Contesting the ‘Con-Con’

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Pols, unions, citizens, advocates, lobbyists, special-interest groups – and strange bedfellows – take to the barricades over the November 7th referendum on a statewide Constitutional Convention


  • Delegates to the state Constitutional Convention convened in the state Capitol in Albany in 1867 for a speech by William Wheeler, a future U.S. vice president, who argued that the concept of racial equality should be incorporated into the Constitution. Engraving: Stanley Fox, via New York Public Library collection

To say that Planned Parenthood and the New York State Right to Life Committee are historical antagonists is a huge understatement. The truth is, they manifest fear and loathing for each other’s viewpoints.

The pro-choice group assertively champions a woman’s reproductive rights. The pro-life organization is just as tough-minded in opposing abortion. Could they ever pool resources and join forces? Actually, yes.

Bedfellows don’t get any stranger than this. Yet every 20 years, such highly unlikely — and very temporary — alliances are formed as groups that routinely bash each other suddenly discover a common agenda.

At issue is a November 7th referendum that boils down to this: “Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same?”

That 13-word question appears on the ballot every two decades when voters, as prescribed by law, determine if a Constitutional Convention — or “Con-Con” — should be held in Albany to retool, rewrite and amend the New York State Constitution.

A convention is a journey into the unknown. It can augment rights, protections and prerogatives. It can also strip them away forever. Thus do players with ostensibly nothing in common find common ground:

Planned Parenthood, fearing that abortion rights could be abridged at a convention, and the Right to Life Committee, dreading they could be expanded and enshrined in an updated Constitution, are now allied in a coalition, New Yorkers Against Corruption, campaigning to defeat the measure.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the barricades, such establishment groups as the New York City Bar Association and the New York State Bar Association, which believe a new Constitution can reform the judiciary and enhance ethics in government, have come out in favor.

But so, too, have less mainstream advocates — like Restrict & Regulate in NY State, which seeks to legalize adult-use marijuana, and Divide NYS Caucus, which calls for the legal separation of downstate and upstate into two autonomous regions.

It’s a free-for-all: Unions and liberal downstaters fear wealthy special interests will hijack the convention and undermine hard-fought labor rights. But upstate conservatives, also opposed, fret that big money from the city will use its leverage to roll back gun-ownership rights.

Manhattan’s progressive wing is divided. “New York State government has a lot wrong with it, and I share many of the pro-convention movement’s goals,” said Borough President Gale Brewer. “But the way the rules are set up, we’d be unlikely to win improvements, and would have to put a lot of hard-won protections at risk.”

Brewer cited environmental protections, labor rights and voting rights, which are all now protected by constitutional provisions.

Upper West Side City Council Member Helen Rosenthal agreed, saying Con-Con could undermine state pension obligations to municipal workers and conservation measures that preserve the Adirondacks.

“Great things in the Constitution could be revoked,” Rosenthal said. “If the people driving this have the same point of view as the people in the state Senate, everything is at risk.”

Arguing that constitutional reforms can be made without a convention, state Senator Brad Hoylman, who represents midtown, Chelsea and Greenwich Village, argued it would “delay the urgency of the reforms we need in Albany — and cost a lot of money.”

Added City Council Member Corey Johnson, whose district includes Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village, “Moneyed interests would use the opportunity to attack public employee pensions or our right to a free public education.”

State Senator Liz Krueger, who represents the Upper East Side and Midtown East, has a very different perspective. After opposing the last Con-Con in 1997, winning election in 2002 — and experiencing 15 years of Albany dysfunction — she’s now supportive.

“Open up the system to the people,” she said in an October 16 debate on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. She said a convention could enact voter reform, court reform, campaign finance reform, legislative reform and ethics reform.

“We do ‘pretend ethics reform’ every year, and then, someone goes to jail, and we say, ‘Oops, we got it wrong. Again.’ This is a chance for real ethics reform.”

On the same page is Forward March New York, formerly the city branch of the Women’s March on Washington, which calls Con-Con a “once-in-a-generation chance to make fast-tracked changes to our Constitution, bypassing our lethargic lawmakers and putting issues in the hands of the people.”

Hanging in the balance is the foundational legal document of New York, which was first adopted in 1777, a year after the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Since then, the Constitution has grown to more than 53,000 words — seven times longer than the U.S. Constitution, which weighs in at a mere 7,591 words.

Revising the state’s instrument of governance isn’t easy. It was never supposed to be. Voters opted not to hold conventions in 1997, 1977 and 1957, and the last time a convention led to the ratification of a new Constitution was 1938.

Here’s how it works: When voters go to the polls in the general election on November 7th, they’ll see a statewide referendum, “New York Proposal 1,” asking if a convention should be convened to consider changes to the Constitution. It’s a yes-or-no ballot question, and if the nays have it, the matter is dead for another 20 years.

But if the yeas carry the day, another election would be held on November 6, 2018 to select 204 convention delegates, three from each of the state’s 63 Senate districts and 15 at-large delegates.

The delegate-selection process is crucial: Will grassroots activists win election and convene a true “people’s convention”? Will established powerbrokers seeking to protect the status quo seize control? Most likely, the answer is a little bit of both.

The confusion led to the odd spectacle of Governor Andrew Cuomo all-but reversing his stance on Con-Con. Initially, he was supportive with the proviso that elected officials can’t dominate the delegate pool. But when it appeared that wouldn’t be viable, he evinced deep skepticism.

The next step is for delegates to convene at the Capitol in Albany for a convention starting on April 2, 2019. Proposals would be codified, public hearings held, and finally, on November 5, 2019, another popular vote would take place. Only if a majority of the electorate backed the referendum would the Constitution be altered.

That’s just what the political establishment doesn’t want: Opponents range from the Working Families Party on the left to the Conservative Party on the right and include Mayor Bill de Blasio, state Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox and Cuomo’s handpicked state Democratic Party Chairman Byron Brown.

The League of Women Voters is undaunted by the firepower. “In this 100th anniversary year of women getting the vote in New York State, New Yorkers will be able to send a strong message that they’re fed up with corruption and dysfunction in Albany,” said Dare Thompson, the League’s president, in endorsing the measure in March.

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