NYS Constitution Convention and Polarization

In addition to the US Constitution, the states all have state constitutions.  In NYS, under a provision in the constitution, at least every 20 years the question of whether or not there should be a state constitutional convention must appear on the ballot.  This question will appear on the 2017 ballot in November.   


On July 10, 2017, I attended a debate on this issue.


Professor Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz argued that the state should hold a Convention, as it was the quickest way to address the myriad of issues that face the state, from endemic corruption to dysfunctional government. 


Mrs. Sendek, a classroom teacher, argued that the convention process had a good chance of being coopted by the existing political ascendancy, becoming a  (quite expensive, this is after all NYS) nullity.  She argued instead that voters should support "citizen-legislators" and pursue reform through the legislative process. 


Both sides presented their points effectively and made cogent arguments.  I attended this presentation having no clear opinion on the issue.  However, the strongest opinion I came away with was how deeply polarized the attendees were.


Professor Benjamin made a strong point that the state constitutional convention was the fastest way to address the many things that had made the state something less than the "Empire State" of his 1950s youth.  Benjamin, a Conservative, made the point that many of the Progressive things that the other side wanted to preserve, protection of state worker pensions and an explicit state commitment to the needy in the state constitution, had come out of the 1938 State Constitutional Convention.   


On the other hand, the process seemed to have no legitimacy to Mrs. Sendek and her supporters, the majority of the attendees.  They  seemed to find no legitimacy in the process itself, in part because the last such convention, approved in 1967 and held in 1969, had been dominated by the existing politicians, very expensive and produced nothing.


On the other hand, while I admired Mrs. Sendek's idealism in believing in "citizen-legislators," the people who were elected as idealistic "citizen-legislators" in 1994 as part of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America Congress, either became career politicians or left politics far short of accomplishing their goals.


The problem is a recurring one in NYS and US . . . and I dare to think world  . . .  politics: Legitimacy.


People know the current dispensation is not working but do not trust the available processes to change things.  Thinkers like John Robb and Joshua Cooper Ramo write about this issue.    Events like BREXIT and the election of Donald Trump seem to indicate a disaffection from the status quo.  As Yeats wrote about a century ago:


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


People like Mark Levin with his Convention of States/Article V Convention idea and, to a lesser degree, Professor Benjamin with his support for a NYS Constitutional Convention, stake their hopes on a centralized process that too many people have no faith in.  People like Mrs. Sendek put faith in honest individuals, which is surely the slimmest reed of all.


This is a troubling question.  As Michael Shaara has a character say in his novel The Killer Angels, "And the same for your adversaries: Meade, Hooker, Hancock, and - shall I say - Lincoln! The same God, same language, same culture and history, same songs, stories, legends, myths - different dreams. Different dreams. So very sad."


I think, unfortunately, we are again approaching the land of "different dreams." 





Donna Added Jul 11, 2017 - 2:09pm
I was invited to attend, did not make it. Sure wish i had. I am not sure which side i fall into, i see both points. I would prefer normal people , but as you stated, they seem to become corrupt, or never finish the job. 
I don't like the idea of putting more control into the hands of those who already have it, and abuse it, at any turn possible, do you see a solid solution? 
Yes NY is a damn expansive place, no matter how we try to cut it. But it is home, and extremely versatile..which is part of its charm. )0(
John Minehan Added Jul 11, 2017 - 2:31pm
Back in 1991, I was talking about the war, shortly after it ended, with Tim Gerrills, who was then DivArty S-2 in 1st CAV and a mentor of mine.
He said the danger of the Army as an institution was that you went along with things that did not work in order that you could reach a position where  you could change them and then found, at that point, that they no longer bothered you.
It appears to be the same in politics or any other position of authority in life.
So, while I admire the idealism behind the "citizen-legislator" concept, I think it winds up becoming an individualized determination whether it works or not  and the concept has an innate potential to be self-limiting.
The NYS Constitutional Convention (and Mark Levin's Article V Convention idea) seem to lack legitimacy in many people' eyes, they are too big and too centralized and they don't see their issues being addressed.
Maybe something in between might work, but neither side seem to be hearing the other and that deeply concerns me. 
Donna Added Jul 11, 2017 - 2:55pm
I think that is a major problem in all of today's politics. One side must listen to the other, we are all people, and want the same things in life, it seems to be the bigger the political field, the less we matter..Sad truth, but neither side ever wants to listen, or compromise.
John Minehan Added Jul 11, 2017 - 3:11pm
The inability to compromise is a potentially fatal flaw tat was apparent last night.
Dino Manalis Added Jul 11, 2017 - 4:36pm
People want change, but there's no quick or easy solution and problems are becoming worse and more expensive over time!
George N Romey Added Jul 12, 2017 - 7:33am
Donna and John we are divided because we lack leadership.  Politics today is playing lip service to your "base" while making sure big money donors get what they want and are well taken care of. 
John Minehan Added Jul 12, 2017 - 10:22am
George, as Yeats put it, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity."
Phil Greenough Added Jul 12, 2017 - 1:47pm
Assume there is a State Constitution Convention, what does that mean?  Who gets invited to the convention?  Who decides what issues are to be discussed?  Assuming the people invited to the Convention decide something by majority vote, what happens next? 
If you asked me it sounds like a big waste of time.  To the extent you want to amend the Constitution, a Bill is floated, a vote occurs and the results become a part of the Constitution (to the extent the ayes have it) .
Ric Wells Added Jul 12, 2017 - 1:53pm
John when I lived in NYS years ago the only representatives to a state constitution convention were elected officials. Has this changed 
John Minehan Added Jul 12, 2017 - 2:10pm
This was the crux of Mrs. Sedek's argument.
Let's talk about the process.
If the 2017 ballot referendum approves a Constitutional Convention, delegates are elected the next year (2018) and the convention is held in 2019.  The amendments approved are put on the ballot in 2019 or 2020 and are subject to an up or down vote by the state's eligible voters.
The delegates ideally run on a platform consisting of the things they want to change or preserve in the existing Constitution (first passed in 1894) as amended (notably substantial amendments coming out of the 1938 Convention).
One reason Prof. Benjamin liked the process is that it gives the opportunity (but not the certainty) that outside individuals will get involved in the process and historically people who had vast later impact first come to public notice through the Convention, as with the ten-somewhat obscure Al Smith, who subsequently became one of the State's better governors and the 1928 Democratic nominee.
John Minehan Added Jul 12, 2017 - 2:19pm
In 1967-'69, most of the Delegates were either elected officials or people who were part of the "political class" (party chairmen, maybe a state senator or assembly rep's chief of staff).
That was not the case before, notably in 1894, 1915 or 1938, which were very productive conventions that produced lasting change. 
In 1915, a rather obscure NYC, pol, the son of German and Italian Catholic immigrant parents by the name of Alfred Emmanuel Smith came to the fore, who would become one of  NYS's more effective governors and the first credible Catholic candidate for President in 1928.    
John Minehan Added Jul 12, 2017 - 2:25pm
I remember my parents, who took an interest in politics, discussing the Convention in '67 in great detail.
My father was disappointed by then-US Senator Bob Kennedy's vacillating position on the issue.  This was perhaps a function of my mother's somewhat uncritical (which was unusual, she was very discerning) support for RFK, whom my father respected, but far from uncritically.
I learned a lot from both of them.  It is always good to be around people who think and have informed opinions.   
Maureen Foster Added Jul 13, 2017 - 6:55am
Comment if I’m wrong Phil, but I think the point you were trying to make is that they can debate the Constitution at some convention until they’re blue in the face, at the end of the day, their opinion matters very little.  What causes the Constitution to change are votes by elected representatives, some of which may not be a part of the Convention.  Assume for a moment you’re on the committee, what types of things would you like to see changed in the state Constitution?
John Minehan Added Jul 13, 2017 - 11:31am
"What causes the Constitution to change are votes by elected representatives, some of which may not be a part of the Convention."
There are two ways to change the NYS Constitution: 1) the NYS Legislature can propose Amendments, which the voters then approve; or 2) a Convention can propose amendments, which the voters then approve.
In either case the final say is with the voters.
One issue the people opposing the Convention have is that the Delegates may disproportionately be either elected representatives or those controlled by them.   
Maureen Foster Added Jul 13, 2017 - 9:13pm
I just read up on the process for changing New York’s Constitution and The convention route has not been used in the modern history of New York.  The path is simply too difficult, so the process is deemed a big waste of time.  You didn’t answer my final question, what amendment is it that you desire?  Whatever it is, the easiest route to getting it passed is for your legislators to agree with you and for them to vote to put it on a ballot.  From there, it should be a cakewalk to getting it passed. 
John Minehan Added Jul 13, 2017 - 10:38pm
How do you define "modern history?"  The 1915 and 1938 Conventions were fairly momentous. 
Michael B. Added Jul 15, 2017 - 12:23am
Off-topic remark, but some years ago, I had a job where the state of New York was part of my "jurisdiction", and I had to contact various NY state government organizations on a regular basis. The people I dealt with were almost invariably acerbic, crabby, and even surly, but they equally invariably delivered the goods.
John Minehan Added Jul 24, 2017 - 3:45pm
NYS is a lot like Hess in the FRG, good people there who are in a hurry and can be abrupt.