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Opponents of a Constitutional Convention outspend supporters

A wide variety of groups have spent over $1.3 million dollars to urge voters to vote no on  holding a Constitutional Convention. The opponents have far outspent a smaller number of advocates who urge a "yes" vote on the November ballot.  

The more than 150-member coalition opposing a constitutional convention includes labor unions, and the state’s Conservative Party, which often opposes unions. Also against the convention- both pro and anti abortion groups, environmentalists and gun rights organizations.

They all fear that many rights already included in the state’s constitution could be taken away if the document were opened up to revision. Those include the right to collective bargaining, second amendment related rights, and the Forever Wild status of the Adirondack Park.

The state’s AFL- CIO President, Mario Cilento, says there’s just too much uncertainty over how the convention would be run to give “carte blanche” to the process through a "yes" vote.

“Why would anyone vote on something where you don’t know the cost,” Cilento said. “You don’t know who’s going to be in charge, and we don’t know what’s at stake.”

Selection of the actual delegates would come in the general election one year later, in this case in 2018.

Opponents have collected around $1.39 million dollars so far, and have spent much of it on social media, lawn signs and bumper stickers.  They’ve even tried to frame the debate, by calling themselves "New Yorkers Against Corruption."

Coalition spokesman Jordan Marks says the process is highly “corruptible.” He says many things have changed since the last successful convention, nearly 80 years ago. He says the influence of money in politics is much greater now, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision made it harder for government to regulate spending by independent expenditure groups. And he says the money his group is now spending to oppose the convention “pales in comparison” to what could be spent if a convention were to happen.

“There’s an influx of outside money that can come in,” Marks said.

And he says that money could be used to unduly influence  the process of electing delegates, to “wine and dine” and lobby them, as well as to finance advocacy campaigns for or against initiatives that the delegates might ultimately endorse.

Supporters of the constitutional convention say they have more faith in New Yorkers’ ability to resist outside special interests and to meet to solve the state’s  problems, including rampant corruption that’s led to a string of indictments, convictions, and prison sentences for elected officials.   

The League of Women Voter’s Jennifer Wilson says despite the opponents’ fears, no existing rights have ever been taken away in any past constitutional convention, so there’s no reason to think it will happen now. In fact, she says many of those same rights were created in past constitutional conventions.

“These are great things that people are so afraid of losing during a convention and they don’t realize that they were put in during a convention,” Wilson said.

The government reform group Citizens Union is also backing the convention. Its Board President, Randy Mastro, points out that voters would ultimately have to approve any changes proposed by a constitutional convention. And he says he doubts a blue state like New York would vote to take away hard won rights.

“Those are the popular cornerstones of our state constitution,” Mastro said. “The voters would never ratify what would come out of a convention that didn’t preserve those rights.”

Mastro said voters instead want “accountability, openness and transparency,” and he believes a constitutional convention could help further those goals.

Supporters admit they are outspent, and are struggling to get their message out.

Total spending by backers of the convention is less than a quarter of a million dollars.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.