ALBANY — It's unusual when Michael Long, the long-time leader of the right wing Conservative Party of New York finds himself on the same side of the divide as a group advocating for the rights of transgendered people.

But such is the case in the unorthodox alliances being forged on both sides of the debate over whether New Yorkers should authorize a state Constitutional Convention — a question that will appear on the backs of ballots in the Nov. 7 election.

"I'm glad there is a lot of diversity in the groups that are opposing the Constitutional Convention," said Long in acknowledging that his side of the argument spans the state's entire political spectrum.

Long contended that holding a convention to update the Constitution at a special convention poses great risk and would be an unnecessary exercise when such changes can be made through the state Legislature with subsequent approval by voters at the ballot box.

"We don't need to throw the baby out with the bath water and have every special interest group and the establishment control it and waste taxpayers' money to the tune of millions of dollars," said Long. He argued the last such convention — in 1967 — proved to be "a waste of time."

The groups favoring a "yes" vote on the convention question include the state Bar Association and an umbrella organization calling itself the Committee for a Constitutional Convention. Its members include Citizens Union, a reform group that favors public financing of political campaigns and stronger corruption-fighting measures.

Many prominent lawmakers, including Albany's two legislative leaders, Senate Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-the Bronx, have signaled their strong opposition.

But the decision will be made by voters themselves — at least those who take the time to flip to the back of the ballot and answer the question.

Recent polling by Siena College suggests that many New Yorkers have no idea that the state Constitution empowers them to decide every 20 years whether such a convention should be staged.

Steve Greenberg, spokesman for the Siena poll, said more than half of the respondents to a July survey had no opinion on the subject.

Voter turnout across the state is bound to be especially light this November as there are no statewide or national elections to be decided, Greenberg suggested.

"I really can't say if that is going to help the supporters or the opponents," he said. The fact that the state Board of Elections has directed the question to go on the backs of ballots may further reduce voter participation in deciding the issue, he noted.

And that in itself is another wild card as it's anyone's guess as to whether people who do look for the question would register their support for a convention or vote against one, Greenberg noted.

Given the financial resources of the unions that strenuously oppose a convention, much of the television advertising expected to be launched in October on the issue will likely come from those urging a "no" vote, activists on both sides of the question acknowledge.

Bill Samuels, a progressive Democrat, radio talk show host and founder of New York People's Convention, said he expects to see a repeat of a pattern that played out in 1997, the last time the question was on state ballots. Polling suggested most people then had favored a convention until an onslaught of opposition ads went on the air a few weeks before the election.

"Things totally switched" after the opposition ads were broadcast, he said. Samuels also pointed out that his group and others favoring a convention will be unable to match the spending expected to come from the other side.

Samuels also argued that opponents are relying on "factual untruths" by contending public pensions would be at risk if a convention were to be authorized. "No existing pension can be taken away because the federal Constitution forbids it," he said.

If the "yes" side prevails, voters would choose three convention delegates from each of New York's 63 Senate districts, plus 15 statewide delegates, in 2018. The actual convention would be staged the following spring.

If the opponents prevail on Nov. 7, the next time voters would decide the issue would be 2037.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat with close ties to the unions that oppose the convention, has voiced his conditional support for the ballot measure, noting he would only go along with it if it is not controlled by elected officials.

Many of the arguments in favor of a convention echo points made in a thundering New York Times editorial published on Oct. 28, 1997. The state's most influential newspaper then called state government "a paralytic wreck" and suggested that a convention "offers voters a way out."

But the legislative leaders who opposed the ballot question then got their wish on Election Day.

Last week, a women's group, Forward March New York, called on Cuomo to come out strongly for a convention. In a letter to the governor, the group suggested that measures enhancing access to abortions that have stalled in Albany could be advanced at a convention.

"Help the people of New York set an example for the nation and ensure for once and for all that women are not second class citizens and deserve full autonomy over their bodies and reproductive care," its letter said.

Meanwhile, the politically influential New York State United Teachers, the union for public school teachers, has begun an aggressive campaign urging a "no' vote. It has distributed thousands of lawn signs and buttons to its members and created a web site — www.NoNYConvention.org. Its home page features the headline: "NY's political insiders are planning a party ... and you're not invited."

It has also allied itself with a union-funded group that calls itself New Yorkers Against Corruption.

Samuels maintained it is "cynical" for opponents to portray themselves as fighters of corruption, arguing that their real agenda is to protect the status quo in Albany.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. You can reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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