The most hotly contested race on the ballot next month might not be the bitter battle between Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale) and Juniper Park Civic Association President Bob Holden.
It also might not be the testy duel between Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) — the borough’s only elected Republican — and Mike Scala, who recently earned the backing of Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Queens, Bronx) and the Queens Democratic Party.
And it certainly isn’t Mayor de Blasio’s re-election bid against Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R-Staten Island, Brooklyn) — an anticipated landslide win for the incumbent.
No, what could be the tightest race in November isn’t a contest between two people. It won’t even be on the front of your ballot.
You’ll actually have to flip over that piece of paper when you get in the voting booth to find it.
Every 20 years, New York voters are given a choice: Should we convene a convention of delegates to examine the state constitution — and propose changes as they see fit?
It was 1997 when state residents were last asked that question. The final result? Sixty-two percent of voters said no.
The result of this year’s referendum could be closer, as a Siena College poll taken earlier this month showed 44 percent of registered voters support such a convention compared to just 39 percent opposed.
But according to Brian Browne, assistant vice president for government relations and political science professor at St. John’s University, predicting the final result is next to impossible.
The reason? Many voters either don’t know about the ballot measure or know what a constitutional convention is.
Are you one of those people? Well, here’s a quick rundown of what happens if “ConCon” passes.
A total of 204 convention delegates will need to be elected by the people, three from each of the 63 state Senate districts and 15 at-large delegates from across New York.
Anyone can run to be a delegate, including lawmakers. And like any other political race, voters will decide who they want their three district delegates and 15 statewide delegates to be on Election Day 2018.
Come the spring of 2019, the 204 victorious representatives — who will earn whatever share of a $79,500 annual salary that the length of their work equals — will convene in Albany to discuss possible amendments to the state constitution.
Should a majority of the group come to an agreement on one or more potential amendments, the delegates will then choose to either bunch every proposal into one ballot item — as was done in 1967 — or break them off into their own individual referendums, like the 1938 convention did.
In the end, enacting the amendments will be up to the voters on Election Day 2019. Should one or more pass, they become part of the state Constitution on Jan. 1, 2020.
If the proposals fail, that’s the end of that.
Got it? Good.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, which way are Queens leaders leaning?
The Chronicle surveyed nearly three dozen city and state lawmakers, political party leaders and civic groups over the last week.
And of the approximately two dozen responders, only Holden said he planned to vote yes.
“We can’t keep going on in the current political climate,” the JPCA head said on Monday. “New York State leads the nation in corruption. Term limits might be one answer, but there are many others.”
He also cited a number of other laws that need to be changed, such as the one requiring homeless individuals seeking help to be immediately housed regardless of the state they originated from.
Holden and other more centrist and conservative ConCon suporters have pointed to the state Legislature’s seemingly muted interest in ethics reform — stemming from numerous recent arrests of lawmakers on corruption charges — as a major reason for a convention.
A number of both progressive and nonpartisan groups are also in favor of ConCon. The Sanctuary State Project, for example, claims it is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” for those on the left.
Specifically, the SSP said a convention could lead to amendments guaranteeing statewide universal healthcare, automatic voter registration and abortion protections and many other progressive policies.
“Saying yes to a constitutional convention means saying yes to expanding voting access, protecting a woman’s right to choose, supporting immigrants and achieving other important progressive goals,” SSP member Art Chang said in a statement. “Anyone who says a convention would be overrun by Republican or anti-labor interests is either not paying attention to the data or simply lying.”
The vast majority of Queens leaders who discussed their opinions with the Chronicle disagreed with Chang for a number of reasons, however, ranging from the necessary cost of a convention to potential corruption.
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) told the paper spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for a convention would be silly.
“Most of the cost estimates I’ve seen is around $45 million. Delegates make $79,000 and it’s going to add up,” Addabbo said. “I would love to do ethics reform. Would love to. But if I’m not guaranteed postive results, I can’t waste $45 million.”
Both Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) and Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) have other financial concerns, specifically as it relates to lobbyists donating money to candidates in return for support of their issues.
“People running as delegates will need to raise money to get elected,” Miller said. “So it’s special interests that could control the process — the super ultrarich such as the Koch Brothers.”
“The selection process for delegates will be corrupted by corporate interests,” Dromm added. “I do believe we can and should go forth with these efforts legislatively.”
One major concern shared by a number of leaders on both sides of the political aisle polled is possible rollbacks of education and labor benefits — such as pensions.
“When you have 100 percent of the labor unions opposing it, you really have to think twice,” Queens County Republican Party Chairwoman Joann Ariola said. “I would not want to take a chance voting for something like this.”
“There are special interests in this state that would like to roll back these basic rights of ordinary people,” Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) added.
Holden said he doesn’t see that as the least bit realistic.
“Some folks are saying this might jeapordize pensions, but it won’t,” he said, citing the state’s status as a reliably liberal one. It’s a fallacy.”
State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) vehemently disagreed. She is worried that because many of the state’s more suburban and rural residents outside New York City are conservatives who predominantly voted for Donald Trump — overwhelmingly so in some locations — most of the convention’s delegates will be people who share his controversial, far-from-progressive ideals.
“During these difficult times, I think it would be a big mistake,” she said. “There are some advantages and it certainly is tempting — we want to clean up state government for one.
“But I’m afraid [the delegates] will take away everything we have fought for over the years in labor and especially education,” she added. “The dangers far, far exceed the advantages.”
One official who has waffled on his support for ConCon in recent weeks is Ulrich.
After originally coming out in favor of a convention with conditions, such as pension reform being off limits, the Republican said in a Tuesday statement he is rescinding his support.
“My job as an elected official is to represent my district. I simply cannot, in good conscience, go against the views of my constituents on such an important matter,” Ulrich said. “I have always supported collective bargaining rights and have fought very hard to protect public pensions under two administrations (Bloomberg and de Blasio). I won’t allow the ConCon question to tarnish that record.”
City leaders who voiced their opposition of a convention to the Chronicle this week include Queens Civic Congress President Kevin Forrestal and Councilmembers Peter Koo (D-Flushing), Paul Vallone (D-Bayside), Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale), who called it an “enormous waste of our tax dollars.”
State officials who issued similar statements include state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), Assemblymembers Nily Rozic (D-Fresh Meadows), Stacey Pheffer Amato (D-Rockaway Park) and Andrew Hevesi (D-Forest Hills).
However, one of their colleagues, Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Long Island City) said in a statement she had yet to make up her mind.
“I remain personally undecided and can see pros and cons,” Nolan said. “I recently attended a debate where most people leaned against, but I do not want to tell people how to vote. It is up to the voters.”
Those voters, Browne said, are at a disadvantage this fall, not of any fault of their own, but of those same officials who speak of ConCon in such a doom-and-gloom way.
“I wish there was more of an awareness campaign for ConCon,” he said. “But there seems to be a lot more fearmongering than intellectual discussion.
“This fear of a convention, I find puzzling,” he added. “Part of me wants to see one just to see what it’s like.”