District Attorney donations fallout spreads to Brooklyn + Constitutional Convention

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Local News

  • Fallout continues from revelations that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance accepted significant donations from criminal defense lawyers, with the focus shifting to the fact that the practice is allowed under New York law and that other area DA’s, namely Brooklyn’s Eric Gonzalez, routinely accept similar donations. It is possible that the scrutiny will result in a change to the State’s campaign finance laws as has taken place in other similar scandals in recent years.
  • Council Member Jumaane Williams (District 45, Flatbush), a potential progressive challenger to Cuomo in the 2018 Democratic Primary, is introducing a bill that would prohibit NYC employers from discriminating against employees that seek birth control or abortions. CM Williams has recently received criticism over an ambiguous record on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Williams also met with Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner, another rumored progressive Cuomo challenger, at last weekend’s New York Progressive Action Network Fall conference.
  • Inaugurated with big promises of police reform, Mayor de Blasio’s first term has largely been a series of tensions and disappointments for reformers, including an embrace of broken windows policing and the hiring over 1,000 new police officers.
  • Much of New York City’s affordable housing landscape is determined at the state level, where developers and landlords donate heavily to Upstate and Long Island lawmakers in order to influence rent control and land use policy within the five boroughs.
  • Prior to Governor Cuomo’s recent announcement that General Motors would begin testing self driving cars in the state, the governor received a large donation from the auto giant.
  • New York City continues to grovel for Amazon’s siting of its second corporate headquarters, which will allegedly bring 50,000 new jobs to the City. However, several notable elected officials abstained from signing on to effort to woo Amazon. Two contenders to become the next City Council Speaker, Council Members Donovan Richards (District 31, SE Queens) and Corey Johnson (District 3, Chelsea), cited concerns over the tech giant’s labor record.


  • Seven of the eight candidates vying for City Council Speaker have come out against a New York State constitutional convention, which will be on election ballots in November.
  • Brian Cunningham, who is running for City Council on the Reform Party Line after losing the Democratic primary to incumbent Mathieu Eugene (District 40, Flatbush), has been endorsed by the Working Families Party with just three weeks left before the general election.
  • Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner announced that she will not challenge upstate Republican congressperson John Katko (NY - 24) next year, increasing the likelihood that she will run for governor.
  • Incumbent Comptroller Scott Stringer and Republican challenger Michel Faulkner squared off in a televised debate last week, largely focusing on Stringer’s record over the past four years.

In-Depth: Constitutional Convention

Every twenty years, New Yorkers get to decide at the polls whether to hold a convention where specially elected delegates have the opportunity to amend—or wholesale rewrite—the state’s constitution. A constitutional convention—usually shortened to “Con Con” in the interest of efficiency, if not mellifluence—presents both significant risks and opportunity for the left.

Con Con Basics

If next month’s Con Con ballot proposal passes, next year, all of New York State would elect delegates to a constitutional convention. Three delegates are elected per State Senate district, with an additional fifteen statewide at-large delegates. Then in 2019, all of the elected delegates would meet in Albany for the convention and draft proposed amendments to the New York State Constitution. These amendments would then go before voters in November 2019. Delegates can choose to present their amendments each as separate proposals or as a single package for an up or down vote.

Arguments in Favor

Those in favor of a convention argue that New York politics is broken, and that there’s no way the people will be able to fix it unless we burn Albany to the ground (at least metaphorically). That is, things like expanding voting rights, reducing money in politics, decreasing the power of political parties, reducing the budget powers of the governor, or strengthening home rule are direct threats to state legislators and/or the governor, and there is no way that the New York political class will enact their own destruction. But Con Con would not be limited to just structural reforms; advocates argue that with 2018 likely to be a Democratic wave election, delegates we elect in that year could enact criminal justice reforms like abolishing cash bail or add rights protections, like codifying the right to choose an abortion.

Arguments Against

So if all this awesome stuff and so much more is possible if we vote for Con Con, why is there opposition? There are two main reasons: the first is a fear of what might change, of what we might lose. The current version of the New York Constitution was written in 1938, at the height of the New Deal, and contains protections for workers, the poor, and public land (the Adirondacks and the Catskills) that Con Con opponents say we would be at risk of losing. They point out that the Koch brothers or Robert Mercer could run huge independent expenditure campaigns to get a slate of conservative delegates elected, and then do the same thing in 2019 to pass regressive amendments that would devastate New York State. Con Con advocates argue in turn that the New York State electorate is unlikely to pass a right to work law at the ballot box, no matter how much money Robert Mercer spends, much less elect Republican convention delegates in overwhelming numbers in 2018.

The second reason is strategic: running candidates in special Con Con elections would be incredibly resource intensive in an already packed election year. Passing Con Con would add 204 more high stakes elections next year in New York, when New York progressives are trying to retake the state Senate and flip a few Congressional House seats. Why spread resources so thin when the odds are decent are we would get a middling group of delegates that don’t enact real change, all while drawing a state salary for six months?

The Political Landscape

So who is for Con Con, and who’s against it? The answer is a handful of people and organizations are for it, mostly groups that focus on government reform, and almost everyone who holds any kind of power in New York is against it. Labor in New York is uniformly against Con Con, but so are the New York Republican and Conservative Parties. New York Planned Parenthood opposes Con Con, but so does New York Right to Life. Because Con Con creates so much uncertainty for entrenched interests, a strange-bedfellows coalition has emerged under the somewhat comically pandering name of “New Yorkers Against Corruption.” They aren’t actually arguing for measures to limit corruption; they argue that voting for Con Con will open up the floodgates for money to talk in the Con Con elections and lead to corruption of that process.

They may well be right: those who are pro-Con Con are at pains to point out how broken our electoral system, how corrupt, how dysfunctional it is, and then expect that process to lead to a set of delegates who will enact sweeping progressive reforms that will upend politics in New York. It’ll be an uphill battle, and why choose to fight it if there’s a substantial chance you’ll lose, and some chance you’ll end up even worse off?

Advocates for Con Con, which is a much shorter list that includes Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters, the New York City and State Bar Associations, the People’s Convention, and Bertha Lewis’s Black Institute, argue that 2018 is a time for hope – that there’s every reason to believe that a Democratic wave election will put a progressive set of delegates into office, and we cannot put off reform for another 20 years.

Is the pro-Con Con coalition starry-eyed idealists with no sense of the risks we would run and no sense of the organizing challenges ahead? Are anti-Con Con groups cynically protecting their own vested interests and unwilling to hope for a better future? Will New York ever be able to have nice things that other states do, like a functioning legislature, open and fair elections, a court system that does not make your eyes cross, and legal weed? Stay tuned to find out; the one thing that everyone agrees on is that if Con Con passes, we will all have our work cut out for us.

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