Don’t Get Conned on the Con Con

With Election Day just hours away it’s time to get serious. With all my decisions basically set I’m still struggling on how to vote on the Constitutional Convention.  I have to admit, my first instinct was no way!  The convention organizing rules are rigged for insiders (said the insider), the establishment will control the agenda, and our system, as flawed and frail as it currently is, will just get worse.

Further, as a fan of fiscal restraint, I’m truly fearful that the legislature, which would have a powerful hand in any convention, will reassert their authority and end the strong powers of the Governor as it relates to budget making. Their logic is plain, as a Constitutional matter, it echoes of our federal system, where Congress controls the purse strings.  If that happens we can turn the lights off on New York – as in recent decades the only thing occasionally slowing down the growth of taxes and spending are New York’s chief executives.

But a funny thing happened – a group called New Yorkers Against Political Corruption caught my attention.  It seems they have weighed in on the issue spending millions to oppose the Constitutional Convention. I wondered, what does the Con-Con, have to do with political corruption? I thought the purpose would be to get a better system, less corrupt system. When you look behind the curtain, you find the group is made up of a host of large labor unions and their name – is simply a con. New Yorkers Against Political Corruption amounts to one of the most intellectually dishonest, cynical, ham-handed, hack jobs I’ve seen – and that is saying a lot.

And the more I looked, the more everyone who I thought might be for the Convention is opposed.  It seems like every institutional group that holds sway in Albany is more afraid of what they have to lose than what they have to gain.  The unions are fearful that pensions will be stripped.  The environmentalists worry that the “forever wild” clause will be watered down.  Gun owners are worried their rights will be eroded, gun opponents are worried they will be reaffirmed. Minor parties fear for their very existence. The Senate Republicans fear they will be marginalized by same day registration or expanded voting – and the Assembly Democrats, well they just want what NYSUT wants. Logically, all this has prompted me to reconsider.

If all these varied special interests and establishment pols are content with the status quo – it must mean the status quo is pretty good for them. And if all the allied and opposing power brokers in Albany actually believe that the system works “well enough” from where they sit, isn’t that a problem in and of itself?  Doesn’t that mean they already have too much power? If you notice the arguments are not about ideology or solutions – it’s all about maintaining the status quo.

If the status quo was kicking ass – hell if it showed a spark of life, I’d be all for that. But the status quo has left us with two New York’s – with upstate, for the most part, failing to compete due to an economic, social and fiscal framework foisted upon it by downstate politicians and interests.

But it is more than the old upstate-downstate divide that ails our politics – too much money in the system, from both sides, has alienated voters more than ever.  The billionaires, the unions and the corporations have outsized roles in our elections. Campaigns aren’t won and lost by candidates anymore, they are won by George Soros, NYSUT, Bob Mercer, the NRA and some LLC with a mysterious name and address. Cynics say “it balances out” –  that the interests of the monied left and right are aligned in diametric opposition, evening the playing field.  But assuming for a second they do counterbalance each other, they are also so loud and powerful that they effectively squeeze out a multiplicity of other ideas.  The concept that a new right, the freedom to spend, is an analog for freedom of speech has been a great perversion of our political system and while it is a federal issue at its core, we need to get smart about fixing it where we can.

So where do we stand? Some people say, “let’s go, it can’t get any worse!”  Hmmm, have you seen Illinois lately, it could get worse – it could definitely get worse.  Others say, “trust the people” or at least the 30% of eligible voters who come out for our gubernatorial elections. And yet others say we don’t need a costly Con-Con because we can achieve what we need through the amendment process.

The truth is a Constitutional Convention is a total crap shoot – the odds of a successful effort are long.  But at the end of the day, it just feels like we need to roll the dice.  We need to think bigger – the challenges we face today are exponentially more complex than in 1894 the last time the Constitution was completely revised. And you never know we might surprise and find we are up to the task.

Blair Horner of NYPIRG put it best when he told the New York Times, where you stand on the Constitutional Convention, “…comes down to fear versus hope.”  The Albany establishment fears change, but the people need hope – here is one vote for hope.