What Seymour Lachman Didn’t Say

I paid a fairly substantial sum to read former State Senator Seymour P. Lachman’s Albany expose Three Men in a Room. The book is a good summary of what those of us who have been reading the newspapers for the past few years already know, with the added benefit of having a former insider confirm than the worst accusations of the outsiders are correct. For those who haven’t been following the descent of our state government into despotism, I recommended it; you in for a big surprise. Hopefully, after all the libraries have made their purchases, Mr. Lachman can convince his publisher to put out a cheap paperback edition, which his education contacts can substitute for existing textbooks in the New York City public schools, those that falsely assert that we live in a democracy. But before that happens, there are some things I’d like Mr. Lachman to add.

Lachman objects to arriving in Albany to find that Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, instead of treating him like an independent representative of hundreds of thousands of people who had much to contribute to public decisionmaking, instead treated him like the fortunate recipient of a sinecure whose “job” it was to draw his pay and otherwise shut up. The absence of an equal say among legislators, Lachman said, caused “devastating harm to a democratic system of governance based on the principles of the Founding Fathers.”  What Lachman doesn’t say is that from the point of view of those mere citizens who happen to reside in his district, Bruno was right – he was the fortunate recipient of a sinecure, not someone we chose in an actual election.

As he tells it “I first chose to run for the New York State Legislature in February 1996…After first winning the backing of reformist Democratic assemblyman Frank Barbaro, borough president Howard Golden, and the powerful Democratic organization in Kings County (Brooklyn), I ran for and won a special mid-term election.” Lachman was my State Senator. As I remember it, his predecessor was made a judge or resigned mid-term for some other reason – means frequently used to prevent an open seat and thus an actual contested election. There was a special election I didn’t know about, and most of the people I know certainly didn’t know about, in which almost no one voted. Lachman was basically appointed my State Senator by the machine, and sometime later I received a piece of taxpayer-funded mail from him announcing that fact. I didn’t really know a thing about him until after he left office. That’s democracy?

What about subsequent elections? Well, as Lachman puts it referring to his decision to leave “I hadn’t been forced by external considerations to say goodbye to my cushioned (and hardly term limited) perch in the legislature. There was little chance I would have been defeated for re-election.” As an incumbent, he didn’t face an actual election. As the recipient of insider backing in a special election, he didn’t face an actual election either. We, the people of his district never really chose him to represent us. We might have if given a choice, but the choice did not exist.

Lachman, like the New York Times and the Brennan Center, places a good deal of the blame for the lack of contested elections on gerrymandering. But it would take a very impressive gerrymander indeed for a Republican to be competitive with a Democrat in a district that includes my neighborhood. As Lachman tells it, he was enough of a pain in Bruno’s behind that, to an extent he could be forced to face an actual election, it was arranged after the redistricting in 2002. As a result, Lachman was no longer my State Senator, but instead represented part of Staten Island. He nonetheless won re-election, and it wasn’t even close.

The same may be said for my Assemblymember Jim Brennan, who was first elected to that office the year I moved to Brooklyn from the Bronx. Evidently, according to Lachman, he started to actually represent his constituents. Subsequently he even joined a failed revolt against Sheldon Silver’s leadership, and was subsequently redistricted away from many of his supporters. Sheldon Silver wasn’t pleased, but I was, and actually voted for him (I almost never vote for State of New York incumbents) and told those I knew to do likewise.

In any event, he won re-election easily. So much for the importance of gerrymandering. Brennan subsequently appears to have reached a modus operandi with Silver – he will stop representing us, and Silver will stop harassing him. I was less pleased, and ran against him as a minor party candidate as a protest on my way out of public service.

What Lachman calls democracy – an equal vote and a free flowing debate among legislators -- is actually oligarchy, or as one might more charitably put it, aristocracy. Democracy doesn’t just involve an equal say among the appointed few, it requires contested election in which the general public actually has an opportunity to select its representatives. We don’t have real elections, and gerrymandering is not the only reason. Why don’t we have elections? Is it our fault, in our apathy, or has representative government been taken away from us? Lachman is a professor of political science. I’d like him to answer that question.

What about his own selection? Lachman appears to have had an obsolete, romantic view of the role of political bosses, a view that made contested legislative elections unnecessary for good government. Sure the bosses appoint cronies to some posts, and hand out a little patronage, which siphons off a small part of the budget, but they also recruit men and women of talent and conviction (like him, in his mind) to run the rest of the government for the public good. Going into public service, I might have had that view myself. Sure the pols aren’t pure, but provided the right information they would debate the issues of the day based on deeply held beliefs, and then decide what they believe is best for everyone with 99 percent of the budget. After all, I wasn’t interested in politics and politicians, and didn't care about the the process; all I cared about was the results.  Well, the results -- the subject of most of my posts -- are awful.  But without elections, we can't do anything about it.

I now know that it isn’t one percent of the state budget that is corrupt and unjust, it is virtually the whole thing. The one percent is just what those other than the three men in a room get to hand out in exchange for shutting up about the other 99 percent. I also know the idea of the partly-bad but mostly-good boss is an anachronism. For years, the extent of my participation was confined to voting in elections. I now know those elections aren’t really real, including his election, that my votes don’t really matter.

Now what do we do Mr. Lachman? Wait for a constitutional convention, as you suggest? I don’t think it’s coming, and if it does come, I doubt anyone will serve in it without first getting appointed by “the powerful Democratic organization in Kings County” or its equivalent elsewhere. I’m a big fan of term limits, as you have come to be, but doubt we’ll be getting those in the state legislature either.

Is there any other alternative? General strike by everyone who isn’t “at or over 55,” in President Bush’s words? Refusal to pay taxes? Wait until the eventual bankruptcy for the state government and its affiliates, and then refuse to pay the debts and pensions since we will no longer receive public services and benefits? Show up in Albany with pitchforks and trying to hang the legislature from the lampposts?  Or just shut up or move out?

More discussion of elections, and any additional suggestions, would be appreciated.