Not the End of the Line for Con Con

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Given all the uncertainties of California politics, here’s one thing you can bet on:

We haven’t heard the last of a constitutional convention.

There are two reasons to believe the idea isn’t going away, despite the failure of convention backers to raise enough money to qualify two initiatives for the November 2010 ballot.

1. This was a successful failure.

The history of big changes in California is a history of successful failures, similar to con con’s. In the 30 years between statehood and the state’s last constitutional convention, in 1878 and 1879, there were three major efforts to call a convention, each of which failed.

Howard Jarvis, co-author of Prop 13, had a decade’s worth of failures with similar measures before he got his initiative on the ballot and changed California’s tax and governance systems forever.

Jarvis’ previous failures were preludes to success because they were high-profile failures that raised awareness of the issue he was raising. Con con received considerable media attention in the state, and across the country.

The one thing con con lacked was a challenge that also faced Jarvis on his first few attempts – having the money and organization to qualify.

2. The state’s constitutional problems aren’t going away

The hard fact is that, for all the talk among Sacramento cognoscenti about the wisdom of piecemeal change, the state’s constitution needs big, wholesale revisions. An initiative by initiative approach won’t do the trick.

Sooner or later – and I’d bet heavily on sooner – commentators, analysts and public-spirited citizens will argue that we need a convention to make those changes.

That said, a convention isn’t the only option, and it may not be the best one. A revision commission might be more effective. But it’s hard to imagine elites signing onto a revision commission without the threat of a constitutional convention staring them in the face.

Reform is a long-term project. We’re likely to look back on 2010 as a false start, the beginning of a beginning.

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