A Constitutional Convention in Rhode Island; Citizen Democracy in Action
“Shall there be a convention to amend or revise the Constitution?” This question will be on the November ballot for Rhode Islanders to consider. A constitutional convention (or ConCon) would give voters in our state a greater voice about how their government will operate. Rhode Islanders feel that our government should be geared to work for all citizens, not mainly for the special interests, yet most of us are left wanting in this regard.
In the same way that our state constitution grants the General Assembly the authority to enact laws, that same constitution grants the people of Rhode Island the authority to convene a constitutional convention. Unlike the biannual political and annual legislative process whereby voters elect legislators, who then enact laws — without any further formal check by the people — approval of a constitutional convention would give citizens four additional opportunities to become engaged in the democratic process: in deciding whether or not to hold a convention, in running as a delegate to the convention, in electing the full slate of delegates, and finally in ratifying any recommendations from the ConCon process.
In short, a constitutional convention is a rare, but coequal and constitutionally authorized mechanism to the traditional legislative process. Given our state’s many failed national rankings and the inaction of our political class in addressing obvious reforms, the Ocean State is at that place in history where the people should step in and exercise their constitutionally provided right.
Such legislative inaction, however, does not have to be viewed as an indictment of the General Assembly. Let’s face it, certain major reform ideas are just too big or too hot, politically, to be considered by your average legislator. This is why the ConCon option was put in our state’s constitution in the first place. It gives the average Joe — devoid of party politics, free from special interest influence, and outside the traditional legislative process — a more direct say in his/her government. A ConCon gives the citizenry the opportunity to directly address some of the most vexing issues we face as a state.
Last week, the special joint legislative commission, tasked with issuing a report to be included in the upcoming voter handbook to be published by the state, held a hearing on the matter of a state constitutional convention. I testified that the commission should present a favorable outlook on this ballot initiative and to recommend provisions that will help ensure that a potential convention will not be just another politics-as-usual, rigged, insider game. Such provisions should include nonpartisan delegate elections, barring sitting elected officials from running as delegates, providing block funding for the ConCon with no strings attached, and ensuring 100% open transparency in all ConCon proceedings.
Further, high-profile business and community leaders interested in running as ConCon delegates should publicly make their intentions known … now. This leadership will also help assure voters, before November, that a ConCon will not be run by entrenched insiders.
With citizens approving a convention, serving and electing themselves as delegates, and approving any recommended measures … this is true citizen democracy in action! Legislators and citizens should embrace this right of the people. Only the timid and the special interests will object.
Recently in the media and at the hearing, one can clearly see the battle lines being drawn. Those who are not happy with the status quo in Rhode Island are offering constructive ideas on how a ConCon might benefit the state. Those who are sitting in the catbird seat, who defend the status quo, and who have manipulated the system to their favor over the decades, will resort to fear-mongering tactics. They will loudly speak out against the notion of “the many” exercising our rights to express our voices, so there’s no risk that they, the special few, might lose their special favors.
In a ConCon, there will be no secret, backroom deals (like 38 Studios), no master lever, and there will be no future reelection campaign that power brokers can use as a threat to coerce delegates to vote their way. The special interest groups desperately want to protect their turf, and they see a ConCon as a major threat to their favored status. They see “we the people” as their enemy, and they want to shut our voices down.
I recently toured Gettysburg National Park, and as I stood where Abraham Lincoln gave his historic address, I couldn’t help but think that a constitutional convention is needed in Rhode Island so that a government of the special interests, by the special interests, and for the special interests shall perish from this state.