Town Hall Turns Into Debate Over Risks, Rewards Of A Constitutional Convention


Discussion about a possible constitutional convention to amend and/or rewrite the New York State Constitution sounds like it would be boring or filled with confusing political jargon, but last week’s town hall in Fort Greene on the issue was quite the opposite.

Not only did the speakers use real-world examples and clear descriptions, but protesters seated throughout the crowd also came armed with their voices and a cell phone app that blared a game-show-like buzzer sound every time they disagreed with something a panelist said. Add to that the fact that panelists, politicians and other attendees responded to many of the protests, and the night was full of heated debate.

As the forum focused on reasons to vote “No” on Proposal 1 come election day on Tuesday, November 7, the protesters were there in favor of voting “Yes” on the measure, arguing that rewriting the state constitution would allow for things like social justice and criminal justice reform, extending State Senate terms, and punishing Democrats — eight members of the Independent Democratic Conference — who caucus with state Republicans.

Senator Velmanette Montgomery photographed by tracy collins
Senator Velmanette Montgomery
Assemblyman Walter Mosley

State Senator Velmanette Montgomery (D-Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, Red Hook, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Sunset Park, Gowanus, Park Slope) alongside Assemblymembers Walter T. Mosley (D-Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights), Jo Anne Simon (D-Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Downtown Brooklyn, Park Slope) and Tremaine S. Wright (D-Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights), as well as Public Advocate Letitia James sponsored the event, with co-sponsorship from over a dozen labor unions ranging from the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to the local chapter of the New York Grocery Workers Association.

The reason so many unions have rallied against Proposal 1 and a possible constitutional convention is because it would be “an opportunity for money and politics of influence to” target the rights of workers and average New Yorkers, said panelist Henry Garrido, executive director of DC 37, AFSCME AFL-CIO.

“Some say the state constitution is outdated, which is fine, but constitutional convention proponents want to change our rights, such as the right to retire with dignity and not be injured at work,” Garrido said, referring to retirement pensions and workplace protections.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew agreed, stating that whatever voters decide, a deal is a deal and both parties will stand by it, but that he wishes that unions were as deep-pocketed as they say. “We get outspent by actual special interests, especially after Citizens United,” said Mulgrew.

Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon
Assemblywoman-elect Tremaine Wright

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was a landmark 2003 Supreme Court case that ruled that private corporations and public unions have the constitutional right to spend money to support or attack individual political candidates in any jurisdiction throughout the country. In short, businesses have the same First Amendment rights as people, and elections could be influenced by those with the deepest pockets.

“We need to safeguard things already in the New York State Constitution, like social welfare protections, affordable housing, and the belief in a free public education,” continued Mulgrew. “When I travel to other states, I’m left in tears seeing their state legislatures taken over by big money.”

Article 17 of the state constitution and it’s emphasis on the right to public assistance is particularly at risk, said constitutional law professor Helen Hershkoff of the NYU School of Law.

That section is about “Social Welfare,” specifically, the rights of New Yorkers to receive “aid, care and support” when in need or suffering from a mental disorder or defect, and the responsibility of the state to maintain, support and inspect health institutions and detention or jail facilities.

According to Hershkoff, there is no equivalent on the federal level, making New York’s welfare right among the strongest in the country, protecting residents from destitution and death. The only reason it passed at the 1938 Constitutional Convention was because the Great Depression had just occurred and New Yorkers thought the right to social assistance was essential to right the threat to freedom and the poverty of insecurity, he said.

Similarly, Susan Welber of the Legal Aid Society said that without Article 17, their clients would fare even worse in housing court. “Some pro-constitutional convention advocates say we’re just being afraid and pessimistic, but regarding Article 17, there is a long track record of politicians trying to weaken and eradicate it, so we have no reason to think they wouldn’t if [Proposal 1] passes.”

At that, a protester shouted that the final decision lies with voters, not State Senate delegates. That is because if a constitutional convention does get convened, all the proposed amendments would have to be voted on for approval by New Yorkers on November 5, 2019.

Yes, but not really, responded Welber. “If, say, delegates try to remove pensions, they decide whether to present that individually or as a slate by combining it on the ballot with other, unrelated provisions [that are popular]. We can’t control that, so we need to be careful,” she said.

Of the seven speakers on the panel, only Hershkoff and Welber managed to speak with minimal buzzing sounds by protesters.

John F. Sheehan — the director of communications for the environment-focused Adirondack Council — got a belated buzz from a female protester who shouted “you’re lying! We don’t have a right to clean water!” in response to his assertions that the 1894 “Forever Wild” clause protecting over three million acres of Adirondack forest are what keeps New York’s drinking water and ground water in the Catskills and elsewhere clean.

“It’s the reason your children don’t have to worry about what happened in Flint’s water,” he said, referencing the tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan. “Over the last 27 years, we have had to stop the state from weakening this provision.”

Eventually, pro-convention voices had a chance to speak during the Q&A session, with Fort Greene resident Joe Gonzalez stating that “we need to give State Senators four-year terms, not two years, so you could do your job,” a resident named Julius stating that “housing courts are corrupt, so maybe a convention could help empower the Court of Appeals,” and Committee for the Constitutional Convention Co-Chair Art Chang asserting that New York has enough blue districts upstate that voted for Hillary and supported the Women’s March so that the risk is low since “the numbers are with us.”

To that, Rep. Montgomery responded that she is “absolutely a ‘No’ vote because I sit in the Senate and see what happens. This is a red state. Many of the people who helped fund Donald Trump’s campaign were in New York.”

Hershkoff chimed in again, saying the risk was too great because “it’s the whole constitution, so anything could happen. And if a convention does happen, we’ll all end up on the same side.”

Area representatives who have come out in support of Proposal 1 and a constitutional convention, or as they call it, a “People’s Convention,” include Councilmember Jumaane Williams (D-Canarsie, East Flatbush, Flatbush, Flatlands, Marine Park, Midwood), who has stated that it would be a way to hold Senate Republicans from upstate “accountable for these bad votes” on housing, rent regulation and education in New York City.

Another town hall, featuring both supporters and critics of Proposal 1, is slated for late October, said Simon. A date and location is to be determined.