By Maria Rocha-Buschel
New Yorkers will have to turn over their ballots on Election Day next Tuesday to vote on a question that only comes up once every 20 years: whether or not to hold a Constitutional Convention. If the measure passes, voters would elect three delegates for each of the 63 State Senate districts and 15 statewide, for a total of 204 representatives in all. The convention itself, or Con-Con as it is sometimes affectionately abbreviated, would open up the state constitution for amendments proposed by the delegates and voted on by New Yorkers.
The measure didn’t pass the last time the question came up in 1997, and the last time there was a convention was 1967. The question was also put on the ballots that year as well. According to the State Archives, Convention leadership had hoped that the popular proposals would carry the unpopular sections and put the changes on the ballot as a single package instead of by individual proposal, but the tactic failed, since the entire document was voted down that year.
The question is on ballots statewide and while it’s unsurprising that the conversation in New York City has been primarily dominated by progressives, the discussion has brought out Democrats who are passionate advocates both for and against a convention.
State Senator Liz Krueger, who represents the Upper East Side, Gramercy and Union Square and who is in favor of a convention, pointed out that it’s the process rather than the policy that Democrats are arguing over.
“I think if you did a laundry list of all the types of legislation that we would all like to see changed, I bet all four of us would be almost identical,” she said during a debate on the topic hosted by WNYC. “What we disagree on is how we’re going to get there.”
Those voting in favor of the measure often have specific proposals in mind, such as instituting term limits, eliminating the LLC loophole, enshrining a woman’s right to choose and eliminating outside income for elected officials, while those against the measure argue that it could open a “Pandora’s Box,” and leave protections already in the constitution, such as the right to shelter, vulnerable to changes. Union leaders are especially opposed to the measure, with many arguing that pensions could be at risk.
A number of elected officials in favor of voting “no” on the question argue that the cost is not worth it for taxpayers. Delegates are paid $79,500 for the role, the same salary as a state legislator. State Senator Brad Hoylman argued that a convention would be especially wasteful since it’s possible that State Senators could be elected as delegates while still getting paid their legislator’s salary as well.
“We can already pass constitutional amendments through the regular legislative process,” he said. “We don’t need to spend millions getting the same results. Voters wouldn’t be getting their money’s worth.”
Krueger disagreed, arguing that the cost would ultimately be worth it.
“It ends up spending very little money,” she said. “To spend a couple hundred million to fix the constitution will save us billions in the end.”
City Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side, said that he would be voting for the convention because he feels that it’s the best way to achieve goals that can’t be accomplished any other way.
“Term limits are a major thing we could get through a convention, and anything we can’t get elected officials in Albany to do because of self-interest,” he said. “There are also a lot of reforms we’ve done in the city that remain elusive in the state, like eliminating outside income (for elected officials) that could be achieved through a convention.”
Krueger shared Kallos’s frustration about stalled legislation and unmet goals.
“Significant changes aren’t happening legislatively,” she said. “We can’t just do individual amendments, having taken a look at how few amendments have been brought to the public in the last 50 years. I understand people’s fear that in a time of Trump and enormous right-wing money, Democrats in the city think that the Republicans will control the convention. But upstate Republicans don’t want a convention because they think that liberals will control it.”
Although their politics are different, Republican City Council candidate Rebecca Harary echoed the sentiments from both Kallos and Krueger, noting that she feels a convention would bring about much-needed reforms for the state.
“When any system goes unchecked, it lays the foundation for corruption,” Harary said. “It’s time for reform, and we need to take a square look at what we’ve got. Term limits throughout the state need to be in place. (A convention) would lower corruption in Albany. We need more accountability.”
Many Democratic advocates who are pushing for a “no” vote claim that a convention isn’t the right place to fight for change because it isn’t worth the risk, and that time and energy would be better spent electing the appropriate politicians.
“We should be holding legislators to the fire now, not kicking the can down the road for a Con-Con,” Hoylman said.
Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh noted that he respects the idea of a convention as well as many of the advocates pushing for it but doesn’t believe the convention will achieve the reforms that they want.
“I believe the energy, time and resources that supporters want to invest in the convention would be better spent swaying the general public to demand reform from the executive and legislative branches of state and local government, electing the right people to public office, and particularly ensuring that we have a functioning, progressive, Democratic majority in the State Senate,” he said.
Democratic City Council candidate Keith Powers, who is running in District 4, agreed with Hoylman and Kavanagh, noting that he’s skeptical the convention would achieve what advocates want it to and that there are less risky ways for advocates to pass progressive reforms.
“I’m skeptical that the Constitutional Convention will net the benefits that many feel it would and would in fact put other issues at harm,” he said. “There is a process for constitutional amendments and they should be doing it with elections and putting real Democrats in power.”
Rachel Honig, who is also running on the Liberal Party line in the District 4 Council race, has not taken a position on the convention, her campaign manager said. The rep added that she understands the desire for a true convention but is also aware of the concerns from unions and other rights groups.
TenantsPAC treasurer and spokesman Mike McKee, who penned an opinion column for T&V on the topic this week, said that the organization is encouraging tenants to vote no on the measure because it’s possible that the convention could be controlled by those already in elected office. However, he acknowledged that there are legitimate arguments in favor of the convention.
“It is possible that such a convention could result in reform that Albany refuses to do,” he said, “but there are so many pitfalls. Our fear is that 80 to 90 percent of delegates will be the same legislators that we criticize for not enacting reforms, and will likely to be controlling convention. If legislators were barred from running, that would be a different thing but they will have a lot more money in campaign funding and name recognition. We’re afraid an actual convention would be controlled by the powers that be and not by real people.”
Hoylman felt that current elected officials would have an overwhelming influence on the convention as well.
“It’s a tad naïve to think this will be a ‘people’s convention’ made of every day New Yorkers,” he said. “It won’t lead to that. Name recognition goes a long way.”
Krueger, on the other hand, is optimistic that the election for delegates wouldn’t be overrun with current legislators, saying the public wouldn’t stand for it.
“The public isn’t going to be friendly to the concept of legislators trying to double-dip their salary,” she said. “I do think they will try to run but I don’t think they’ll be a significant percentage. That’s not a reason to be against a Con-Con. We don’t stand a chance with the status quo.”
Harary, the only Republican who responded to interview requests for this story, said that she is for a convention because it’s a sign of democracy in action.
“Democracy only works as long as people participate in it,” she said.
Krueger also disputed the idea that a convention will result in a loss of rights, noting that when previous conventions were held, they didn’t result in a loss of rights.
“I don’t fear opening it up for discussion,” she said. “There haven’t been a lot of conventions but they haven’t moved us backwards, only forwards with additional progressive changes. We’ve only gained rights.”