York Times, “New York’s Overstuffed Constitution,” Sam Roberts writing about two new books recommending a New York state constitutional convention, including Seymour Lachman’s “Failed State”
- March 30, City & State, interview with author Seymour Lachman on the “Failed State”
- April 6, CUNY-TV, interview for "Building N.Y.: New York Stories with Michael Stoler"
- May 7, WNYM-AM, John Catsimatidis interviews Seymour Lachman for the "Cat's Roundtable" show