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DESPITE 'DEBACLE,' THOSE WHO RECALL '67 HAVE HIGH HOPES THIS TIME

Many claim it was doomed from the start.

Soon after the state's ninth constitutional convention, news accounts called the gathering a "debacle," a "disaster" and little more than a grandiose legislative session.

The 175-day convention, held from April 4 to Sept. 26, 1967, was roundly criticized as expensive, patronage-laden, needlessly prolonged and marked by blatant partisan maneuvering.

The proposed constitutional changes that came out of that convention, including a state takeover of welfare costs, a centralized court system, granting state aid to parochial schools and establishing a bipartisan reapportionment scheme, were presented to voters as one package. The citizens killed it by a majority of almost 3 to 1.

"As it progressed, you knew that it just wasn't going to get anywhere," said Albert S. Callan Jr., 79, of Niverville in Columbia County, a Republican and a delegate to the 1967 convention. "It was extremely frustrating."

But ask Callan 30 years later whether the state should hold another constitutional convention, and he doesn't hesitate:

"I think there should be. . . . There are just as many questions now, if not more, than there were back then."

Henrik N. Dullea, a vice president at Cornell University who served as a top aide to then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and wrote a book on the 1967 convention, says the event was a "magnificent failure," yet he is campaigning for another convention before the turn of the century.

Dullea thinks that some of the mistakes of 1967 could be averted in 1999 with more focus from the news media on the issues and the delegate-selection process.

Thirty years later, the 1967 convention routinely is derided as a gathering of political insiders, marred by political rivalries.

For the first time in more than a century, Democrats controlled the convention, taking 102 of the 186 delegate seats. Thirteen of the delegates were state lawmakers, and an additional 32 were former legislators and members of Congress. Eighty-three percent of the delegates had previous government experience.

Ninety percent of the Democratic and Liberal parties' delegates came from the state's five major urban areas, so the cities were the focus of the convention's attention.

Then-Assembly Speaker Anthony Travia, D-Queens, was elected president of the convention, and the procedural rules of the Assembly were the template for the convention rules.

Travia, the delegates in his corner and the Republicans were not committed to reform, Dullea said. Travia, however, promoted an issue of importance to one of his supporters, the Catholic Church: Repeal of the "Blaine Amendment," which prohibits the state from advancing money or credit to religious schools.

The delegates approved the measure, but it divided the convention by a 132-49 vote, splitting the Democratic majority and causing the most liberal reformers to leave the party, Dullea said. The disaffected Democrats never returned to the fold.

In a fatal move, the delegates decided to put the entire package up for one vote instead of allowing votes on individual amendments. Faced with fierce opposition from the media, Republicans and non-Catholics, the document went down to defeat.

"We didn't have a true cross section of the people of the whole state, and the big cities ran the convention," said Charles Clay, an attorney in Catskill in Greene County and a 1967 Republican delegate. "In the New York Times on the last day, my statement was on the front page -- that the people of the state would bury this thing in the Hudson River because it was an unfair document. . . . It was oriented toward New York City. You've got five counties there, but there are 57 other counties that ought to get an equal shake. It's supposed to be for the whole state."

The 1967 delegates say that despite the outcome of the convention, it is worth another try.

"We can't bury our heads in the sand," Clay said. "We should give it another chance to see if we can straighten ourselves out, and do a job that's going to be good for the entire state."

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