On November 7, 2017 I voted for the Constitutional Convention because I thought it was our best chance to fix the broken political system in New York, and our best chance to advance a progressive agenda at the local level. Most New Yorkers did not share this belief. Only 17% of New Yorkers voters voted in favor of the ballot proposition to hold a constitutional convention. Most of the registered voters in New York stayed home - in NYC, less than 14% of registered voters turned out to the polls. For those who voted, the resounding reason for voting against the ConCon was fear that the process would be manipulated to attack things like pensions that are currently protected.
The argument of fear was simpler than the argument for hope. Most of the political organizations trusted by New Yorkers were making the fear argument, and spending many millions more than the pro constitutional convention advocates. On the other hand, the pro ConCon argument was nuanced and complicated. When I was evaluating the potential of a ConCon I went through the following arguments:
Policies at the state level effect things I care about (scroll to the bottom to see a list of things I care about)
Progressive policy changes at the state level are thwarted by the IDC and a culture of corruption
Many policies at the local New York City level cannot be enacted without permission from the state (through a state law, or change to the state constitution that devolves more power to the local level)
Political structures imbedded in the New York State constitution encourage corruption, suppress voter turnout, and perpetuate gerrymandering, making it very difficult to push for “ethics reform” at the state level
The once every 20 year ballot proposition for a constitutional convention was a unique opportunity to sidestep the imbedded political structures
The ConCon process was likely to produce progressive results, and there were enough safeguards in place to protect against disastrous outcomes like pension clawbacks
I was convinced that the opportunity of a ConCon significantly outweighed the risks. But when I encouraged people to vote for the ConCon I had to fight an uphill battle convincing people that the risk to pensions being cut was overblown, and that progressives had a bigger advantage than big right wing money. Since every union and many progressive organizations (ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Working Family Party) was against the ConCon, it was hard to make the case that what the ConCon could accomplish was not a pipe dream and that it was the best chance we had to fix the structural corruption in state politics that is thwarting progressive politics at the local level.
In the end it got boiled down to hope vs. fear. Most New Yorkers (including some or many of my progressive friends) voted on the fear side or did not vote at all. The chance at another ConCon initiated by the people will not come for another 20 years. I am disappointed, but in the lead up to the vote I had some of the most interesting political conversations I’ve ever had in my life. Many people I know were willing to get into the nuance of the arguments, and it was awesome to have debates about grand changes to the political structures around us that were not connected to the specifics of electing an individual to represent us.
I respect the fear vote on the ConCon. But if we want to fight for grand changes in New York, corruption and election reform at the state still needs to be addressed. Now that the ConCon path is closed, all paths to remake New York electoral politics go through elected officials. I hope that my friends who did not vote for the ConCon (and all of the progressive organizations that spent large sums to defeat it) devote the energy needed to fix New York state politics through other means. It is important that we all educate ourselves about the paths now available. ConCon was complicated; the paths open for reform now are even more so.
Here’s three baby steps we can do now to remake politics in New York.
Register to vote in New York in the Democratic party. Most elections in New York are decided in the primaries, and the Democratic party is the only game in town in most places.
Organize a phone bank for the No IDC campaign, or come to my next phone banking party.
What will taking power away from the IDC accomplish? It will give the power in the State legislature to the Democratic party, which would be much more likely to enact corruption and voting reform, as well as pass a whole slew of new progressive legislation. I do not see electing more Democrats as the path to systemic change, but rather as an important tactical step in New York.
Electoral politics still not your thing or seems like a waste of time? I get it. See my list of some things that I think are important to do. If you are doing any of these things, great. Just also vote in local elections.
We need to fight fascists and actual nazis.
We need to defend our neighbors from ICE.
We need to hold police accountable for shootings of black and brown people.
We need the courage to add our voices to the #metoo movement, or support those holding toxic masculinity accountable.
We need local resiliency and action in the face of climate change.
We need to build a solidarity economy.
We need a sustainable local food system that nourishes us all.
We need to protect lands sacred to native peoples.
We need compassionate responses to the most vulnerable amongst us living on the streets, struggling with addiction, battling for mental health.
We need to desegregate our schools.
We need to protect pedestrians and cyclists by rethinking our city streets.
We need to fight cuts to health care, public housing, and all existing safety nets, and build new ones at the local level when the federal government is failing and falling apart.
We need to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, not the reverse.
We need to engage deeply in the localities that we care about.
We need to vote in local elections.
Voting is small, and there is a lot it cannot fix. But there is so much that we care about in New York that is being held back by broken state politics. We need to vote in local elections, and tactically engage in local elections throughout the state that can change the makeup of the state legislature.