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HIGH-TECH CAMPAIGN GIVES OPPONENTS A HEAD START

If the campaign to amend the State Constitution has not caught fire in the public's imagination, it has been a burning issue in the halls of organized labor.

Therein may lie the tale of whether the proposition succeeds.

A frantic and high-tech campaign has been taking place for months, far from the public's view, to scuttle the convention.

But statewide television ads supporting the convention are just now showing up. Until now, convention supporters have relied on less flamboyant methods that have attracted some policy wonks but have not captured the public's fancy.

One Democratic source involved in the anti-convention efforts said the basic tenet of the campaign is to keep it out of the public eye while making a concerted effort among organized labor and other special-interest groups to defeat the proposition.

Each night, hundreds of volunteers have been gathering in union offices across the state to reach out to fellow union members and urge a "no" vote.

At just one of those unions, 500 calls a night are being made in 12 offices from Long Island to Buffalo by volunteers from the 380,000-member New York State United Teachers.

With the same kind of high-speed, computer dialing phone systems used in presidential campaigns, those anonymous telephone campaigners have been pitching a simple message to their fellow union members. "This won't be a people's convention. This whole concept is an idea that's masquerading as democracy," Linda Rosenblatt, a NYSUT spokeswoman, said of the phone strategy.

Public-employee and private-sector unions have been churning out millions of copies of more
than 400 internal newsletters to members with a central theme: Vote no on the convention question.

Election Day get-out-the-vote efforts -- from driving voters to polls to handing out leaflets -- also are planned. In addition, union activists, in a repeat of efforts from last year's presidential race, are going door to door to fellow union members in all 61 State Senate districts urging a no vote.

Their strategy is simple: numbers. The coalition opposing the convention -- led mostly by the state's big unions -- has a total membership exceeding 3.5 million.

Opponents think that a low voter turnout will help their cause because they will have mobilized so many of their union and special-interest members to vote no.

"The strength of the labor movement is its sheer numbers, and we'd hope that would be enough to get the point across that a constitutional convention is a bad idea," said Mario Cilento, AFL-CIO spokesman.

The strategy appears to be working so far because the campaign on amending the Constitution has been a yawner.

"It's been lackluster," said Edward Cleary, president of the 2.5 million-member state AFL-CIO, one of the leaders of the anti-convention camp.

Some political observers think that the fewer people who know about it, the more likely the convention will be rejected. That observation seems to be borne out in polls showing that people who are aware of the question would vote yes on holding a constitutional convention.

Opponents and backers of the convention agree on one thing: It hasn't been an easy issue to get voters excited about.

"It's almost been like a pre-radio and -television campaign," said state Sen. Richard A. Dollinger, D-Rochester, a backer of the convention. "Much of it has really been coming from people who have been watching the system or political bench-warmers like me."

Convention supporters for months have waged their campaign almost exclusively in such ancient political settings as college halls and library community rooms, and on newspaper op-ed pages.

"It's been a campaign about ideas," Dollinger said. "It's not a campaign where candidates act like political vultures. . . . It's been a debate about issues and what the future of the state can be. I think it's been the most uplifting political campaign I've ever been involved in."

Jane Alexander -- a spokeswoman for Citizens Against a Constitutional Convention, an unusual coalition representing an assortment of conservatives, liberals, environmentalists, women's-rights advocates, churches and unions -- dismisses speculation that the "no" side wants a low turnout from the electorate.

Voters not reached by either side in the debate are more likely to vote in favor, she said.

One factor that could aid convention opponents is an unrelated issue also on the ballot Nov. 4: a proposal to borrow $2.4 billion to fix public schools.

The measure was pushed at the end of the legislative session in August by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, a convention foe. Observers see the bond vote drawing to the polls hundreds of thousands of teachers and construction workers with a vested interested in the bond proposal.

While in the voting booth, many -- following their union's lead -- are likely to vote against a convention, convention backers fear.

With a low turnout expected this year across the state, the chief difficulty of both sides has been getting their messages out to the right people -- such as people who will definitely vote.

"The anti's have intensity on their side," said Jack Cookfair, a Republican political consultant. But he said their pitch for why the average New Yorker -- for whom a convention and its possibilities for reforming state government might sound attractive -- should vote no is a considerable challenge.

"It's a much tougher message," Cookfair said of trying to dissuade people from voting for possible improvements to a system that many people consider broken, according to public-opinion polls.

Perhaps that explains why opponents up to now have not mounted a radio and television barrage trying to defeat the convention, observers say. For months, they have relied only on internal mailings filled with gloom-and-doom predictions of what a convention would bring.

"It could be a disaster for working families," one flier said. "A convention could take away every right you have," one internal union mailing warned.

On the "yes" side, campaigning for months has been limited mostly to speeches and debates. Its most visible spokesman, until a growing number of politicians began jumping on the bandwagon near the final weeks, has been Robert Schulz, an anti-tax advocate from the Adirondacks who has sued the government dozens of times over spending and borrowing practices.

Schulz said the silent way the campaign carried on for months "has been our worst nightmare."

"What we see is hundreds of thousands of people receiving 'vote no' propaganda through the mail," said Schulz, who said his campaign could afford only a couple of thousand dollars worth of bumper stickers.

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