Unless you have access to a lot of money or have some stupendously motivating issue, it takes a year of planning, preferably two, to launch a really good statewide political campaign in New York. Potential challengers to the political status quo forgot about this in 2014. Just after the November elections, the 2017 political season will begin, and some people in and beyond New York are already making plans.
For 167 years, New York’s Constitution has provided for a single “automatic referendum.” Every 20 years, citizens vote to answer this question: “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and revise the same?” If the referendum is approved, a convention is scheduled by the legislature and delegates are elected (15 statewide delegates and three from each State Senate district).
There have been nine constitutional conventions in New York since the state was created in 1776, with varying levels of distinction and success. Even most White males could not vote before the 1821 constitution, which transformed New York into a modern republic, creating a Bill of Rights and transforming thousands of appointed positions into elected ones.
There have been great moments. Many schoolchildren were taught Senator Elihu Root’s eye-moistening speech about “this opportunity for service to our country and our state” at the 1915 convention. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s passionate speech about the need to clear slums was a sensation of the 1938 convention.
Convention delegates have always divided over how to present their work for public approval. The 1915 convention, scientific and forward-looking, presented their work as a single lump, an entire new constitution that went down to defeat. The 1938 convention recognized the tendency of lumps to draw together critics of individual provisions and presented its work as a group of separate amendments, not all of which passed.
We still live under the 1894 constitution, a beast that is more than seven times longer than the U.S. Constitution, has been amended over 200 times just to get us through the last century and contains important sections (legislative reapportionment) that are legally invalid and unenforceable. We have local government structures that predate the invention of the lightning rod and the mercury thermometer. New York needs constitutional reform. But…
The 1967 convention (called by a special 1965 referendum) and the “lumped” constitution it proposed left such a bad taste that the next two automatic constitutional referendums, in 1977 and 1997, were ignored as much as possible and voted down overwhelmingly. It’s very telling that in 1977, some conservatives opposed a convention because they were afraid that worker rights and pensions might be expanded if delegates ran amok, and 20 years later, the strongest opponent was the AFL-CIO, which worried that uncontrolled delegates might gut rights and pensions.
From the start, the 1967 convention seemed written by political insiders for political insiders. While it proposed a few bold things (restrictions on wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping), almost everyone was disappointed in some aspect of it. Most of all, the proposal ground up against the rocks of New York’s Blaine Amendment, the 1894 constitutional provision that prohibits direct state aid to parochial schools. The proposed repeal of Blaine divided New Yorkers bitterly. The state’s leading public officials opposed or refused to campaign for the proposed constitution. The defeat was overwhelming.
In a post-Citizens United v. FEC and post-McCutcheon v. FEC America, untold millions are ready to be spent from around the country to soften the ground for a New York State Constitutional Convention. Certain phrases are already popping up on web sites and in mailers. “Blaine Amendment.” “Article V, Section 7” (pension protection). “Adirondack Park” (drill, baby, drill). New Yorkers have no explicit state constitutional right to own or use firearms, says that email.
2017 is 27 months away. Fair warning.
Michael Miller has worked in state and local government. Email: email@example.com