BY TRONE DOWD
More than 120 Southeast Queens residents gathered at the Robert Ross Family Center in St. Albans on Tuesday night to get a better understanding of the repercussions and advantages of a 2019 constitutional convention in New York.
The vote is on the back of the ballot this November and it gives voters the power to completely alter the future of the state. The PRESS of Southeast Queens is dissecting the matter, so that our readers can understand both sides of the vote.
What is the Constitutional Convention?
The constitutional convention is a chance to revise and retool the state constitution as seen fit by a delegation of three representatives from each of the state’s 63 senate districts. The process is triggered by a revolving public vote that takes place every two decades. Its defenders would argue that the vote gives New Yorkers the power to introduce more modern policies for the state, while some of its detractors believe that it would empower corporations and set back workers’ rights.
As discussed at Tuesday’s meeting, the vote on whether to act on the possibility of a constitutional convention is not an easy decision. In fact, many advocates on both sides of the argument agreed with tenets of the opposing side. However, the vote ultimately comes down to sides: preservers and reformers.
Two Sides of the Constitutional Coin
On one side are the preservers, who believe that the constitutional convention is a risky investment, particularly during the current national political climate. Although New York is traditionally known as a “blue state,” some fear that the state’s traditionally progressive values could be put at risk with the current Republican majority in the state senate.
Certain key rights provided by the New York State Constitution are often cited by those who oppose the convention—for example, certain workers rights such as guaranteed pensions for the retired. While some argue that those rights would be safe, many have pointed to states such as Nevada, Wisconsin and Michigan where conventions resulted in the downfall of working class benefits as corporations cut funding to retirement programs. Another concern regards the fate of Article 17—which provides less fortunate New Yorkers with a right to “public relief and care” in the form of shelter and treatment—of the state’s constitution.
On the other side of the argument, reformers look to the convention as a means of mandating the needs of the people. Changes to the constitution could mean altering the political process in a way that would make passing legislation less of a fight. Reformers also believe that a constitution would give state politics a complete makeover by giving candidates running for office against incumbents a fairer chance at campaigning and voicing concerns of the people. They see it as a chance to push the state in a new direction—progressive, conservative or otherwise.
Reformers cite many of the rights that affect New Yorkers today—including workers’ compensation and free education—are the direct result of past constitutional conventions. And while some reformers understand concerns over guaranteed pensions being altered in some form or fashion, they believe that unions would never allow this to happen in Albany without a fight. Overall, they believe that a 2019 constitutional convention is a chance to adjust an already archaic governing document now before it is up for its next public vote in 2037.
Where Experts Stand
A total of seven experts of different backgrounds attended Tuesday night’s meeting with various takes on why residents should be voting “no” or “yes” on Nov. 7.
Art Chang, an entrepreneur and founder of the Sanctuary State Project, is a reformer and said that a constitutional convention is a way to further protect New Yorkers from potentially oppressive federal laws. He said that modernizing healthcare and education, empowering local government and changing New York State’s arbitrary voting practices can all be addressed. He praised elected officials in the room for their legislative work, but argued that they have had a hand tied behind their back due to provisions listed in the constitution.
“How many years have you spent putting the same bills in front of your committees only to see them stall year after year?” Chang asked elected officials and residents in the room. “We can change this.”
Dermot Smyth, the political action coordinator for the United Federation of Teachers, stood united with SSEU Local 371 President Anthony Wells, saying that pensions are too important to put at risk.
“Everyone should have a pension,” Wells said. “It’s a crime that everyone doesn’t have one. We fought hard to make the lives of our members and their families better. They want to change all of that in the constitution.”
Smyth said he believed that the media and corporations would push a narrative that pensions are a waste of taxpayers’ money. He pleaded with residents to “not fall for it.”
Evan Davis, a former aide to Gov. Mario Cuomo, is in favor of the convention. He said that he believes that a convention could bring about a new day in progressive politics.
“The convention of 1894 declared the right to a free public education,” he said. “The convention of 1938 declared the labor bill of rights—the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, workers’ compensation. We didn’t have those things. This came from a convention. I think that a convention today can bring us more treasures to add to the chest.”
Attorney Susan Welber, of the Legal Aid Society, said that the organization was not supporting the convention as it would put “right-to-shelter” laws in jeopardy.
“There are tools in the current state constitution that are very important to Legal Aid’s ability to represent people in New York City that have fallen on hard times,” she said, referencing Article 17. “We have used that provision in lawsuits to establish rights that benefit all New Yorkers whose income, due to a disability or job loss, has fallen off.”
Elected Officials Take A Side
State Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), Assembly members Clyde Vanel (D-Queens Village) and Alicia Hyndman (D-Springfield Gardens) and Councilman I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans) all stood united with union leaders in supporting a “no” vote for the constitutional convention. They believe that putting pensions at risk is too great an issue to consider the other benefits of a convention.