A New York Constitutional Convention Would Be Good for Democracy

A New York Constitutional Convention Would Be Good for Democracy

A New York Constitutional Convention Would Be Good for Democracy

The case for a constitutional convention in New York State.


Every October, campaign signs crop up in the front-yard gardens of my leafy Brooklyn neighborhood. love trumps hate, they declared a year ago. I wasn’t, and am not, so sure it does. But at least it was an argument. The same cannot be said for the signs that began appearing last week: constitutional convention: vote no!

In content and color—black and white with a hint of red—they resembled those once-ubiquitous T-shirts of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, and, as it happens, the messages of the discredited DARE campaign and the coalition against a New York state constitutional convention are pretty much the same: Don’t even think about it. You aren’t responsible enough to handle it. Just say no.

On November 7, residents across the Empire State—well, at least a few of them; we have one of the lowest voter-turnout rates in the country—will render a verdict on Proposal 1, which asks whether New York should have a convention to amend its constitution. By law, the question is put to voters every 20 years. Last time, in 1997, they declined, 63 to 37 percent. The most recent state constitutional convention was in 1967, but voters rejected the proposed changes, largely because worthy reforms like free college tuition were packaged together with a provision empowering the state to fund religious schools.

Before that, the last convention was in 1938, and it enshrined several important welfare protections and guaranteed pensions for state workers. To defend those perks, public-sector unions have taken the lead in a broad coalition called New Yorkers Against Corruption, which is campaigning against a new convention (and which put those signs on my neighbors’ lawns). It includes some 150 separate organizations from all across the political spectrum: the Working Families Party and the Conservative Party, groups for and against abortion, the Buffalo chapter of the NAACP and the Bronx GOP. Though for varying and often conflicting reasons, they all believe the status quo in the state isn’t so bad as to warrant a new convention. “Politicians, lobbyists and special interest groups will hijack a constitutional convention and game the system for themselves,” warns the group’s website—a statement that’s more than a little disingenuous coming from a coalition of politicians, lobbyists, and special-interest groups.

Both Democrats and Republicans who oppose a convention say malevolent agents from the other side of the partisan divide could come in and spend “huge sums of cash and cause irreparable damage to our state government,” as Republican Senate President John Flanagan put it. Yet belying the coalition’s claim that deep-pocketed interest groups are salivating over the prospect of emptying out the pension funds and rescinding the special “Forever Wild” status of the Adirondack Mountains is the fact that the “no” campaign has raised far more money than the convention’s supporters, who include such villains as the League of Women Voters and Citizens Union, the good-government group that has been battling corruption since the heyday of Tammany Hall.

If we are really so concerned about political spending, why not use this once-in-a-generation opportunity to put a robust campaign-finance plank in the state Constitution? And while we’re at it, why not push for more progressive policies on gun control, reproductive rights, housing, marijuana legalization, term limits, gerrymandering, ethics, and citizens’ initiatives?

Another item on the agenda of a state convention could be home rule for New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio has joined the campaign against a convention, an odd choice for someone who has been humiliated time and again by having to beg permission from Albany to do things of strictly local importance. New York’s present constitution gives the state any powers not expressly designated to the municipalities—just the opposite of what it should say, according to the veteran liberal activist Bill Samuels, who also backs a convention. That provision gives suburban and upstate legislators the right to veto city representatives on policies that have little or no impact on their voters, including plastic-bag bans, congestion pricing, and education.

It’s nothing short of infuriating that the Democratic establishment has concluded that progressivism in the 21st century need go no further than playing defense in a state that, it’s safe to say, isn’t facing a right-wing takeover anytime soon. This fundamentally conservative resistance to the possibilities of change betrays a poverty of the political imagination. How much can the left expect to achieve when its ambitions are limited to meekly holding on to victories won during the New Deal? Under what definition of progressivism is it better to forestall public deliberation than to foster it?

The bulk of the current New York Constitution dates to 1894, when horses clopped across the Brooklyn Bridge to an independent city and the subway system hadn’t yet been built. Progressives in 1938 welcomed the chance to update and improve it. That August, as the convention met in Albany, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia—de Blasio’s hero—read a speech on WNYC about “the constitutional convention and the people of the city of New York.” The country was in a depression and fascism was on the rise; then as now, about one-third of the city was foreign-born. In his lively, nasally voice, La Guardia said there was “no greater opportunity for public service in a democracy than to take part in the framing of a constitution.” Why pass up that opportunity, especially in times as benighted as our own? Just say yes to Proposal 1.

Still undecided on whether to vote yes or no on a New York State constitutional convention? Read Bob Master’s take, “A New York Constitutional Convention Could Threaten the Progressive Fabric of the State.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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