Calling a state constitutional convention is New York’s long established method for fundamental, systematic governmental reform. Yet in a period of pandemic corruption and enormous anger at government, with demands for change from all across the political spectrum, New Yorkers rejected the convention option by a margin of 5-1 this past November. In essence, if 2016 was a year of great demand for change, the regret set in quickly afterward, and 2017 became a year, at least in New York, of holding fast to a system that people perceived to be less frightening than yet more change.
Peter Galie and Gerald Benjamin, co-authors with Christopher Bopst of New York’s Broken Constitution, and strong convention advocates, sat down a few weeks after the election for a post mortem. The reasons for the crushing defeat of the convention question, they thought, were both structural and political. Most voters didn’t even know there is a state constitution; they don’t distinguish between it and the revered national document, which most of them certainly don’t want to be touched in an era in which basic rights are threatened. New York has no initiative process; referenda are limited in use and unfamiliar to many as a way of making decisions. The wording of the convention question, mandated in the constitution for use every twenty years, requires that everything be on the table if a convention is called.
This scares those who have constitutionally guaranteed benefits or favored policies that they don’t want to risk.
By Michael Frank
There are more than 150 groups that are in opposition to the proposed ballot amendment for the constitutional convention. Pro-choice groups and anti-abortion rights groups. Pro-union groups and anti-union groups. Pro-gun rights groups and gun control groups. The common thread? Political power. The only logical reason these folks don’t want a New York State Constitutional Convention – a Con Con – is that they presently enjoy a toehold in Albany that they very much like. Upset the system and they have to reestablish a network and grapple with a new order where they may not have as much juice, and the last thing interest groups like is change, because it means that the power has shifted away from their control.
You know what that’s called? Democracy.
The biggest threat to democracy these days isn’t the faltering executive branch of the United States government. Rather, Gerald Benjamin, founder of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz, echoes Franklin Roosevelt and says the biggest threat is fear. Fear of losing rights rather than understanding, as he puts it, “We’re living in a moment of great civic engagement. It’s been sparked by Trump and it means people are alive to both the threat to their rights and to the possibility of what can be done.”
And these two poles — fear of what could be lost as well as the possibility of what could be gained — are playing out on the state level in New York State politics this year as the debate over the constitutional convention turns on a single issue: pensions.