Hoping to end what has largely been a stealth campaign, a millionaire Rochester businessman will launch a series of statewide television and radio advertisements next week to promote a state constitutional convention.
Thomas Golisano, who spent $7 million of his own money on his unsuccessful 1994 gubernatorial run, will be the major sponsor of the media campaign. He would not say how much he is willing to spend on the advertising, but State Sen. Richard A. Dollinger, D-Rochester said the campaign could cost at least several hundred thousand dollars and could run into the millions.
"We have this great opportunity every 20 years (to hold a convention), and I don't think the frustration with our state government has been ever higher," said Golisano, the chief executive officer of a payroll processing firm.
Next month, as they do every 20 years, voters will decide whether to call a convention to consider changes to what critics say is an outdated State Constitution. Advocates say a convention could force through reforms in such things as the state budget and elections, which lawmakers have been unwilling to change.
Critics say the convention would be a costly affair run by political insiders that could strip away many protections now contained in the 50,000 word document that guides everything from the power of the governor to the workings of the court system.
Whether Golisano will force the convention's opponents into an ad wars will be decided in the coming week, groups fighting the convention said. Opponents include some of the state's most powerful special interests, including virtually all the big labor unions.
With polls showing many voters unaware of the upcoming vote, opponents are clearly worried by Golisano's ad campaign.
"It's one of the things we've been afraid of the whole time, that a special interest or someone with large sums of money will control the process," said Jane Alexander, a spokeswoman for Citizens Against the Constitutional Convention, a consortium of groups representing labor, women, environmentalists and churches.
Supporters have viewed Golisano as their best chance for funding what until now has largely been a grass-roots campaign for the convention. With Golisano possibly eyeing another run for elective office, his backers say his financial support of the convention won't hurt his statewide plans.
Convention proponents have been pressing to have Golisano team up with Ronald Lauder to pour millions of dollars into convention ads.
Lauder, a billionaire who has gotten involved in various political causes and is a major donor to Republican campaigns, is an heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune. Like Golisano, Lauder has pumped millions over the years on his political efforts, including $14 million on a unsuccessful campaign for New York City mayor in 1989.
Golisano said he and Lauder have not talked about the convention. But Alan Roth, a Lauder adviser, said he doesn't see Lauder and Golisano joining forces.
Lauder will decide by next week if he is to unleash any of his money on the convention vote.
"Ronald is in support, but it doesn't appear he will actively campaign for it," Roth said. He said that would not preclude Lauder, whose cause has been term limits for office holders, from campaigning next year for delegates to a convention if voters next month approve the 1999 gathering.
Golisano said he has talked several times with Gov. Pataki, who announced his support Tuesday for the convention. Whether the two will co-operate on pushing for a convention remained unclear, though Pataki has said he expects to limit his public push for the gathering to making some speeches.
"I spent a lot of money three years ago (in the 1994 campaign) because I think the state needed a lot of help," Golisano said. "And now I can't think of a better opportunity to improve our state, whether it's the budget process or campaign finance reform or maybe restructuring the judicial system."