Betting On A Constitutional Convention5 min read

It’s hard to underestimate the difficulty of the chore that Repair California, the group promoting a state constitutional convention, has chosen for itself. Or maybe, depending on your level of cynicism, it’s just the result of the naiveté of the promoters, led by the appropriately named Jim Wunderman, the president of the business-backed Bay Area Council.

The chore isn’t just to restructure the state’s dysfunctional system of government, but, as the sponsors know, to re-create citizenship in a state that now has much too little of it.

It’s a huge effort especially within the daunting tight two-year timetable that Wunderman and his colleagues are hoping to meet. And yet to disparage the effort, huge as it seems, is to beg a more fearful question. If not this, if not now, then what? California is killing itself and destroying its own future with a governmental system, much of it self-imposed piece by piece over the years, that hell wouldn’t have.

In the past decade, Californians have voted down every systemic reform — liberal or conservative — they’ve faced. Among them, loosening the terms of Proposition 98, the state’s school spending formula; reducing the super-majority requirements for legislative passage of a budget or of tax increases; liberalizing the costly three-strikes sentencing law.

Judging from their recent public presentations – the most recent was in San Francisco last night – the con-con reformers have done a fair amount of thinking. They know the dangers of a runaway convention, so they’ve defined a set of areas they want the convention to concentrate on: the governing process; elections; the budget process and the fiscal relationship between the state and local governments. And they don’t want to allow it to stray into others, especially into divisive social issues. . But inevitably some of their chosen issues, much as they may want to restrict the subjects, will touch on hot button issues – say Proposition 13 — that could kill the result.

The con-conners know that the legislature – which now has the sole authority to call a convention – isn’t going get the two-thirds majority that the constitution requires. Therefore they’re planning to change the constitution through an initiative that they hope to get on the ballot in November 2010 to give voters the power, also through the initiative process, to call such a convention.

On the same ballot at the same time they hope to run a measure that would actually exercise the power granted at the same election and call the convention. Proposition 1 and Proposition 2.

All that involves a huge set of interlinked ifs: If they can get the required signatures – roughly 800,000 for each measure; if the courts will uphold it; if they can figure out how to choose the delegates to make certain they’re representative of the state’s population, don’t represent interest groups and aren’t a bunch of dummies.

And since they talk hopefully about getting those signatures with volunteer petition circulators the task becomes even tougher. It has to be open and transparent, Wunderman says, one designed to let the people “become the owners of the process.” To make things even tougher, the leaders of Repair California have given themselves only until September 25 – just a little over a month — to write the final drafts of their ballot measures.

Yet it’s hard not to want them to succeed, and not just because California is in such mess. Wunderman’s colleagues make casual comparisons with the convention that drew the federal constitution in Philadelphia in the hot summer of 1787. Yes they were a special set of men, but they were also inventing something new, groped continually with ideas, rejecting them, amending them, then rejecting them again. What they knew for sure – and what kept them going – was “that the status quo was unacceptable.” The parallel with California now was obvious.

What was most striking about the Repair California group and the people who’ve come to their meetings is that they seem both so ordinary and yet so thoughtful. There were no politicians in San Francisco last night — at least none that let themselves be known – though there were quite a few people from civic and other organizations trying to decide whether to join their campaign or to stay clear. For nearly all of them, there was the same question – if not this, then what.

The sponsors of the constitutional convention seem to have almost mystical faith in the collective wisdom of such people; they cite other instances where a cross section of randomly chosen citizens drew together, despite their different political and social beliefs, to generate a collective intelligence that produced highly creative solutions.

California, said Steven Hill of the New America Foundation, used to be known as a place of innovation; it was time get back to an innovative California. There are enormous risks in the effort: Innovation doesn’t necessarily lead to better things. The state’s political history of the past thirty years leaves plenty of room for doubt. But if California’s democracy is worth restoring then surely Repair California’s biggest bet is worth making, and that’s the restoration of citizenship. That would be worthwhile even if everything else fails.

Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Wednesday for the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration will be published early in 2010.