Two Powerful Weapons in De Blasio’s Arsenal to Take On Albany

Four years from now, when Mayor Bill de Blasio presumably seeks a second term, a central issue will be whether he has achieved his goals. In that much of New York City’s life is regulated by Albany, we can expect the mayor to spend time lobbying the Legislature and governor, who will undoubtedly test the mayor’s considerable powers of persuasion.

Indeed, frustration with the city’s limited home rule authority led a mayoral campaign forty-five years ago to urge secession. That effort in 1969—“Mailer, Breslin and the 51st State”—though dismissed as merely imaginative, had a persuasive rationale.  After all, each of the state’s sixty-two cites must routinely request permission from Albany to enact many laws affecting its residents.

This governmental arrangement no longer works. New York City has approximately 50 percent of the state’s population, and it is no exaggeration to say that the city drives much of the national economy. Yet even an emboldened new mayor with a mandate for reform is hampered by the city’s second-class legal status.

If it turns out that Albany is less responsive than desired, Mayor de Blasio has two alternatives. On the very day he is up for reelection in November 2017, voters throughout the state will decide whether there should be a state constitutional convention to overhaul our fundamental laws. A vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention is mandated every twenty years. The new mayor should consider supporting the effort.

A revised constitution could upend the city’s subordinate relationship to Albany, ensuring greater self-governance. On the other hand, a convention could threaten hard-won rights and obligations embedded in the constitution. For that reason, in 1997 a broad coalition of good government groups, unions and business groups opposed it. With the mayor's support, however, constitutional reform could be guided by a careful hand and take on a progressive hue.

Mayor de Blasio has a second option as well, which has more immediate benefits, and is perhaps politically more palatable. He can appoint a Charter Revision Commission, whose principal mission would be to expand the city’s ability to govern itself. Indeed, over the last twenty-five years, without waiting for Albany, the city relied on Charter revision to reform basic voting laws: fundamental campaign finance reform, liberalized ballot access for candidates and nonpartisan elections for city council vacancies, all in contrast to more restrictive state laws.

The city’s creative use of Charter revision in the area of election reform is useful precedent for the new mayor to implement his agenda without undue reliance upon upstate interests: greater autonomy for economic growth, progressive taxation, affordable housing, and the like. Additional reforms in voting rights can be effected as well, such as early voting, same-day registration, and a robust election enforcement agency. Charter revision is a powerful tool the mayor should embrace.

If the mayor can persuade Albany to adopt his legislative program, fine. If not, he has at least two other options that may enable him to accomplish his goals.

Jerry Goldfeder, special counsel at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, teaches election law at Fordham Law School and University of Pennsylvania Law School. He served as special counsel on public integrity to Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo.