ALBANY – Preserving the status quo can create the strangest of bedfellows in Albany.
Just look at the jockeying over whether New York should hold a convention to consider changes to the state Constitution. Groups that could seldom stand to be in the same room with one another are working together to defeat the question known as Proposal One that goes to voters in four weeks.
The lineup of opposition groups includes: environmental groups, gay rights organizations, New York City cops, Western New York auto industry workers, the state chapter of the National Rifle Association, every imaginable public and private-sector union, political leaders on the left and right and even a group called “Humanists of Long Island.”
No matter their differences, these organizations agree on one thing: Proposal One presents too much risk to their individual causes.
“Groups that on 364 days a year can’t agree on anything on this one day are coming together to say ‘No,’ " said Mario Cilento, president of the 2.5 million-member New York State AFL-CIO.
Supporters of Proposal One say it’s not surprising that special interests with deep ties in Albany are furiously working against the ballot measure.
“The Legislature is scared," Evan Davis, an organizer of the “yes” vote, said of a convention that represents an end-run around state lawmakers.
“The people who have invested heavily in the Legislature and who depend on the Legislature are also scared,’’ added Davis, manager of the Committee for a Constitutional Convention and a former chief counsel during the administration of the late Gov. Mario Cuomo.
A rare alliance
Consider two groups: Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts and the New York Right to Life Committee. The longtime opponents have been in an especially nasty battle the past several years over whether New York State should expand its abortion rights laws.
The issue has been at a stalemate in the Legislature, and a constitutional convention offers the opportunity to settle the dispute in a much stronger legal format – the state’s Constitution – rather than a statute that future lawmakers and governors could undo.
The uncertainty about what might happen in a convention – and who might be elected delegates next year if Proposal One passes in November – has pushed both abortion rights opponents and supporters into an opposition alliance.
“Abandoning our legislative process for a constitutional convention risks our rights,’’ said Robin Chappelle Golston, chief executive officer of the statewide Planned Parenthood group.
A convention would not be inclusive – “making it vulnerable to powerful special interests that do not stand for New Yorkers,” she added.
But anti-abortion activists fear that an expansion of abortion laws - presently just proposed legislation that Planned Parenthood supports - could be placed into the state’s Constitution.
“This legislation has not passed because the majority of the people of New York have opposed it. A constitutional convention might be a way to accomplish these sinister goals and pro-life people would no longer be able to protect mothers and babies through defeating pro-abortion legislation or passing pro-life legislation,’’ said Barbara Meara, chair of the New York State Right to Life Committee.
Those two groups are part of a Proposal One opposition campaign called New Yorkers Against Corruption. Its members include leaders from the New York Republican Party, New York Conservative Party and the Working Families Party, the state’s most liberal party with roots in some labor unions.
This opposition group also includes unions representing health care workers, teachers, state and local public employees and various trades. Those are the kinds of labor groups that boast some of New York’s most sophisticated and deep-pocketed political campaign operations, and Cilento said they will bring the full weight of their operations into a "no" vote effort on Proposal One.
Opposition – for varied reasons
Members of this colorful tapestry of opposition have individual reasons for getting involved.
Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, worries that gun opponents could lead a push in a constitutional convention to get major components of the state’s SAFE Act inserted into the Constitution.
“I think we have more of a chance of losing rights than gaining anything,’’ King said of a convention.
He and other opposition leaders worry who would control a state convention.
“The delegates are going to come from New York City, and they’re going to be extreme liberals and that’s where the anti-gun forces come from,’’ said King, whose group is an affiliate of the NRA.
Ed Cox, chairman of the state Republican Party, is another opponent.
“The structure of the constitutional convention in New York puts far too much control into the hands of liberal politicians and special interests who could do catastrophic damage to New York's already precarious finances," Cox said. "The risk of potential outcomes under these circumstances is simply too high for me to support it.’’
Environmentalists also fear the delegate make-up.
“Approval of a convention places every safeguard we’ve fought for and cherish, like (the) Forever Wild clause, on the chopping block or subject to a political trade,’’ said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York.
The Forever Wild clause, protecting millions of acres in the Adirondacks and Catskills, was approved in a state constitutional convention in 1894. But groups like Environmental Advocates and the Adirondack Council fear campaign finance laws could make it easier for opponents of Forever Wild to influence the convention delegate selection process. [That process would occur next year if Proposal One passes.]
The focus should be on an “environmental bill of rights” amendment pending in the Legislature and not “on a convention where dark money and polluters win the day,’’ Iwanowicz said.
Staying the course
New York’s Constitution includes some of the strongest labor protections in the nation, including provisions on pension rights, workers compensation, unemployment insurance and prevailing wages for public projects.
"All of those things could possibly be attacked,’’ said Cilento, head of the state AFL-CIO.
Unions are among the most potent political forces at the Capitol. They get major policy and spending bills approved or killed, and help Democrats and Republicans get elected to the Legislature.
Why, then, would unions not be well-positioned in a constitutional convention to drive through even more gains for unionized workers in a state with the nation’s largest percentage of organized workers in its labor force?
It’s about risk.
“When you have some of the strongest labor protections in the country, it is very difficult to gamble on all that. It is much easier to stay the course,’’ Cilento said.
A Siena College poll last week gave opponents some mixed news. Support for Proposal One has been steadily dropping, and Siena found backing from 44 percent of registered voters.
But respondents were receptive to issues that could come up in a convention, such as term limits for state officeholders. For unions, one question in the poll sent worry signals: 41 percent of voters say collective bargaining rights of public employees should have limits.
One member of the opposition group said his stance is not based on what might, or might not, happen at a convention.
“I very, simplistically, don’t see a need for it,’’ said Mike Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party.
He noted voters on the same ballot next month will have an opportunity to approve changes to the constitution – including stripping pensions from government officials convicted in felony corruption cases connected to their public jobs. He dismisses claims that a convention is needed to address Albany’s unending corruption caseload.
“I see it as a boondoggle and a waste of taxpayer money,’’ Long said.
Chance for change
The basic message of Proposal One supporters is change. A constitutional convention has not been held in New York in 50 years, and it won’t happen in 2019 unless voters next month approve it in the referendum.
Bill Samuels, founder of Effective NY, a group supporting Proposal One, sounded hopeful earlier this year that some unions might get on board. But he acknowledged few likely would “because they already have their access.’’
“You see no establishment people for it,’’ said Samuels, a former advisor to Mario Cuomo.
There are groups – such as Citizens Union, the New York Bar Association and the League of Women Voters – behind the convention proposal. Donors to the pro-convention group include several Democratic and Republican activists, constitutional scholars like Canisius College emeritus professor of political science Peter Galie, former Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine, and former Court of Appeals Judge Victoria Graffeo.
But Davis, a leader in the "yes" votge campaign, acknowledged serious opposition.
“We’re going to be seriously outspent,” he said.
To make up for that, backers are focusing heavily on social media, statewide forums and free media via newspaper stories and editorials.
Both sides do agree on one thing: the electorate, especially after the 2016 presidential election, can be unpredictable. That’s making opponents work far harder than they did 20 years ago when they last defeated a convention ballot question.
“We are at a time in this country when you cannot take anything for granted,’’ said the AFL-CIO’s Cilento.
Supporters are hoping Proposal One will attract voters who might not know much about the issue but will read the ballot question and see a "yes" vote as an opportunity to fix problems in Albany.
“The biggest difference from 20 years ago is that there are a couple of issues that have led people to say ‘enough is enough and we’ve got to fix Albany,’ and the head of that list, of course, is corruption,’’ Davis said.