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Conventional Wisdom

This week we begin a series of reports leading up to the November elections. Rhode Island voters will be asked to decide whether the state should hold its first constitutional convention in nearly 30 years. So what does that really mean? Jim Hummel sits down with those on both sides of the issue - and with a delegate to the last convention. Plus: vintage video from the 1986 convention.

SCRIPT:

Hummel: Voters face a full ballot when they go to the polls on November 4th - from federal races right on down to their local offices. But tucked in among half a dozen other referendum questions is No. 3: should the state hold a constitutional convention? If so, it would be the first one in 30 years.

The video leaves no doubt it’s been three decades since the last constitutional convention: from the mid-‘80s fashions to delegates smoking on the House floor. And it’s a reminder that a new generation of voters may have no idea exactly what a convention would mean.

Hummel: ``Overall how was the 1986 convention for you?’’

Driver: ``I would say not very fun.’’

Rod 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. After the convention Driver would go on to serve a total of 10 years in the House during  two separate stints.

And while he’s candid that it was a challenging 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.

Driver: ``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. A onstitutional 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 of 1986.

The convention consists of delegates elected from each of the districts in the House of Representatives. In 1986 it was 100 - with a subsequent downsizing of the legislature it would now be 75.

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.

Driver: ``And 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. And as a matter of fact that became the first business of the convention and it was approved by the voters.

Rodriguez: ``It was my baptism of fire, my first foray into public life was the constitutional convention.’’

Pablo Rodriquez was a young doctor from New York who 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 has produced a video warning against special interests hijacking a convention.

Rodriguez: ``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. 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.

Rodriguez: ``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.’’

Hummel: ``What do you say to that argument, there’s a backstop?’’

Rodriguez: ``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 had 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 - passed in the 1986 convention - almost from the beginning.

West: ``The concept there 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.’’

Hummel: ``But does a constitutional convention solve the larger issue of a General Assembly’s responsiveness to the public?’’

West: ``I don’t think it does by itself. I think the line item veto would go a long way.’’

Driver said a potential downside is who leads the group. In 1986 attorney Keven McKenna was chosen as president of the convention.

Driver: ``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: ``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 what we need to do is frankly 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.’’

Hummel: ``They are compelling arguments on both sides and the voters will have the final say on Nov. 4th. At the State House, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.