Failed convention post-mortem

March 18, 2010


Repair California, the campaign to overhaul the state’s constitution through a constitutional convention, reports that interest remains high in its governmental reform ideas since it suspended its efforts a month ago. Critics maintain that the movement would endanger the state’s statutory protections for taxpayers. The matter is dead for now, but both sides look for renewed battles in the 2012 election cycle.

At the state level, constitutional conventions have often been convened in times of crisis. They are also, as campaign organizers noted, a uniquely American experience.

“The power of the idea was tremendous,” says Adrian Covert, communications director for Repair California. “Average people stepping forward and creating their own convention? Doesn’t get more red-white-and-blue than that.”

If successfully launched, Repair California’s convention would assemble a mix of randomly-selected Californians and political appointees to propose changes to the document. Their revisions would have to be approved by the general population in order to take effect.

The state has seen two conventions and several revision efforts in the Legislature since the constitution was ratified in 1850. Under current rules, only the Legislature can call a convention. Any movement like Repair California has to use the initiative process first, to transfer this power to the voters.

“Californians are lucky their constitution is so malleable,” says Bruno Behrend, who tried to launch a convention in Illinois in 2008. “Ours was written by three men in a room. Illinois leads the nation in deficit-per-capita, but there’s nothing the voters can do to reform the constitution.”

Most campaigns hire professional signature-gathers in order to meet their deadlines to gather adequate signatures to qualify an initiative. Said one expert, the cooperation of the signature-gathering firms is “essential” for an initiative campaign’s success.

According to Repair California spokesman John Grubb, the campaign had trouble gaining that cooperation. Three of the state’s five major signature-gathering firms admitted to blacklisting Repair California. The firms could not be reached for comment. One firm president told the Economist last month that as a businessman, he “opposed it.”

“A constitutional convention could amend or scrap the initiative process itself, which is their livelihood,” Grubb explains. “They didn’t want to help us because the convention was not in their interest.”

Aside from difficulty gaining signatures, Repair California also struggled with fundraising. Experts say a successful initiative campaign in California also requires at least $4 million. According to filings with the Secretary of State, the campaign raised less than one-tenth of that amount.

“Fundraising was taking more time than we had hoped,” says Grubb.

The Bay Area Council, a corporate advocacy group, served as Repair California’s parent organization. It had pledged to raise $2 million from among its members, which include Blue Shield, Chevron, Goldman Sachs and Google, and was criticized when the money did not materialize. According to Grubb, however, not all of the organization’s members supported the convention.

“Plus,” he notes, “corporate donations require approval from their boards [of directors]. It was slow work.”

Many critics said they were relieved when the campaign suspended its efforts last month.

“I was glad to see they weren’t doing well,” says Bill Leonard, a member of the Board of Equalization. “A convention could be dangerous. It might put California backwards.”

Leonard’s feelings were shared by others on the right who said that giving a convention broad powers could endanger taxpayer protections. Many supporters, they noted, were interested in changing the two-thirds approval requirement for budgets and tax increases.

“We do want reforms — like pension reform,” says Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association. “But we can get those without opening the floodgates to wholesale change. A convention for the sake of ‘change’ would be 100 times as bad as the current health care chaos.”

After Coupal and other taxpayer associations refused to endorse the convention, the only conservative group involved with Repair California was the Lincoln Club of Orange County. Even they distanced themselves in the end.

“If you could go to conservatives and say, ‘You are a minority in California, and this convention would allow people of good will — who are not in the pocket of special interests — to fix some fundamental problems, you could get support,” says Michael Capaldi, the club’s former president. “But the convention design would have to be airtight, and in the end, we concluded that it wasn’t.”

According to Grubb, Repair California had assembled a coalition of friendly groups, including the Lincoln Club, to participate in conference calls to decide how convention delegates would be selected. In most states, would-be delegates run in local elections, and attend the convention as representatives of their voter constituencies. Repair California settled on a different approach.

The proposed initiatives said that delegates would be selected in two ways: some, by random selection from state databases, and some, by the appointment of local political leaders.

“We embraced the need for having a modicum of ‘memory’ and ‘experience’ among the delegates. Appointed delegates would tend to come from networks with such qualities,” says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, which pushed for the appointment component. He noted that appointments would help guarantee ethnic diversity among the delegates.

“The convention process was to be as inclusive as possible — even including some elements of special interests,” he says. “Better for the process to have everyone inside the tent ‘pissing out’ than outside the tent ‘pissing in.'”

The Lincoln Club worried that this process would taint the selection. Its proposal for delegate selection required that no convention delegate have a financial interest in state or local government.

“The [local] politicians … owe their jobs to, or fear, these narrow special interests,” read one document circulated internally in the Lincoln Club. “Will [those interests] not make every threat necessary to tack the delegate lists with their friends?”

Still, members of Repair California’s coalition emphasized that their process would create a better reflection of California’s population at the convention.

“You would have moderate-income and poor people at the convention. Where are they in Sacramento?” says Gonzalez. “You would have a gender balance. You would have disabled people. Politics-as-usual does not allow for that kind of diversity.”

“We were selling a process,” Covert agrees. “Giving the appointment power to local politicians would help balance the power away from Sacramento. We thought it would make people more confident in the whole idea.”

Campaign leaders say that they are redirecting their efforts toward the 2012 ballot. In the meantime, their rival reform organization, the well-heeled California Forward, has gained traction with its own proposals. Last week, the organization partnered with Democrats in the Legislature to unveil a political reform package.

“To us, outsider legitimacy was important,” counters Covert. “None of our staff are Sacramento people. California Forward was built by insiders, and it is run by insiders.”

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