Connecting state and local government leaders
A potential constitutional convention in the Empire State could reform Albany’s back-room culture.
Bill Samuels is an unreconstructed reformer who has devoted much of his life, and a lot of money he earned in business, to cleaning up state and municipal government in New York.
Now, he’s the driving force behind a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rewrite the constitution of the Empire State. Samuels says he has given $450,000 to support the campaign for approval of a ballot question asking voters to approve the convening of a constitutional convention in 2019. Votes will be cast on Nov. 7.
“Albany still works the old way,” Samuels said in an Oct. 27 interview. “The governor goes into a back room with three other men” to decide on policy issues, “and then fashions a message of necessity, in effect a fake emergency. That’s e-mailed to the desk of legislators, who often vote with no public hearings, no estimates of cost. It’s culture that has existed for decades. It has not changed at all.”
As the vote approaches next week, New Yorkers are likely to hear much more from groups opposing the convention than from its supporters. Opponents’ arguments were explored in a recent RouteFifty article. To get a better read on why many think a convention should be called, Route Fifty turned to Samuels.
Samuels the Reformer
Bill Samuels’ father, Howard J. Samuels, was also a highly successful businessman at a young age who also became a reformer in New York’s Democratic Party. He ran for statewide office three times, each time losing to establishment Democrats.
Samuels embraced the liberal politics of his father. In 1969, he was a founder of the Council on Economic Priorities, which worked to persuade companies to adopt enlightened policies on women’s rights, workers’ rights, and environmental and other issues.
He financed a high-profile effort in 2004 to oppose the swift-boat veterans campaign to discredit the military service of U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee that year, producing a documentary, “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry.”
Since then, Samuels has devoted his nonprofit energies principally to state politics.
He was at the center of a drive to oust the corrupt state senator Pedro Espada, a Democrat who voted in 2009 with the Republicans to establish GOP control in the closely divided Senate. Samuels put $500,000 behind a campaign to beat Espada in the 2010 Democratic primary, and secured an agreement from Andrew Cuomo, then running for governor, to allot $1.5 million of his huge war chest toward electing four Democrats to the Senate. He made the point to Cuomo that passing redistricting and other progressive legislation would require Democratic control of the Senate.
Espada was defeated—and was sent to jail for corruption two years later—but Cuomo reneged on his promise. A group of breakaway Democrats calling themselves the Independent Democratic Caucus have, like Espada, aligned themselves with the Republicans, giving the GOP control of the Senate to this day.
“I never heard from him again,” said Samuels of Cuomo. I’ve been an opponent of his ever since. You can’t trust the guy.”
Samuels is a founder of EffectiveNY, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on state policies in the fields including education, the environment, gender, retirement security and criminal justice. “Effective Radio with Bill Samuels” broadcasts for two hours once a month from the studios of AM970.”
Samuels is also behind NYPeoplesConvention.org, a website specifically devoted to promoting the 2019 New York ConCon, as it’s know. And he’s part of a long list of New York leaders who have joined the Committee for a Constitutional Convention.
Dark Money Fears
In the interview with Route Fifty, Samuels was asked why he thought such a large and diverse array of groups had come together to oppose the ConCon ballot proposal.
Fear is the principal driver for many, he replied—fear of “dark money” from conservative donors like the Koch brothers that could be used to upend the liberal principles New York has long espoused. “One union leader was almost in tears when she talked to me about what Trump has done, the bullying, the pursuit of critics. There is genuine fear, women about Planned Parenthood and the chance a convention would make abortion illegal; there is even fear that the five-day work week might be endangered.”
Samuels cited the strong opposition of New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman as a leading example of the fear that has spread. In a posting on The NYCLU website, Lieberman puts it this way:
Today's stakes could not be higher. In an era when federal protections for fundamental rights face unprecedented attack by the Trump regime, our state constitution provides a vital safety net for New Yorkers—an independent source of rights.
Constitutional rights are usually well-insulated from political meddling, but the “ConCon” could choose to repeal and replace our entire state constitution, and with it, the vital protections it provides for free speech, public education, separation of church and state, the environment, aid and care to the needy, workers' right to organize and pension rights.
Samuels dismisses these fears, saying that New York does not have a strong right-wing movement that could take control of a convention.
Lieberman’s group is only one of many that are opposed. Well over 100 have joined New Yorkers Against Corruption, most of whose financial support is coming from public unions. Samuels said he expected the coalition to mount an expensive TV campaign against the ballot initiative in the final week before voting.
The Case for ConCon
There are serious structural issues a convention could address, but Samuels’ group is not emphasizing these in the run-up to the vote.
Instead, he and his allies are making the argument that previous New York constitutional conventions have always added to the rights guaranteed to New Yorkers, and that a 2019 convention would follow suit.
Among rights citizens could gain under a rewritten constitution, Samuels’ group lists:
- Clean drinking water
- Clean air
- Equal rights for women
- LBGT rights
- Free public college education
- Early voting
- Affordable housing
- Legalized marijuana
This is, of course, a liberal platform, designed to interest voters in participating in the Nov. 7 balloting. And these issues doubtless would be considered if in fact a convention did convene in 2019.
But what also excites Samuels and other students of government in New York is the potential opportunity to reform the rules of the road for government in the Empire State, to create greater transparency and less opportunity for corruption.
The Committee for a Constitutional Convention website says:
Our Legislature is beset by breaches of the public trust and outright corruption, and by enormous money-based conflicts of interest. Bribes are concealed as income from outside business dealings. Campaign contribution limits set by the Legislature are too high to avoid the obvious appearance that an office holder will be beholden to the contributor.
Bills called “midnight specials” surface for the first time in the middle of the night and are passed immediately so the public will have no chance for input.
New York’s election districts are grotesquely gerrymandered to assure reelection and maintenance of existing political party control.
To remedy these problems, the committee suggests:
- Establishing an ethics enforcement agency independent of elected officials’ control;
- Shifting power to set campaign contribution limits from the Legislature to the new ethics agency;
- Limiting outside income for legislators;
- Shifting redistricting power from the legislature to the courts or an independent districting commission, so as to end gerrymandering;
- Requiring more for public review of proposed legislation.
Samuels reflected wryly on the differences between the Albany legislature and the New York City Council, a 51-member body that serves as a check on the mayor in the Big Apple’s strong mayor-council form of government.
The City Council last year took steps to eliminate conflicts of interest and opportunities for corruption by converting the positions from part-time to full-time and banning most outside income. Salaries for council members were raised from $112,500 a year to $148,500. Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the changes into law. And as a result, said Samuels, younger and better candidates have begun vying for seats on the council.
In contrast, state legislators are paid a base salary of $79,500, a level set in 1989. The most powerful have been tempted to supplement their income with fees that sometimes seemed like payoffs for official favors. Both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were convicted of corruption in 2015 and are now awaiting retrials after a federal appellate court ruled that a new Supreme Court case invalidated the original cases against them.
The higher New York City Council salaries have prompted the resignations of five state legislators who decided instead to run in this year’s City Council races, Samuels said.
Reformers would also like to bolster home rule for municipalities in the state. They would make unfunded mandate legislation harder to pass by requiring greater local fiscal impact analysis and more opportunity for community input. And they would strengthen local legislative autonomy by limiting state preemption.
Reformers also want to change New York’s judicial system. Among them is the highly regarded former chief justice of the New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest judicial body, Jonathan Lippman. He has said that large amounts could be saved by rationalizing the state’s antiquated judicial system (and he has recorded an ad supporting a yes vote on Nov. 7).
Among steps judicial reformers would like: to consolidate what critics call an outstandingly complex court structure, and to abolish judicial selection by political party leaders.
Bill Samuels, who has put a lot of money and precious time into efforts to “make New York the best state in the union” will surely be disappointed if the once-in-a-generation opportunity to call a constitutional convention fails. Like his father, he does not quit. But like his father, he also knows that the battle is never done.
Timothy B. Clark is Editor-at-Large at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.