Editor’s Note: Voters face a crowded ballot when they go to the polls on November 4 from federal races and Rhode Island general officers, down to their local offices. There are also seven referendum questions. Jim Hummel takes a look at Question 3, which would authorize the first constitutional convention in nearly 30 years.
The 28-year-old videotape stored at the Rhode Island State Archives, only recently converted to DVD, leaves no doubt it’s been nearly three decades since the last constitutional convention: from the mid-‘80s fashions to delegates smoking on the House floor. It’s a reminder that a new generation of voters may have no idea exactly what a convention would mean.
Rodney Driver was a political newcomer when he ran to become a delegate to the convention that was elected in 1985 and convened in early 1986. And while he’s candid that it was, at times, what he calls a horrible experience, Driver is urging voters to approve Question 3, saying the General Assembly has circumvented merit selection for judges and not been receptive to other issues like voter initiative or line-item veto power for the governor.
“The General Assembly can do a lot of damage and it has done a lot of damage by passing bad laws. They’ll probably continue to do that,’’ said Driver, who after the convention would go on to serve a total of 10 years in the House during two separate stints. “A constitutional convention can pass bad bills or bad amendments or revisions to the constitution, but we get another bite at the apple. The voters get to say, ‘No, we’re not going to approve that.’ And that’s the end of it.’’
The Rhode Island State Constitution wording is simple: It calls for the voters to decide every 10 years whether to hold a convention. In 1994 and 2004 they rejected the idea. But in 1984 they said yes. A year later delegates from each House district in the state were elected and began their work in January 1986.
More than a dozen proposed amendments from the convention eventually went to the voters, half of which were rejected, including a controversial right-to-life proposal that would not only have restricted abortion but some contraception as well. Those amendments that were approved passed with a simple majority.
“I proposed a neutral rewrite, which meant strip out all the obsolete stuff, get down to what it is and put it in a semblance of order,” Driver said. “That became the first business of the convention and it was approved by the voters.”
Pablo Rodriquez was a young doctor from New York who arrived in Rhode Island shortly before the 1986 convention began. He was appalled that abortion was even an issue. He opposed a convention then and is leading the charge against it this year as a member of a group called Citizens for a Responsible Government, which produced a video warning against special interests hijacking a convention.
“The constitution is the rulebook and you don’t want to open up the rulebook to anything and everything that could be put into it unless there is a compelling interest,” Rodriguez said. “If there was a compelling interest I would be the first one supporting it, but I don’t think we have any compelling interests that would outweigh the risks to civil rights.”
Rodriguez worries a convention would focus on social issues, even if the voters ultimately have the last word. “Unfortunately, it’s not going to be reform. It’s going to be the divisive issues of abortion, same-sex marriage, right to work, collective bargaining, immigrant rights. What’s broken is not the constitution. What’s broken is our political process and our electoral process that doesn’t allow for these laws to be passed in an effective way.”
Phil West, the former head of Common Cause Rhode Island, is part of Renew RI, a pro-convention group. West opposed conventions 10 and 20 years ago because he believed the legislature made significant progress on issues like downsizing the legislature, separation of powers and four-year terms for general officers.
But West says the General Assembly worked around merit selection for judges — reluctantly passed in the early 1990s — almost from the beginning. “The concept was to try and squeeze some of the political maneuvering out of the selection of judges. Then they immediately turned around and began to create magistrates. It started with two or three and we’re up to 20 now. They were people who are the sister of the Senate judiciary chair, the wife of the former speaker, people who are related or senior counsel — all of these people have gotten into these positions.’’
Driver said a potential downside is who leads the group. In 1986, attorney Keven McKenna was chosen as president of the convention. Driver dubbed him “King McKenna,” saying, “If he knew you were going to say something he didn’t want to hear, he simply didn’t recognize you. And much as I complain about the General Assembly and the House, that was never a problem in the House.”
Rodriguez remains unconvinced by the proponents. “When you use the constitution to do something that should be done through the electoral process, you can have unintended consequence that can be severe. I believe we need to help our populations become more involved in the political process and find the issues that are broken and make them part of the campaigns, make it part of elections every two years.’’
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