Like many of you, I’m heartbroken by Tuesday night’s election results. I donated to Hillary and several downballot races, and went to Pennsylvania to knock on doors, and I've rarely had worse moments than the bus ride back from Philly on election night as the news became steadily worse. But, also like many of you, I’ve decided to do something rather than give up, and what I’m planning to do is to campaign in favor of the New York State constitutional convention referendum scheduled for November 2017 and to run for delegate if the referendum passes.
By way of introduction, my name is Jonathan Edelstein. I'm 45 years old, a lifelong resident of New York State (except for military training) and a resident of Queens for 18 years. I'm married with no children and one cat. I've marched in the Phagwah Parade in Richmond Hill and have helped man my wife's table at the Kew Gardens art fair.
I've practiced law for 18 years and am a partner in Edelstein & Grossman, and have written on state constitutional law (Donoghue & Edelstein, "Life After Brown: The Future of State Constitutional Tort Actions in New York," 42 N.Y. Law Sch. L.J. 447 (1998)) as well as other legal topics. I've also published a few short stories, which are less relevant to the matter at hand.
As for what I’d like to do: New York is required to hold a referendum every 20 years on whether to call a state constitutional convention. The next referendum will be held on November 7, 2017, and if it passes, the delegates to the convention will be elected in 2018, the convention itself will take place in the spring of 2019, and any amendments passed by the delegates will be put to a popular vote in November 2019.
The past referendum, in 1997, failed largely due to opposition from public-sector unions. They're organizing against it this time too, out of fear that a convention would weaken civil-service pensions and job security. There's also been some opposition by environmental advocates due to the possibility that the "forever wild" protection of the Adirondack reserve might be abolished.
I can’t deny that there is a risk, but I think those fears are overstated. New York is a liberal state overall, the delegate election process is likely to produce a majority of Democrats, and the final safeguard will be that any constitutional amendments passed by the convention must be approved by referendum. New York isn't about to go right-to-work or allow clear-cutting of the Adirondacks.
But even more, I believe that we shouldn't let the possibility of losses detract from a focus on what might be gained. In a state without initiative lawmaking, a constitutional convention is the best chance to change how issues are decided in New York and to enact progressive reforms that our doubly-gerrymandered legislature has failed to pass. This week's election results showed that there's broad support for many progressive ideas - Republicans may have won the presidency and kept control of Congress, but ballot measures such as minimum wage increases and marijuana legalization did well across the country - and with the federal government in Republican hands for at least the next two years, reform at the state level is more important than ever. A campaign in favor of a constitutional convention shouldn’t ignore the risks, but it should be based on what we in New York might gain.
My first instinct would be to make initiative lawmaking a key part of the pitch. Initiatives have their problems, but with federal and state legislative processes becoming increasingly sclerotic, they've become an important method of enacting reforms. As noted above, the movement for a minimum-wage increase has had most of its successes that way. New York has a long tradition of being governed by "three men in a room" (the governor, the speaker of the Assembly, and the Senate majority leader), and if we want to get around those three and take issues directly to the people, we need an initiative procedure.
Other possible constitutional reforms might include:
* Ranked-choice voting such as Maine just enacted, which is probably the best realistic shot at weakening the two-party system and ensuring that every vote counts;
* Voting by mail, early voting, and/or no-excuse absentee balloting, none of which New York currently has;
* Reform of New York’s byzantine ballot access rules;
* A permanent ethics commission that the governor can't simply abolish when it might reach inconvenient conclusions;
* A nonpartisan commission to draw district boundaries, with a constitutional mandate to favor competitive elections;
* A mandate to work toward single-payer health care (New York is one of the few states with a big enough market to implement something like this at the state level);
* A clean-energy mandate, with set goals for transition to fully renewable energy production;
* Mandated reforms in legislative procedure, such as conference committees or even unicameralism (although the latter is probably a non-starter upstate), to weaken "three men in a room" government;
* Stronger local government home rule;
* Elimination of judicial elections (which in NY are a recipe for cronyism and pay-to-play) in favor of a merit selection process.
There are plenty more. I'd like to hold that conversation.
What I need is some help, advice and participation from those of you in New York State who are politically connected — I know my way around Queens, but there’s a lot more of the state where the case has to be made. I’ve started the public Facebook group NY Con Con 2017 to discuss logistics, planning, and possibilities for reform. All are welcome to take part, and I hope to see you there.
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