The million-dollar question

Paul Jacob

11/2/2008 12:00:42 AM - Paul Jacob

“Change”: the official buzzword of Campaign 2008. Everyone seems to be for change. Barack Obama and his supporters first shouted it as a slogan, but John McCain and his backers have long since dittoed their fondness for it.

The “why” is obvious: Both camps desire to connect with voters, who have long been denied the political change they so overwhelmingly favor. Yet, while political folks have learned to annunciate the word “change” and to use it correctly in many, many sentences, not quite everyone is really for it.

A question on Connecticut’s ballot next Tuesday makes this painfully obvious.

The question automatically appears, by constitutional mandate, on the Constitution State’s ballot every 20 years. It gives voters the opportunity to call a convention where delegates can propose amendments or revisions to the state constitution.

The question amounts to, in more simple language: Should we select delegates, and have them sit down, talk about and hopefully propose some changes?

I note that proposing actual changes certainly seems to be associated with the whole idea and motto of “change.”

So, yes indeed, Connecticut voters now consider a Yes vote. A convention to debate and write constitutional changes, changes that would then be approved or rejected by the voters, might produce the kind of reform voters desire. In instances where that is not the case, poor ideas can be rejected.

Given the alternative — the special interest-dominated legislature — those who really do want change see a convention as by far their best opportunity.

Top of the reform list for Connecticut voters is a process for direct voter initiative, like neighboring Massachusetts has — as do 23 other states, including California, Florida, Maine and Ohio. That’s smart, because initiative and referendum is the path to all kinds of other reforms like term limits, tax limitation, protections from eminent domain abuse, and much more.

Of course, voter initiative is anathema to politicians and special interests (who don’t fancy giving an inch to the general public interest) and thus it is not likely to fair so well in the state legislature.

This week, a poll conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut showed 50 percent of the state’s voters have voted or plan to vote Yes on calling a constitutional convention. With 39 percent opposed, there remain 11 percent undecided.

That same poll found that 65 percent of Connecticut citizens favor establishing a statewide ballot initiative process.

Meanwhile, the forces opposing change (and even its mere possibility), slapped together a million dollars to begin a barrage of TV ads to frighten voters against a possible convention.

The group formed, “Vote No — Protect Our Constitution,” received a $325,000 check from the National Education Association in Washington, DC, another $315,000 was quickly kicked in by the Connecticut Education Association. The state’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers plopped down another $105,000, along with $10,000 from each of the professors’ unions at the Connecticut State University system and the University of Connecticut. Other big checks rolled in from groups including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (Council 4) and the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

These are some of the most powerful — if not the most powerful — political forces in the state, organizations designed to gain specific funds and particular policy benefits from government for themselves. And yet, they actually have the arrogance to suggest they are seeking to protect voters from the bad, ole “special interests.”

Like them.

In fact, it’s the message of their campaign: Fear. Fear of ourselves and our ability to self-govern. Fear of special interests (like them) and their power to rip us off no matter what.

The “Vote No” campaign’s television advertisements argue, “Question One means special interests set the agenda. Eliminate our basic rights. Ban gay marriage and abortion. Tax giveaways to corporations. Cut workers rights and benefits.”

The arguments are almost too ridiculous to warrant a response. The so-called special interests urging a Yes vote had raised just $12,000 at the time the No forces approached the million-dollar mark. As John Woodcock, a former Democratic state legislator and a leader on the Yes side said, “We are being outspent 83 to 1. It’s the individual vs. behemoth special interests. It’s the grassroots vs. the establishment. It’s David vs. Goliath.”

Attack ads to the contrary, none of the freedoms recognized by the Bill of Rights is open for tinkering. Furthermore, supporters of a Yes vote, like the Federation of Connecticut Taxpayer Organizations, are most assuredly not seeking “tax giveaways to corporations.”

It is true that the state supreme court’s recent 4-3 ruling recognizing a right to same-sex marriage in Connecticut has mobilized the Catholic Church, The Family Institute and some religiously motivated activists to support a convention even more than before. The recent UConn poll, however, showed a majority of state voters opposed to a ban on gay marriage.

At the No website, one reads this ominous warning: “The public has no say on what the lobbyists propose to do to the constitution.” But most certainly the public does. The people get to vote any proposed change up or down. This omission is, of course, essential to whipping up irrational fears of a convention.

Perhaps Connecticut’s political bigwigs exclude this important fact also because they dare not mention what they most oppose: The voters having “more say.” Voters get the final word on both the changes proposed by a constitutional convention and ballot issues proposed by citizens, should the convention lead to the enactment of a ballot initiative process.

Similar constitutional convention questions appear on the Hawaii and Illinois ballots this year, similarly mandated by their constitutions. And the campaigns in those two states echo the Connecticut campaign. Voters seeking initiative and referendum to check the power of politicians and special interests are also urging Yes votes on those state convention questions. And, likewise, find themselves bullied in the battle by the well-heeled insiders.

In Illinois, the company of David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s campaign guru, has the $3 million contract to convince voters to say No to change.

There is good change and bad change. The entrenched political insiders in every state and in Washington don’t want either one . . . no matter what jingles you hear this time of year.

That’s why the change we most desperately need is more citizen control of government. In Connecticut, there is a real chance for real change.