Tired of New York’s Corrupt, Plodding ‘Progressivism’? Call a Constitutional Convention


New Yorkers Against Corruption was named, apparently, without irony in mind.

A conglomeration of more than a hundred organizations and labor unions embracing various liberal and conservative causes — the AFL-CIO, the state Rifle and Pistol Association, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the state Republican and Conservative Parties all joined up — it was formed for only one purpose: to make sure New York never gets a constitutional convention.

The arguments they make against such a convention, which will be voted on statewide this fall and — if approved — be held in 2019, are infused with the dire rhetoric of the desperate and afraid. Were a convention to be held, liberals tell us, sinister wealthy men like the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer will descend to rewrite the laws as we know them, transforming New York into a Boschian hellscape, with Ayn Rand’s acolytes as our angels of doom. A constitutional convention will eviscerate pensions and erase environmental laws. New York will never be the same.

On the right, the fears are very different. Ultra-liberal delegates will overrun the convention and rejigger an ancient constitution to make New York more like California. As misguided as the Conservative Party and anti–gun control activists might be, their opposition is at least grounded in reality. In an overwhelmingly Democratic state like New York, changes to the constitution could very well make the state a much more progressive place.

For many reasons, a constitutional convention makes sense, and for nearly as many reasons the fearmongering among the wide range of progressive people and organizations is wrongheaded and deeply disingenuous. A little background: Referendums on constitutional conventions — or Con Cons, as they’re often called — are held only once every twenty years. A convention hasn’t been held since 1967.

If voters violate the wishes of just about every institutional player — the leaders of both legislative chambers, along with Mayor Bill de Blasio, oppose a convention, while Governor Andrew Cuomo has been noncommittal — and approve the referendum, three delegates from each of the state senate’s 63 districts will be voted on next year to go to Albany for the 2019 convention. Republicans, with tacit approval from Cuomo, gerrymandered senate districts in 2012, so progressives would have a slight disadvantage at the start. Fifteen at-large delegates are also selected statewide.

But Democrats have a numerical registration advantage in the senate, and progressives, if motivated enough, could ultimately overwhelm districts held by Republicans in the suburbs and upstate. From elected officials and liberal institutional powers, the argument against a convention boils down to risk. Since delegates would have the power to create amendments to drastically overhaul a document that has seen little change since the nineteenth century, they could, in theory, invalidate the pensions of every union member or strip the state’s environmental regulations.

Here’s the catch, and one New Yorkers Against Corruption’s ludicrous website doesn’t make clear: All changes made at a convention must be approved by voters. That’s right, New York, a state that hasn’t supported a Republican presidential candidate in more than thirty years, and is home to tens of thousands of union members and too many progressive activists to count, will somehow also have to vote for all these apocalyptic measures that Koch-sponsored delegates supposedly would want.

There is no evidence that any right-wing billionaires want to spend money to muck up a constitutional convention. No movement is afoot. And even if one were, it’s not worth shying away from a once-in-a-generation chance to revamp an outdated state constitution and move New York into this century. While the state legislature can amend the constitution, it never does, and it has proven it is not up to the task of taming corruption or improving government.

Good government advocates like Dick Dadey of Citizens Union and Bill Samuels of Effective NY launched a campaign today to fight for a constitutional convention and push back against the more powerful forces that would rather not alter the shameful status quo. Goo-goos hope a convention could produce stronger ethics, as well as voting and campaign finance laws for New York, including ones that would allow early voting and same-day registration and introduce a system of public financing for elections.

An environmental bill of rights — a right to clean air and water, not currently enshrined in the constitution — and a worker’s bill of rights could be taken up at a convention. A new constitution could guarantee New Yorkers a right to health care, a right to affordable higher education, equitable funding for schools, and protection from discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. (The state’s equal protection clause only accounts for race, color, creed, and religion.)

For New York City progressives, a constitutional convention may be a godsend. Achieving greater home rule for the city could mean the end of begging Albany for mayoral control of city schools, renewing ever-weakening rent laws, and beseeching lawmakers to tinker with local income taxes and the minimum wage. The city could chart its own destiny, free from the shackles of upstate conservatives who will always resent the urban superpower to the south.

What’s inexcusable is the political class and various powers that be — as well as advocates who should know better — passing up this opportunity to make New York a less backward state. Opposing a constitutional convention ultimately comes down to not trusting voters to do the right thing. As flawed as it is, we do have a democracy, and it’s far better to put its machinery to use than to let fear keep us from doing something.

Image via Wally Gobetz/Flickr