It appears opponents of holding a state constitutional convention have the momentum as Election Day approaches. They’ve spent more money than supporters, and a recent poll shows the public is leaning against it. But backers are not giving up just yet.
The convention opponents are a modern example of the old saying that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” The groups include the state’s major labor unions, the Conservative Party, gun rights organizations and environmentalists. Groups on both sides of the abortion debate are members. The coalition has spent more than a million dollars and is running TV ads and working social media to get its message out.
They portray the convention itself as potentially corrupt, calling it in the ads “the con’s con.”
All of the groups opposed are worried that they have something to lose if the state’s constitution is open to revision.
Mario Cilento is president of New York’s AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for the state’s major unions. He said New York has some of the strongest labor protections of any state in the nation.
“Workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, the eight-hour day, they are all written into our state’s constitution,” said Cilento, who added he worries about the “possibility of big moneyed interests coming from out of the state” to take away those rights.
“Leaving working men and women with very little protections at all,” Cilento said.
If the ballot measure — which this year is Proposition One on the ballot — passes, delegates would be chosen from each state Senate district in a campaign to be run in 2018. The convention would be held the following year, in 2019.
Cilento said there are just too many risks involved in every step of the process.
“Why would anyone vote on something where you don’t know the cost, you don’t know how long the process takes,” Cilento said. “You don’t know who’s going to be in charge and we don’t know what’s at stake.”
The state’s top politicians agree. Both legislative leaders and the state’s comptroller are all against holding the convention. Gov. Andrew Cuomo initially proposed reforming the delegate process, and he put money in the state budget a couple of years ago to do that. The measure died in the Legislature, and now Cuomo said he also has concerns about how a convention might be run, even though he backs the “concept.” He said the Legislature could end up controlling the convention, and not ordinary citizens.
“I said the convention is a good idea and it’s a way to get reform,” Cuomo said. “But you have to elect delegates who are not currently elected officials.”
A Siena College poll on Nov. 1 found likely voters are against holding a constitutional convention by a two-to-one margin.
Supporters say it’s a once-in-a-generation chance to fix a state government rife with corruption and with restrictions on voting access.
Gerald Benjamin is a political scientist and the director of a research center at SUNY New Paltz that bears his name. Benjamin, a longtime reform advocate, said all the worry over the convention is unfounded.
“What bothers me is these unfounded predictions of horrors and horribles that will happen if we actually trust democracy,” Benjamin said. “And I’m called an idealist because I believe in trusting democracy.”
Benjamin spoke during a debate on the constitutional convention held at the Albany Times Union’s Hearst Media Center in October. He said in the past, people in New York believed that they could take charge of a convention, choose delegates to represent them, and then hold those delegates accountable. He said the lack of faith is “extraordinarily cynical and extraordinarily sad.”
The League of Women Voters’ Jennifer Wilson said despite the opponents’ worries, no existing rights have ever been taken away in any past constitutional convention. She said many of those same rights were actually created in past conventions.
“These are great things that people are so afraid of losing during a convention and they don’t realize that they were put in during a convention,” Wilson said.
The League has spent about $5,000 on leaflets to explain to voters why a convention is a good idea.
The proposal appears on the back of the ballot, and it’s possible that many voters will miss the question altogether.