Monday, April 24, 2017

Chair's Report on the State and Local Politics Section of the New York State Political Science Association’s 71st Annual Conference

Why State and Local Politics Matter

I love teaching State and Local Politics. As citizens, our lives are directly impacted by the choices made by our state and local elected officials.  Polling demonstrates that citizens feel closer to and have more trust in local governing bodies than they do in our national institutions.  

Yet, there is an unfortunate lack of civic knowledge and literacy particularly regarding politics at the state level.  For many people, their daily news intake is focused on national politics (and it is not as if there is nothing to see nowadays) or on the very local -- what’s happening in their own back yard or community.  For those living outside of the capital region, the regular workings of State government are not as regularly covered by the media they consume – and what is covered may be disproportionately focused on the dysfunctional or corrupt. 

I’ll admit it: when I teach state and local government, I often focus on the dysfunction as a hook for generating student interest.  In this respect, New York is the gift that just keeps on giving.  Following a lecture just after the 2009 state senate coup, I remember a non-major approaching me after class to pronounce the whole affair as “wicked interesting” and to express shock that so many New Yorkers (himself included) could be blissfully unaware of the high drama and low comedy playing out in our statehouse.  Another semester, the class kept busy resetting the “legislative arrest clock” (seeing how many consecutive days we could go without a legislative indictment or arrest).  It was fun—until it wasn’t; until the students, as citizens, realized that we all deserved better.  And that’s what makes “gawking at the train wreck” okay – if those of us who teach state and local politics can hook our audience with the “fun” in the sometimes spectacular dysfunction, we can then turn the corner into discussing the value of being civically literate regarding the role, function, and purpose of local government.  From that somewhat unhappy starting place, we can move on to more productive avenues of discussion, including the various paths for meaningful reform. 

Since 2009 (with a hiatus in 2015), I have had the privileged to serve as the chairperson of the State and Local Politics section of the New York State Political Science Association (NYSPSA).  I have never been more convinced of the vibrancy and importance of state and local governance, or of contributions made by the academic study of state and local affairs.  My role with this professional organization allows me to work with and learn from the best.

The State Constitutional Convention Question

At the 71st NYSPSA Conference (hosted by Nazareth College in Rochester, NY), New York State and Local Politics took center stage. Among the highlights of the Conference were presentations and a Keynote Roundtable discussion of the upcoming Constitutional Convention (or Con-Con) vote.  As detailed in a previous blogpost, in the upcoming general election (November 7, 2017), New York voters will have the chance to vote on the constitutionally mandated question of whether or not to convene a constitutional convention with the purpose of reviewing and proposing revisions to the New York State Constitution. My section of the conference bought together some of the leading experts on New York State politics and reform. 

A group of scholars from the Hugh I. Carey Institute for Governmental Reform (Wagner College) and the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) (Columbia Law School), presented their research on “Achieving Reform Through State Constitutional Change,” situating New York within a nationwide study of state constitutional reform efforts.   

Dr. Stephen Greenwald (left) leads a discussion following the presentation on Achieving Reform through State Constitutional Change. 

Dr. Robert Herbst provided an overview of the pros and cons of constitutional conventions, highlighting many of the positive, popular elements of New York’s Constitution which were the direct result of conventions past.  A contextual frame was provided by law professor and CAPI Director, Jennifer Rodgers, who detailed the group’s ongoing research:  a comparative analysis of state constitutional provisions. Their completed study (due out this summer) will serve as the basis for specific policy recommendations, would educate voters, and inform the convention delegates as they consider revision.  Dr. Stephen Greenwald emphasized how constitutional revision might enhance representative democracy by addressing existing dysfunctions, including the devolution of decision making autonomy of state legislators.

New York’s Broken Constitution (2016), 
co-authored by our presenters details
 issues with New York's current
 constitutional design.
Saturday’s plenary session was a roundtable presentation by some of the State’s other leading experts on New York State’s constitutional history. The discussion was moderated by Robert Bullock, Deputy Director of Operations at the Rockefeller Institute of Government (RIG). (A full biography of the Keynote Roundtable participants can be found here).

Christopher Bopst, one of the co-authors (along with Drs. Peter Galie and Gerald Benjamin) of New York’s Broken Constitution (2016), set up the context for the impending ballot question, by providing an overview of the constitution and the history past constitutional conventions. He emphasized the unique power held by New Yorkers (“We the People) to bypass the legislature and demand reform via the conventional ballot vote. The convention and delegate selection processes, including the external factors which influence public and organizational support and opposition, were addressed by Dr. Dullea (a participant in past conventions and an expert on convention politics).  Dr. Galie explained the arguments for and against reform, highlighting the ways in which a constitutional convention is uniquely different from politics “as usual.”

What did We Learn?

            There’s a need for reform:
Ø  New York’s Constitution dates back to 1894. The last time a convention comprehensively studied was 50 years ago (1967); the last time there was a systematic revision was 79 years ago (1938)
Ø  The speakers identified numerous issues for review and revision, including:
o   Public ethics and anti-corruption reform
o   Campaign Finance reform
o   Legislative reforms – to create a more participatory legislative process
o   Voting reforms – to promote turnout and ease restrictions on the right to vote
o   Criminal Justice Reforms
o   Education Policy Reforms
o   Judicial Reforms
o   Local government reform
Ø  The mandatory referendum is a rare opportunity for voters to bypass the legislature and demand review and revision on a multiplicity of issues that matter most to the voters.

There is Fear of a Convention:
Ø  An Unlimited Convention/no restrictions on the convention. Once convened, the argument goes, the delegates are without limit and might eliminate the good along with the bad.  Enviornmental groups, labor unions, and advocates for the needy are among the opposition groups who fear favorable provisions might be revised or excised.
Ø  The “same old politics” and political insiders will dominate the convention.
Ø  The convention will be costly. And  (as happened in 1967), proposed changes might get rejected in the end anyway.

There is a General Lack of Public Awareness:
Ø  For many New Yorkers, the state constitutional convention may not appear to be a viable path to reform simply because they do not know enough about the process.
Ø  Thus far, the State legislature has devoted few resources to educating the citizens about the upcoming ballot choice.  Most of the outside money that is being spent, is in opposition.
Ø  In past ballot votes, the plurality of voters declined to vote on the ballot question. 

Dr. Hank Dullea provided information on the Convention and Delegate Selection Process. He is the author of  Charter Revision in the Empire State: The Politics of New York's 1967 Constitutional Convention.

The presenters collectively provided a wealth of factual information and counter-arguments which would allow voters to make an informed choice come November.  Many of the anti-convention fears, they explained, are unfounded and reflect a misunderstanding of the rich history of the convention process:

Ø  There is, they remind us, much in the New York Constitution that is good – and most of which was added through the work of constitutional conventions.
Ø  Even in cases of “failed” conventions, as in 1967 when the voters rejected the proposed revisions, many of the conventions recommendations later made their way into the constitution through the legislative amendment process. 
Ø  What conventions offer is a unique opportunity for systematic study and recommendation – it is different than politics “as usual” because the particpants are broader, the mission is directed, and the work ultimately is subject to popular ratification.
Ø  The work of the convention will depend on the delegates selected – and this is process that is open to direct democratic participation. 
Ø  The costs of the convention will be offset by the potential benefits – for example, a consolidation of the judiciary and court systems alone could produce considerable savings.

A member of the audience, Dr. Michael Armato made the insightful observation that the outcome of the convention ballot question is likely to turn on the narrative and framing of the debate.  Dr. Galie described the eternal paradox for all reformers: if people believe that the “same old” of politics is bad, and reform is framed as the “same old” politics, then there is seemingly no solution: We are left to dwell on the dysfunction without ever turning the corner toward productive engagement and change. 

Dr. Sharon Murphy, the 2017 NYSPSA Program Chair, welcomes the audience to the Conference.  Dr. Murphy is a Professor of Political Science at Nazareth College, where the Conference was held. She is also a Daemen College alumna (BA, History and Government, 1980). 

How to Learn More    

The constitutional convention question is a unique opportunity for voters to compel study and review of the foundation of New York State's governance. The best way to make an informed decision on the ballot vote is to learn everything one can about the process. Sienna College's statewide polling has found that, although 69% of New York voters support calling a convention, more than two-thirds of them have not seen or read information on the upcoming vote.

The League of Women Voters, the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the Hugh I. Carey Institute for Governmental Reform, and the New York State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse are a few good places to start if you want to learn more.  On these sites you will find details on the history and work of New York's past constitutional conventions, as well as information, and links to editorials and news coverage of the upcoming “Con-Con” vote. 

You may also contact me directly at
Dr. Lisa Parshall
Chairperson, State and Local Politics, New York State Political Science Association

Daemen College Students:
State and Local Politics (PSC 114) will be offered in Fall 2017 (Thursday 4-6:45).  Dr. Parshall is the Section Chair for State and Local Politics for the New York State Political Science Association (NYPSA) and a Key Votes Advisor (New York State) for Project Vote Smart.  Her research interests include New York State constitutional history and local government consolidation/reform.  She has presented her research on village government consolidation at multiple conferences.  For more information on the course, please contact

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