Renew RI Coalition Says ConCon Needed to Overcome Legislative Intransigence

Aug 20, 2014

Sasse and Flanders (center) make their case for a convention.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

A new coalition known as Renew RI held a news conference near the Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence Wednesday morning to assert that a constitutional convention is needed to overcome the General Assembly's unwillingness to pass needed government reforms.

Critics like Steve Brown of the RI ACLU and Dr. Pablo Rodriguez (an RIPR board member) contend that a ConCon is an invitation to trample on civil rights and unleash reactionary ideas, and critics say the process is just as politicized as what happens on Smith Hill.

But one member of Renew RI, Gary Sasse of Bryant University's Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership called a constitutional convention "an indispensable step to restoring confidence in our democratic institutions." He said the coalition will oppose any effort to weaken civil rights. "The constitutional convention is the only route to get critical issues, potentially, before the people," Sasse said.

Next up on the speaking program was former Common Cause of RI head H. Philip West Jr., who, like Sasse, opposed the convening of a ConCon in 2004. West says the Renew RI coalition won't advocate for particular issues to be taken up at a convention, but he cited examples of why he said one is necessary:

-- A lack of General Assembly progress on restoring the state Ethics Commission's oversight of the legislature, which was undercut by a 2009 state Supreme Court decision;

-- The creation of magistrate positions, in what West called a watering-down of the independence of the Judicial Nominating Commission;

-- Rhode Island's absence of a line-item veto for the governor:

"Sometimes those who oppose a convention make it sound as if it's a wild and reckless thing," said West, who invoked the Philadelphia convention of 1787 to argue otherwise. "They produced the United States Constitution, one of the all-time great documents in government history."

Rhode Island Citizens for Responsible Government, a coalition opposing a constitutional convention, released this statement through spokesman Pablo Rodriguez following the emergence of Renew RI:

“We do not want wealthy, out of state special interests buying any issue they want through a Constitutional Convention. Our coalition is rightfully concerned about women’s reproductive rights, which were put on the ballot in 1986 through a Constitutional Convention. We are concerned about minority rights, the rights of gay and lesbian Rhode Islanders, and the rights or hard-working Rhode Island families. These are all polarizing issues that could potentially be placed on the ballot if Question 3 passes. And there will be no limits as to how much money out of state special interests can spend to influence votes and distort campaigns. This is unacceptable, and that’s why we urge you to reject a Constitutional Convention and vote no on Question 3.”

In response to criticism that a ConCon is overly politicized, West says the state's last such convention (in the 1980s) set the stage for the Ethics Commission, among other reforms, and that reactionary proposals didn't move forward.

Those attending the Renew RI news conference included former state Supreme Court justice Robert Flanders; Mike Stenhouse of the conservative RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity; Margaret Kane of Operation Clean Government; Providence City Council Sam Zurier; Tim Duffy from the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, and citizen activist Randall Rose, who has led a number of protests related to 38 Studios.

"Our political system in this state is broken," Rose said. He pointed to how the speaker of the House and the Senate president are among Rhode Island's most powerful elected officials, but don't face statewide election. "When people like that make their decisions behind closed doors and are not accountable to voters, then that's when you start seeing a lot of shady deals, a lot of deals that are taking advantage of the public; 38 Studios was one example."

Voters will be asked on the November ballot if they want to convene a constitutional convention next year.