Legacy of Howard Samuels: First Citizens' Committee for an Effective Constitution

The First Citizens' Committee for an Effective Constitution was founded on August 24, 1965 by Howard Samuels, who also was from Canandaigua, New York, as are Brian and Bill Samuels.

The goals of the first Samuels Committee were the traditional ones for a statewide referendum campaign organization: to demonstrate bipartisan support, to show that the issue was not a New York City- upstate clash, and to provide editorial writers with the background information required for their endorsements.  The latter effort proved to be particularly effective, with many papers picking up the theme that reapportionment should not be the only task of the proposed Convention.  

Howard J. Samuels, as Chairman of the first Citizens' Committee for an Effective Constitution, released a detailed plan for a non-partisan Constitutional Convention on December 7, 1965, in preparation for the 1967 Constitutional Convention, whose proposed Constitution would ultimately get voted down by the people of New York.  

The failure to adopt the Constitution by the 1967 Convention, was a missed opportunity to overhaul "'the archaic, cumbersome, patchwork 1894 Constitution, and put the state's basic law into a modern, compact, simplified document," according to Howard J. Samuels.

                  What follows is history taken from the Henrik N. Dullea book on the 1967 Constitutional Convention.  http://www.amazon.com/Charter-Revision-Empire-State-Constitutional/dp/0914341499/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1327421844&sr=8-2-fkmr0

On April 9, 1963, The Times editorialized, “In its madness to perpetuate a Constitution so written as to have this built-in-need to amend…But any comprehensive rewriting, to produce a wholly modern Constitution of a brevity, simplicity and relative permanence comparable to the generalized principles of the United States Constitution, seems to fail for political reasons…The only way the State can be rescued from this merry-go-round is for the legislature to initiate a new question to the people on holding a Constitutional Convention.

 In 1965 the legislature approved putting the question of holding a Constitutional Convention on the ballot. 

Three men contributed uniquely to precipitating that decision: R. Peter Straus, Barry Goldwater, and Howard Samuels.  The role played by each, whether consciously or not, should be delineated in our review of events leading to the call of the Convention in 1965. 

Ronald Peter Strauss was the grandson of Nathan Straus, one of New York City’s most illustrious philanthropists.  Since 1958, he had returned to the family-owned radio station, New York WMCA, and by 1960 had become its president.  He had also become active politically and had been a delegate to the 1960 Democratic National Convention.  On May 1, 1961, this concern was translated into action when Straus’s brother-in-law, Leonard B. Sand, filed suit in federal district court seeking judgment declaring that the constitutional and statutory provisions of the State of New York governing the apportionment of Senate and Assembly districts were unconstitutional under the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution,.

That led to the famous one man one vote Supreme Court decision in WMCA vs. Lorrenzo (1964), that invalidated New York's legislatures district lines. 

Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign produced for the Democrats a legislative majority in both the Senate and Assembly, sufficient to earn him the title of “Democratic Man of the Year.”  Not since the Great Depression election of 1934 had choruses of “Happy Days Are Here Again” been sung so frequently on the third floor of the State Capitol (the location of the Senate and Assembly Chambers).  Lyndon Johnson had carried each of the state’s sixty-two counties, winning 68.6 percent of the statewide vote.  The 1965 legislature was certain to be a brand new ball game.   

The 1965 Campaign: Howard Samuels’ Role

Placing a referendum on the ballot does not, of course, guarantee its passage.  The legislative leadership may have been successful in producing near-unanimous votes on the Constitutional Convention question in the Senate and Assembly, but translating that political support into an affirmative referendum vote was another question.

Governor Rockefeller had watied until June 15, 1965, to sign the referendum bill, and he had refrained from promoting the proposal while affixing his signature.

Credit for alerting the voters to the need for a Constitutional Convention must be given primarily to Howard J. Samuels and his Citizens' Committee for a Constitutional Convention.  In 1965, Samuels was a Democrat who wanted to become next Governor of New York.  A successful businessman, Samuels was president and cofounder of the Kordite Corporation, a plastics manufacturing firm in Macedon, New York, not far from Rochester.  Kordite had recently been purchased by the Mobil Chemical Company, and Samuels was financially capable of supporting his political ambitions.  He had waged a vigorous campaign for the 1962 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, gaining support from many upstate county chairmen and attracting a variety of academic talents to his camp.  Though unsuccessful, the 1962 campaign had served to introduce “the Canandaigua industrialist” to Democratic leaders throughout the state, and by 1965 Samuels had his eyes set upon the rapidly approaching 1966 nominating convention. 

Samuels had capitalized upon his business success to campaign for the streamlining and modernization of state government.  The prospect of a Constitutional Convention fit perfectly into his plans, and in the spring of 1965 Samuels began speaking out on controversial issues.  The Buffalo Courier-Express quoted him at length in an editorial urging Rockefeller to sign the Referendum Bill. 

Throughout the public debate in 1965 on the question of whether to call a Constitutional Convention, the most effective spokesman for the modernization and streamlining of state government and been Howard J. Samuels.  Building upon the substantial visibility he had acquired during the referendum campaign, Samuels secured the Democratic nomination to run for Lieutenant Governor on the 1966 statewide ticket headed by Frank O’ Connor.  His role on the ticket effectively precluded a separate run for the position of convention delegate, and the many intra-party animosities associated with the gubernatorial campaign made for little goodwill toward Samuels in the months following Rockefeller’s handy re-election.  He was pointedly excluded from the convention planning activities initiated by the Democrats in the wake of their surprising success in the delegate count.  And for his part, President Travia had entertained high hopes that the Democratic Convention in Buffalo would turn to him if O’Connor lacked sufficient strength to win the nomination; he was certainly not now going to provide Samuels with yet another forum from which to pursue his gubernatorial ambitions for 1970. 

Samuels decided to make his major proposals to the Convention in the field of legislative reform, and he chose for his vehicle an appearance before an open hearing of Judge Shapiro’s Committee on the Legislature on May 16 in the Capitol.  His opening remarks pointed to the fundamental change in nature of the American federal system, which would be a likely product of the recent round of reapportionment issues:

"This Constitutional Convention meets in a strategically critical moment in the history of the American Federal Courts, in interpreting the Law of the Land to require that State legislatures be apportioned by population only, have opened the way to the kind of broad and systematic changes that can preserve the vitality and relevance of State lawmaking bodies in the demanding half-century ahead."

If our response is to act boldly and creatively we can serve to encourage other states to undertake the difficult road of rebuilding.  If, on the other hand, we fail, and cement our State Constitution to the mediocrity of the prevailing status quo, we may only serve to retard the spirit of progressive change in the nation and commit ourselves, our neighbors and our posterity to the further enfeeblement of the democratic system.   




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