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DEMOCRATS TAKING POLITICAL RISK WITH STANCE ON CONVENTION

For years, the state Democratic Party has tried to hold itself out as the agent of good government and reform.

So where on the issue of holding a constitutional convention -- which backers offer as the best chance of reforming the way Albany works -- is the Democratic Party?

Either silent or opposed.

It is a position some party members say could come back to haunt them in 1998.

With Gov. Pataki and U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato on record favoring the convention, some Democrats fear the Republicans will grab an issue -- government reform -- that Democrats have tried to claim as their own.

While Pataki and D'Amato only recently came out in favor of the convention, the Democratic Party's chief leaders, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Comptroller H. Carl McCall, for months have been actively opposed.

And the Democratic Party, under pressure from some of its union activist members to oppose the convention, came up with an alternative: no position.

Clearly, there are a number of Republicans opposing the convention. Most notable is Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. And the Republican Party has remained silent. But its leaders, including Pataki, D'Amato and Assembly Minority Leader Thomas Reynolds of Erie County all say a convention is needed.

Will the GOP be able to make political hay out of the Democrats' position on the convention?

John Sullivan, chairman of the Democratic Party's executive committee, said such concerns were very much on his mind last month when he managed to table a motion to have the Democrats come out against the convention.

"How can you be pro status quo when you're out of office? I didn't think officially we should adopt a stance because it could be to our detriment," he said.

Former Gov. Mario Cuomo, a longtime convention supporter, rebuked Silver and McCall for opposing the gathering.

"Why Democrats, who are supposed to be for progress and forward-thinking, would be against it, I don't know," he said.

He talked of Silver, along with his counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, as "the people with all the power. . . . They don't want things changed."

He said Democrats and liberal groups, like the unions and environmental organizations opposing the convention, are sending a message that New Yorkers -- who ultimately would have to approve anything convention delegates devise -- can't be trusted to act responsibly.

"It's politically suicidal, and I'm not going to assist in their life-taking by agreeing with them," Cuomo said.

Silver dismissed the criticism. "I would tend to think the quote -- unquote -- Democrats who support a convention are people who read polls and think it would be popular to support it," Silver said.

McCall did not return repeated calls seeking his comment.

But a number of Democrats aren't pleased the top party leaders are giving the Republicans a political gift for 1998.

"I'm ashamed the Democrats are afraid of change," said Sen. Richard Dollinger, a Rochester Democrat and convention supporter. "I think we have made a substantial miscalculation of the voters and the antipathy of the voters' feelings that state government is dysfunctional."

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