New York Voters Have a Once-in-a-Generation Shot at Real Reform

The real fight is over whether to change the political status quo or let it remain.


Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Millions of dollars have poured into a bitter Election Day fight and divided New York’s Democratic Party. The stakes are high: Only once every 20 years can New Yorkers call for a convention to bypass the legislature to amend the state’s constitution, or “ConCon” as it’s known.    

It’s a battle between new, post-Trump progressives and old, machine Democrats that offers a window into future intramural Democratic battles across the country.

Progressives on both sides of the ConCon fight support organized labor and want to expand rights for all, including enabling everyone to retire in dignity, and want New York to be the best place to live, work, and raise a family.

And progressives on both sides of the fight are part of New York’s dominant party, where Democrats have an overwhelming two-one voter registration advantage. In the 2016 election, Clinton carried 40 out of New York’s 63 gerrymandered state senate districts, including 9 represented by Republicans.

Opponents, though, have chosen to re-live the ghosts of past progressive glory. With parallels to Trump’s nostalgia for the “greatness” of America’s postwar era, they hearken back to the New Deal, which ironically was the last time the New York Constitution was amended by convention. They extol the gains from that convention—union pensions, collective bargaining, social safety net, public education, and wilderness preservation—to raise the specter of what could be lost in a Citizens United-era convention.

No surprise that unions are the core of the opposition. Union leadership is tapping the same deep economic insecurity about the future that Trump so successfully exploited. But economic security is not the real issue, and voters may sense that. Despite an overwhelming advantage in muscle and money, polls show that ConCon opponents may not have closed the deal.

The real fight is over changing the political status quo or letting it remain. No more evidence is needed than the collective opposition to the constitutional convention of the leadership of every one of New York’s major political parties. What are they defending? Financial perks including unlimited outside employment, unlimited contributions from LLCs (including those with no other purpose than contributing to a politician’s campaign) and the crowning jewel—the ability to essentially convert unspent campaign funds to pay for all but the most personal expenses after leaving office. It should be no surprise that years of valiant efforts to introduce reforms by civic-minded legislators have been met with no more than mere lip service by the lawmakers who enjoy these perks.

Voters are fed up. Poll after poll shows that large majorities of voters favor ending the “incumbency protection plan” that re-elected 98% of sitting lawmakers in the last state election and made New York America’s corruption champion as measured by convictions of public officials, turning voters off the entire process. Only Mississippi regularly defeats New York for lowest voter turnout in the country.

But will voters make the connection that a constitutional convention is the only likely mechanism to achieve reforms? In a convention, proposed amendments could include term limits, campaign finance reform, easier and more convenient voting, reforms to foster more competitive elections, a truly independent ethics watchdog, an independent redistricting commission, and a full-time legislature.

Voters have paid less attention to other priorities of good government groups that would require constitutional amendments: modernizing New York’s constitution, largely written in 1894 and seven times the length of the U.S. Constitution, and reforming an archaic and byzantine court system.

The anti-Trump backlash and changing demographics have injected new interest in changing the status quo, energizing the constitutional convention’s proponents and increasing the threat level perceived by opponents. The traditional coalition of tiny good government groups has been augmented by young activists who have mounted a persuasive and passionate public education campaign.

These new activists see a direct connection between the ConCon, the elimination of the incumbency protection plan and passage of progressive measures currently blocked in the state Senate: including carbon emissions reduction, women’s reproductive rights, universal health care, gender equality, criminal justice reforms, a state DREAM Act, and making New York a sanctuary state.  

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There’s no surprise that a vote that occurs once every 20 years has been more enthusiastically embraced by younger people and minorities. Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers but are underrepresented in New York City and Long Island unions. They more likely self-identify as progressives and are more receptive to and astute about digital media so it’s perhaps unsurprising that 66% of Millennials say they will vote “Yes.” Although African-Americans represent the highest percentage of union members in New York City and Long Island, the same poll showed a majority of African-Americans would vote “Yes.” And among Latinos, 64% would vote “Yes.”

A constitutional convention could propose important amendments that could let New York address the critical threats — from climate change, institutional bias and automation — that will otherwise only escalate over the next 20 years, such as:

  • An environment bill of rights, establishing a right to clean air and water, mandating that the state government prioritize rising sea levels and other global warming factors in making decisions
  • A digital bill of rights to establish universal and equal access to the Internet, mandate security over citizen data and protect citizens from cyberattacks and cybercrime; require government services to be delivered in the most immediate, convenient and user-friendly means possible; regulation of AI and robots to prevent hidden discrimination and bias
  • Mandating an equal opportunity educational system that equips our graduates to be effective contributors to our civic society, and have equal access to opportunities in a fast-changing economy
  • Modernizing the definition of equal rights to go beyond gender and disabilities to seek an end to institutional bias

Old Democrats may lose even if they win. The fight has re-opened wounds among Democrats still sore from last year’s election and alienated the new progressives who are the key to the party’s future. Unions led the creation of the ConCon opposition group “New Yorkers Against Corruption,” which includes groups anathema to progressives such as Right to Life and the NRA. NYAC hired Brabender Cox, the right-wing ad agency known for their work for Mike Pence and Rick Santorum, as their creative agency. And the extent of their willingness to play fast-and-loose with facts has surprised seasoned political players and energized new ones.

What happens on November 7 may be New York’s last best chance for fundamental reform for the next 20 years. The opposition has the advantage in an off-year election with few competitive races. But, given the fact that a month ago over 50% of New York voters knew little or nothing about Proposition 1, nothing is certain except that Democrats in New York will stand a house divided.