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In 1894, Grover Cleveland ruled the White House and horses pulled buggies along Delaware Avenue. That's the era when New York's state constitution as a whole was last rewritten and then ratified by the people.

With a new century just ahead, it's time for an independent, comprehensive look at this document written in the last one.

Luckily, New Yorkers can seize the opportunity on Election Day by voting to convene a new state constitutional convention in 1999. The decision is up to them, and there's every reason to vote yes.

This would be a grass-roots, people's convention -- that's the way the law is set up. New Yorkers would elect the delegates in 1998 -- no one would get to serve by already holding some political office or job. Everyone who wants to work on the new constitution has to be elected for that job alone.

Once the delegates are chosen, they would convene in 1999 and have the rare opportunity to examine New York's fundamental charter of state government with an independent eye. Not from the top down, hopefully, but from the bottom up. Not from the perspective of Albany insiders, but from that of outsiders peering inside Albany.

It's too bad that this basic democratic process so frightens those who distrust the people, for a variety of reasons, that they have forged an unlikely coalition of 68 special-interest groups to try to persuade New Yorkers to vote not to hold a convention.

The spooked extremism among some coalition members found voice in remarks by Bobbie Handman, director of the New York Office of People for the American Way Action Fund. Her panicked warning was that the convention would be run by "incompetents, special interests, lobbyists, windbags, PAC money in closed-door, undemocratic intrigues."

Apparently she's assuming the people would elect delegates of such low quality that they would let all that happen.

How's that for trashing a process as democratic as America itself? Maybe Handman lost her own American way.

Contrast her hysteria with the support for a convention from Gov. George Pataki and Assembly Minority Leader Tom Reynolds, R-Springville, happy exceptions to convention foes among entrenched Albany insiders.

"It's time we shook things up," Reynolds says, "and let the chips fall where they may."

How refreshingly open to new ideas. Sounds almost Jeffersonian, this support for periodic reviews of constitutional guidelines by the people they govern.

The most dispiriting part of the special-interest opposition is this: It betrays a failure of confidence, a quaking insecurity about self-government, a narrow self-interest.

New Yorkers need to cast self-doubts aside. If the people pay attention, and if they elect delegates committed to truly democratic ideals, this convention can produce a modern state constitution built on the best traditions of our past.

The constitution New York deserves is a coherent document that defines broad principles of government, that clarifies relationships within state government and between Albany and the localities. The promise of the convention is a unified document erasing the wrinkles of age to foster justice in the courts, the more efficient delivery of services at leaner costs and fair treatment of state residents.

Why fear an assembly that can move toward those noble goals? This is not an impossible task unless no one undertakes it. Earlier generations succeeded, rewriting the constitution to suit the problems of their eras. So can ours.

Since 1846, New York constitutions have required votes by the people on whether to hold a convention at least once every 20 years. In 1977, New Yorkers rejected the idea. We, the people, should not repeat the mistake.

New York's last convention occurred in 1967. Like one in 1915, it recommended a new constitution that was turned down by New Yorkers in the referendum asking them to ratify it.

The voter rejection is sometimes cited as proof that the 1967 convention failed. But what it really shows is the powerful check that the voters hold against a convention rewrite that they think goes too far.

The post-convention referendum leaves the ultimate decision with the people. No constitution written by a 1999 convention, either, can take effect unless New Yorkers approve it.

Were Thomas Jefferson alive, there's little doubt where he would stand on the questions of trusting the people and calling a convention.

After one of the most vitriolic political campaigns in American history, Jefferson gave his first inaugural address as president in March 1801. "Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with government of himself," he told his audience. "Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels . . . to govern him?"

New Yorkers should keep Jefferson's democratic faith in mind when stepping into the voting booth Nov. 4. If we don't trust the people -- ourselves -- to oversee revision of the state constitution -- and then to evaluate revisions proposed by a convention -- who in the world do we trust?

What angels are there to do our job? None. And the chance may not come again for another 20 years. This is the time for us -- the people -- to do it.

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