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A peek into Albany's meat grinder

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Tales From the Sausage Factory

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In Tales from the Sausage Factory, retired SUNY New Paltz Dean Gerald Benjamin and former New York State Assembly member Daniel Feldman try to shed some light on the dark workings of Albany. Drawing on Feldman's experience and Benjamin's political acumen, Sausage Factory tries to explain the process of making laws by telling the stories of specific matters that arose during Feldman's tenure: gun control, Megan's Law, the Rockefeller drug laws, prisons, and organized crime. The narrative format makes the subject matter more approachable, but the reader should be clear that this book is still complex and nuanced.

Told as it is from Feldman's perspective as a player in the legislative arena, the reader gains an understanding of the competing interests that each legislator must weigh as the consider a new law. Without being a political insider, it's difficult to tell if Feldman overemphasizes his role in any of these issues, but his willingness to accept blame for bad decisions adds credibility to his perspective. Vibrant, descriptive pictures of players ranging from the "three men in a room" who control most decisions to less well-known politicos help bring home the message that it's exceedingly difficult to get people with competing interests to agree.

In some ways the book acts as apologist for a state legislature widely regarded as one of the most dysfunctional in the nation, explaining how better solutions are often impossible. No such mercy is reserved for state leaders whom Feldman holds responsible for the challenges, particularly Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Feldman has unresolved issues with how the Assembly functions, and he's more than happy to discuss those failings, and Silver's role in them, in depth. That sort of detail is necessary to set the scene, but it's also some of the most challenging to get through for anyone not intimately connected with state politics.

On balance this books walks the line between precision and clarity, giving at the least a strong sense of the state of affairs in Albany. Perhaps the most interesting point revealed by Tales From the Sausage Factory is just how disconnected local voters are from state politics. Feldman was able to successfully serve many terms as a liberal representing a district much more conservative than he was. By shaking hands, attending community meetings, and maintaining a staff that would work to solve problems for his constituents, he was able to get reelected by people who either didn't know or didn't care what he was up to in their name. Certainly, this speaks to a deeper issue in American politics as a whole.

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