This Election Day, in addition to important races for local office, New Yorkers are faced with a monumental ballot question that will impact the future of our state.
Every 20 years, voters in New York state decide whether to call a convention to amend our state constitution.
More than 150 progressive groups, fighting for change, oppose the convention, but a number of good government advocates believe that a constitutional convention will help resolve the many problems plaguing state government. The vision they present is straightforward: voters approve a convention and New Yorkers elect upstanding delegates who will easily fix these problems.
Unfortunately, as with most things in politics, it is not likely to be that simple.
If voters approve a convention this year, then in November 2018 we elect convention delegates: 15 statewide and three from every State Senate district. Here’s problem one: our State Senate districts were gerrymandered specifically to elect as many Republicans as possible. Even though there are more than twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans in New York State, Republicans still hold 31 seats in the 63 member Senate chamber.
So even if there is only a slim majority of Democrats in the State Senate, shouldn’t we still be able to win some important reforms? That brings us to problem number two: the same key players who currently block progressive legislation in Albany are likely to wield power at any convention. Here’s why:
To become a delegate, you have to have the time, money, and organization to run and then serve, excluding the vast majority of us with full time jobs and/or families. In the past delegates were mostly current or former elected officials as well as others hand picked by establishment Republicans and Democrats.
And to make problems worse, there’s problem number three: Wealthy, right wing interests.
Think we’re being alarmist? For the handful of super wealthy individuals who already spend millions to influence key election outcomes, the ConCon represents an opportunity for an even bigger power grab. Case in point: New York’s very own Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire who financed the rise of the alt-right website Breitbart, Steve Bannon, and even Donald Trump. Mercer recently donated $1.5 million to a Super PAC to influence the outcome of the Westchester County Executive race. Mercer also funds a shady group called ReclaimNY, whose spokesman is already saying they’ll get involved in electing delegates to any constitutional convention.
We know what Mercer and his allies stand for: depriving communities of color and immigrants of their rights, making it harder to vote so the rich can control government even more, slashing taxes on the rich, privatizing public schools, busting unions, allowing fracking and drilling on public lands and more. We can’t let that happen here in New York.
New York’s constitution, and our laws, are in desperate need of improvement. But there is a much less risky, more effective way to achieve that goal: make the State Senate reflect the will of the voters of our state.
There are 8 state Senators elected as Democrats — the so-called Independent Democratic Caucus — whose votes currently help keep Republicans in control of the body. Republicans control means progressive bills pass out of the Assembly easily, only to languish and die in the Senate.
Instead of rolling the dice on a constitutional convention that will be wide open to hijacking by right-wing billionaires, let’s focus on electing and uniting a strong progressive majority to the state senate that will take power away from those same forces. We can do that by making the IDC quit their alliance with Republicans , or if necessary, by defeating them and their Republican allies at the polls.
A progressive Senate will give us the opportunity to finally win healthcare for all, have NY lead the fight to save our planet from climate change, win full funding for quality education, safeguard a woman’s ability to access abortion and contraception, expand voting rights and campaign finance reform, increase affordable housing, and fix the MTA. It’s how we can pass real criminal justice reform that tackles mass incarceration head on and addresses biased policing. It’s how we win protections for immigrants and transgender people and other communities under attack.
A Democratic Senate, not a constitutional convention, is the way we build a progressive NY that works for all of us, not just the wealthy and well-connected.
Bill Lipton is the State Director for the New York Working Families Party.