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“Three Men in a Room” and Albany: Where did the Phrase come from?

March 11, 2015

By: Bennett Liebman
Government Lawyer in Residence

There have been regular meetings of the Governor and the legislative leaders since at least 1943 when Governor Thomas Dewey came into office. [1] While given the dominance of Governor Dewey over all aspects of New York State government, these meetings were closer in reality to one man in a room rather than three in a room, the fact is that New York State government has had three leaders in a room making key legislative decisions for close to three quarters of a century.   This practice has become recognized as “three men in a room.” A quick look at Nexis shows 1,194 occasions[2] where the term “three men in a room” has appeared in the same article as the word “Albany.” There is even a book entitled Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story of Power And Betrayal in an American Statehouse .[3]

How did we get to the situation where “three men in a room” has become almost a requisite component of any written discussion of New York State government? The question is when did these meetings get be to be known as “three men in a room”?

In actuality, it has taken decades for the term to catch on. Reviewing a variety of media databases, it appears that the earliest reference to the phrase “three men in a room” was by Rex Smith in 1988 while working for Newsday.[4]  Smith, in writing about the budget breakdown in Albany that year,  concluded his article by saying, “ Nobody knows what goes on in the budget negotiations behind the closed doors in Albany, making it difficult to figure out what went wrong or who is to blame for this year’s impasse. ‘This is not a game of blame,’ Miller[5] said yesterday. But the system used to achieve a budget agreement – which depends, at the end, on a consensus among three men in a room – has broken down.” [6][Emphasis added]

Yet, Smith’s use of the term did not become fashionable. In fact, it was another seven years before the phrase “three men in a room” would resurface in describing Albany. The Daily News in a June 7, 1995 editorial stated “Coming after an election in which the voters clearly demanded change, Albany rolled on like ol’ man river. The interminable closed-door wheeling and dealing was typical, with decisions of breathtaking consequences made by three men in a room.”[7] [Emphasis added] Eleven days later the New York Times quoted Democratic Assemblywoman Sandra Galef saying, “Pataki, for all of his promises, went back to the same old formula — three men in a room hammering out the budget.”[8] [Emphasis added]

Again, however, the 1995 articles failed to have staying power. There were no mentions of the term for the next two years. In the summer of 1997, Newsday wrote two separate editorials complaining about the three men in a room, [9] but no other journal or journalist picked up on the phrase.

This all changed in 1998 when the New York Times climbed on board the “three men in a room” bandwagon. First as the session began, the Times ran a special report by James Dao highlighting the leadership dominated “three men in a room” culture of Albany.[10] Then in a series of articles around a six week period around budget time, Richard Perez-Pena with three articles, Abby Goodnough with one article, and two Times editorials all cited “three men in a room.”[11] Similarly in 1998, Newsday continued to write about “three men in a room” with seven articles. One was from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver who opened his article stating “The era of ‘three-men-in-a-roombudget-making is over. As one of those three men, I say, ‘Good riddance.’”[12]

The phrase was in regular use over the next several years, especially at Newsday and the New York Times[13]. Its usage, however, per Nexus, began to increase significantly beginning in 2002. That year had 35 cites to the phrase. There were 65 cites in 2005, 116 cites in 2007 and 103 in 2009. In the first two months of 2015, spurred on by the indictment of Speaker Silver, there have already been 167 cites to the phrase.

The phrase “three men in a room” is nearly always used disparagingly to mean a secret non-transparent process under which a small group of officials make the decisions for the entire State. Yet, there is occasional support for the process. It has been called the   “ungovernable polity” defense.[14] As political scientists have written, “Building support and legitimacy for compromises within a democracy is difficult, and the process in New York reflects how protracted that process can become…. [As most members see it,] strong leadership is a self-inflicted ‘necessary evil’ to achieve agreement. As long as the leadership is responsive to member needs the members are likely to continue to support a strong leadership system.” [15] Crain’s New York Business has noted, “’Three men in a room’ is sometimes a necessary alternative to political pontificating by 212 legislators and a governor…”[16]  Even Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group has stated, “The three men in a room problem was one of degree, that so much business, including the entire budget, was done in complete secrecy…But you have to have leaders’ meetings. They have to talk to each other. Otherwise, how do you get anything done?”[17]

The “three men in a room” problem in New York is the inherent and continuing difficulty in establishing a proper balance between executive and legislative leadership, transparency and functionality.

[1] Charles Breitel, “Some Aspects of the Legislative Process” 21 N.Y. St. B.A. Bull. 271, 274 (1949). Breitel, who was then Counsel to Governor Dewey wrote, “This liaison has worked with unusual success. There is a suggestion that

we may have struck upon an instrument which with further improvement will make up for the deficiency of liaison in the American system as compared with the parliamentary system. If so, we would be resolving the dilemma without losing the stability and the other advantages of the American system with its checks and balances. The liaison device consists of regular meeting, and the practices adopted there, of the legislative majority leaders with the Governor of the State.” Id.

[2] As of March 3, 2015.

[3] Seymour P. Lachman with Robert Polner, Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story Of Power and Betrayal in an American Statehouse (2006).

[4] Smith currently serves as the editor of the Albany Times Union.

[5] Mel Miller was the Speaker of the Assembly at the time of the article.

[6] Rex Smith, “Faltering Steps in the Budget Dance,” Newsday, April 14, 1988.

[7] “Hardly Worth the Wait” Daily News, June 7, 1995,

[8] Elsa Brenner, “Both Sides Claim Success on Budget,” New York Times, June 18, 1995.

[9] “209 Empty Suits / Legislators Should Reject Rubber- Stamp Role,” Newsday, August 3, 1997; “Don’t Waste State’s Money on Building Prisons, ”Newsday, July 9, 1997.

[10] James Dao, “Rank and File of Albany Chafing at Their Bit Parts,” New York Times, January 3, 1998.

[11] Richard Perez-Pena, “Budget Groundwork Finishes Early in Albany,” New York Times, March 24, 1998; Richard Perez-Pena, “Albany’s Open Budget Talks Make History in Fits and Starts,” New York Times, March 26, 1998; Richard Perez-Pena,  “Pataki’s Quandary,” New York Times, April 15, 1998;  Abby Goodnough “Albany Legislative Leaders Quickly Agree on Most of Budget,” New York Times, April 3, 1998;“Editorial Risky Budget Optimism,” New York Times, April 9, 1998;  “No Going Back in Albany,” New York Times, May 6, 1998. From 1999 – 2006, Richard Perez-Pena wrote six additional articles citing to three men in a room.

[12] Sheldon Silver, “Drafting a Budget Outside the Back Room,” Newsday April 21, 1998.

[13] Nexis has the New York Times using the phrase five times in 1999. Newsday, per Nexis, employed the phrase three times in 1999.

[14] Galie and Bopst, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”: The Governor’s ‘Message of Necessity’ and the Legislative Process in New York,” 76 Albany Law Review 2219, 2267 (2013).

[15] Jeffrey M. Stonecash & Amy Widestrom, “The Legislature, Parties, and Resolving Conflict,” in Governing New York State, 165, 168, 180 (Robert F. Pecorella & Jeffrey M. Stonecash eds., 5th ed. 2006). Cited in Galie and Bopst Id.  at note 298.

[16]  “A Shoddy Tax Deal in Albany,” Crain’s New York Business, December 12, 2011.

[17] Richard Perez-Pena, “Political Memo; In Slow-Motion Albany, Old Days Look Exciting,” New York Times,,July 22, 2001.

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