This Nov. 4, New Yorkers will decide whether to call a convention to examine the state constitution and write improvements. If the vote is "yes," as it should be, the convention's proposals will later go to the people for approval or rejection.
It's a simple but profound process grounded in traditional grass-roots American democracy.
Yet for all its merit, that democratic process has frightened -- out of their wits -- Albany insiders and lobbyists. Political leaders fear a loss of power. Liberals fear a conservative tide. Special interests fear the loss of pet privileges.
The result is a curious paradox. No one seems to disagree that New York's constitution -- vastly overwritten, often obsolete, duplicative of state statutes, out of touch -- cries out for major revision. Yet they recoil from calling a convention to correct the problems.
Foes have tossed every bugaboo imaginable at the convention idea in order to scare voters.
"Blowing $50 million for insiders to give themselves more privileges and perks is a waste," screams one slick brochure. The trouble with that argument is that prominent insiders like Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, don't want a convention. If they're out to protect perks, they're trying to do it by blocking a convention -- not urging one.
The same brochure warns gravely of "risk of extremists hijacking the convention." Well, which is it? Insiders defending the status quo or extremists trying to upset it?
Most of the objections of the forces urging a "no" vote on Nov. 4 fade or vanish when subjected to thoughtful reflection. Take a look at some of them:
"So much could be lost":
Many of the opponents fear the loss of single clauses or structures. But if they're worthwhile, why would they be junked? "Forever Wild" Adirondack forests and the Board of Regents, for example, were established by the Republican-controlled 1894 convention, one of New York's most productive. These time-tested programs were not threatened by any of this century's three earlier conventions -- two controlled by Republicans, one by Democrats. The public would be unlikely to tolerate dismantling them in a 1999 convention, either.
"The timing isn't right -- constitutional conventions should be held in contemplative, serene times":
When are those? New York's first constitution was written in 1777 during the Revolutionary War, with British soldiers chasing the delegates around. The 1894 convention followed the financial panic of '93. The one in 1938 came during the Great Depression. The backdrop to the 1967 convention was urban riots, Vietnam and landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings on reapportionment.
"The delegates will be too partisan":
Virtually all of New York's nine conventions featured high-stakes jockeying for political advantage. Maneuvering delayed the successful 1894 convention for years. Democrats finally wrote delegate-selection rules -- then watched in horror as voters chose a strong GOP majority when they selected the convention delegates. There are no non-partisan conventions. But elections aren't non-partisan, either, and should we stop holding those?
"Extremists will capture the convention":
On statewide ballots since World War II, New Yorkers have elected Govs. Thomas Dewey, Averell Harriman, Nelson Rockefeller, Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo and George Pataki. There's not an extremist in the bunch.
Nor does New York's constitutional history show the reckless work of extremists. Peter J. Galie, a political scientist at Canisius College who has studied New York constitutional conventions, says the tendency of New York constitutional conventions is "moderate progressivism."
The unhappy truth is that what most convention foes truly fear is their own inability to control a genuinely democratic, open constitutional assembly.
Independent delegates just might decide that New York does not need the second largest state senate in the country, with 61 members. Or that legislative districts could be more fairly reapportioned as several states do it -- not by the self-serving Legislature, as in New York, but by an independent commission with review by the courts.
Or, Heaven forbid, responsible delegates might try to require Albany to end 13 consecutive years of late budgets.
All too often, objections to a 1999 state constitutional convention boil down to elitist or insider fears about the people's judgment.
New Yorkers might better heed the advice of an old friend. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Americans in 1933, "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
Only a convention has a chance of circumventing Albany's entrenched interests.