The pros and cons of a constitutional convention

Bill Samuels addressing a Sep. 14 forum on a proposed state constitutional convention, while, from left, Adriene Holder, Robin Chappelle Golston, Evan Davis and, to Samuels’s right, state Senator Liz Krueger, look on. Photo by Levar Alonzo

BY LEVAR ALONZO | Should New York State hold a constitutional convention — and, if there is one, what exactly would it involve?

Trying to help answer those questions and more, State Senator Liz Krueger, Citizen Action of New York, the Legal Aid Society and the Lexington Democratic Club, along with other Upper East Side Democratic clubs, co-sponsored a Sept. 14 forum on the upcoming ballot proposal to hold a state constitutional convention. Area residents packed the All Souls Church, at E. 80th St. and Lexington Ave., in the hopes that their questions and uncertainties about such a convention, on which voters will make a decision in the Nov. 7 general election, would be addressed.

Four panelists were on hand to debate the issue. Those on the pro side argued that the New York State Constitution must be revised to encourage greater voter turnout and rein in the influence of entrenched political interests. The representatives of the con side raised concerns about the threat such a convention could pose to important rights and protections currently enshrined in the state Constitution.

“I myself am leaning heavily pro-convention, which puts me in the minority among elected officials,” said East Side Senator Krueger, who moderated the evening. “It doesn’t change the fact that I respect both sides of the argument.”

This November, New Yorkers, for the first time in 20 years, will have a chance to vote yes or no on whether they want to hold a constitutional convention to amend the state’s founding document.

Since 1967, when the last convention was held, voters have repeatedly rejected convening a convention. The recent volatility in voter behavior, as seen in the surprise election of Donald Trump last November, has many local politicians, advocacy groups and voters concerned that a convention could potentially open up a can of worms without predictable outcomes.

In her opening statement, Krueger urged the audience to listen and weigh both sides of the issue to make an educated choice come Nov. 7. She refuted social-media rumors that choosing not to vote on that ballot question would be an automatic yes.

Nonprofit groups like the Legal Aid Society and Planned Parenthood have taken issue with the push for a convention, warning that the effort could repeal hard-won protections and also be influenced by “dark money” forces.

Adriene Holder, the Legal Aid Society’s attorney in charge of civil practice, raised concern that a constitutional convention could weaken or negate Article 17, which protects low-income New Yorkers. Article 17, she explained, was added to the state Constitution at a convention called during the Great Depression in 1938, and mandates that the state provide assistance to low-income residents. Lawyers have effectively used that provision in court cases aimed at providing adequate social-service support for New Yorkers in need, she said. Holder added that, since its enactment, Article 17 has been targeted by opponents at previous conventions and in the state Legislature.

“If a convention is called, every part of the state Constitution could be subject to replacement or revision,” Holder warned. “This includes really the key protection for low-income New Yorkers.”

According to the New York State Library Web site, when the last constitutional convention was held, in 1967, the resulting proposed amendments were rejected by voters. The 1938 convention, in contrast, was successful at amending the state Constitution, adding safeguards, including Article 17.

Evan Davis, senior counsel at Cleary Gottlieb and manager of the Committee for a Constitutional Convention, argued that a constitutional convention is really a partnership between the voters and the convention delegates. If voters in November decide to hold a convention, 189 delegates would be elected next year to a 2019 convention that would consider amendments to the existing Constitution. Any amendments the delegates approved would then go back before the public for an up or down vote.

The timeline going forward should the constitutional convention ballot question be approved on Nov. 7. Courtesy of newyorkconcon.info

“The individual amendments are put before the people and ultimately the people will have to decide,” Davis said. “That is a very important protection in this whole process.”

In making his case, Davis noted the low voter turnout in this month’s primary elections, when just 14 percent of registered Democrats — who make up the vast majority of city voters — turned out. He argued that because of tough restrictions written into the state Constitution, with voter-registration deadlines set about a month prior to voting, many residents who only tune in during the final weeks of a campaign are deprived of the chance to vote. Online registration requires a driver’s license or an official nondriver’s ID; but Davis said the fact that half of the city’s adults don’t have a driver’s license — with many not bothering to obtain a nondriver’s ID, either — imposes a practical barrier to registering in this way.

On the other hand, some think a constitutional convention could strip away important individual rights and safety net protections.

“In a perfect world, Con-Con would be a good idea,” said Robin Chappelle Golston, president and C.E.O. of Planned Parenthood Empire States Acts. She added that the process’s downsides are the “lack of transparency and possible loss of what we already have in the Constitution.”

Planned Parenthood, of course, is a leading advocate for women’s reproductive rights.

Chappelle Golston’s concern is that the public will not be able to weigh in on the process until the convention is over, which she warned could be too late. The convention, she said, would likely become an “inside baseball game,” with backroom deals being reached by delegates. Her organization, she said, fears that existing protections for abortion could be traded away for changes in other key areas.

The Sept. 14 forum also made clear that an underlying tension between Upstate and Downstate interests is beginning to surface in the debate over holding a convention.

“We live in the New York City bubble and don’t worry much about certain issues,” Chappelle Golston said. “But we have to realize Trump carried 46 of our 62 counties in the state. This would not be a progressive bastion figuring out ways to make our Constitution more progressive. There will be delegates with other agendas, and that leads to compromise.”

She also wondered whether the delegates elected would truly represent all communities across New York.

“We also believe there won’t be true representation of the people that make up this great state,” Chappelle Golston said.

Bill Samuels, a businessman and founder of Effective NY, a nonpartisan think tank focused on public policy issues, spoke in favor of a convention. He argued that unwarranted fears should not stand in the way of breaking down entrenched traditions that hold the state back.

“Andrew Cuomo and that culture is as old and as outdated as Tammany Hall, and we must change it,” he said.

He pointed out that most Albany legislative negotiations are hashed out between a very small group, including the governor, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Senator Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who heads up the rump Independent Democratic Conference — but not state Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who leads the Democrats, who nominally have a majority.

“There is no better example than when four men go in a room and they exclude the woman that runs the Democratic Party,” Samuels stated. “Think that’s going to change in 2018?”

Samuels argued that individual legislators need a greater say in Albany and that transparency should be encouraged, in contrast to the current practice of closed-door negotiations.

Without offering any details, Samuels also advocated for a constitutional amendment to create pension benefits for New York’s many freelance and nonunion workers — an effort that runs counter to strong economic trends in recent decades.

“Sixty percent of our workers in Manhattan have zero pensions,” he said. “One of my amendments is to require that the Constitution have a pooling access to all workers, so that not only union workers have good pensions, but the rest of us do, too.”

In his closing remarks, Samuels encouraged audience members to run to become constitutional-convention delegates.

“This will an exciting time, and it will be fun to bring about change,” he said. “I urge you not to have doubt and uncertainty.”

But doubt and uncertainty are what brought many to All Souls Church last week in the first place, and it was unclear at the evening’s conclusion how many of the crowd’s questions had been clarified. Voters now have just six weeks to become comfortable that they are making an informed decision on Tues., Nov. 7.

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