Sheheen thinks it’s time for a state constitutional convention. I’m still not there yet.

Actually, he’s not the only one who thinks so. But Vincent is the one I had lunch with yesterday, and the one who told me about this article that he and Tom Davis co-wrote for the Charleston Law Review (starts on page 439).

By the way, in case you wonder: He doesn’t know whether he’s running for governor again yet. Nor does he have a firm idea who else will be running. There was a fund-raiser held for him recently in Shandon. He says he told the guys who wanted to host it that he hadn’t made a decision. They said they wanted to have the event anyway, and all he had to do was show up. So he did. (I suspect either he or James Smith will run, but not both of them.)

We talked extensively about the 2010 race, and what might or might not be different in 2014. He pointed out that last time around he got more votes than any other gubernatorial candidate in South Carolina history (630,000) — except of course Nikki Haley, who got more. But only slightly more, and that as a result of the one-time Tea Party surge. So while he hasn’t made up his mind, you can see how he’d be considering another run.

Back to the constitutional convention idea… It came up because we were talking about how Tom Davis, who has always been among the most reasonable of men to speak with one-on-one, has been going off the deep end lately in his bid to run to the right of Lindsey Graham and everybody else in the known universe. That got Vincent to mention an area of agreement, which brought up the article, which begins:

South Carolina’s citizenry last met in a constitutional convention in 1895.  Prior to the Convention of 1895, the people of South Carolina saw it fit to meet together to perfect their form of government on multiple occasions—1776, 1778, 1790, 1861, 1865, and 1868.  When our last convention occurred in 1895, of the 162 members present, only six were black.  The convention was in part called so that newly re-ascendant whites could undo work that the Reconstruction government had created.  The convention also had a goal of re-centralizing power in the state government away from the emerging local governments.

I fully appreciate all of the reasons why Tom and Vincent see the need for a convention. As I’ve written so often for more than two decades, our state government needs to be rebuilt from the top down (or the bottom up, if you prefer — just as long as the result is the same).

In fact, the initial idea for the Power Failure series I conceived and directed in 1991 came from a series of three op-ed pieces written for The State by Walter Edgar and Blease Graham in 1990, which argued for a constitutional convention.

While not being prepared to leap to that conclusion, I was fascinated by the analysis of what was wrong with our state government (some of which I had glimpsed, but imperfectly, as governmental affairs editor), and how it had always been thus, stretching back to before South Carolina was even a state, back to the Lords Proprietors. In fact, all of those constitutions Tom and Vincent mention in the lede of their article essentially preserved the same flaw of investing power almost exclusively in the Legislature, to the exclusion of the other branches, and of local government. There might have been odd little innovations here and there, such as the direct election of a strange array of state officials (which served the purpose of fragmenting what little power was vested in the executive branch), but the core ill was the same. It was a system created to serve the landed (and before 1865, slaveholding) elites of the state, not the people at large.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t trust our elected leadership to appoint people to a constitutional convention who would go into it with a thorough understanding of the problems, and a commitment to making it better. I felt about it the way Huck Finn felt about telling the truth: “it does seem most like setting down on a kag of powder and touching it off just to see where you’ll go to.”

Today… well, today, our state government is worse than it was. I can’t remember the last time anything significant came out of our State House that made good sense and that was designed to move our state forward rather than backward. So on the one hand, I’m tempted to say things couldn’t be worse, so let’s set off that “kag” and see which way we’ll go.

But on the other hand… In the years since “Power Failure,” the quality of elected leadership in this state has declined precipitously. Back then, as bad as the structure was, there were people in charge who understood this state’s challenges and were sincerely committed to make things better. Carroll Campbell was governor, and Vincent’s uncle was speaker of the House. And even though he had his doubts about the very limited restructuring Campbell managed to push through in 1993, Bob Sheheen was a smart guy who could be reasoned with, and he did his part to make it happen.

Back then, we had our share of chuckleheads in office, but it was nothing like today. Back then, government wasn’t in the hands of nihilistic populists who not only oppose the very idea of government, they don’t understand the first thing about how it works.

Would you trust the folks in charge now to set up a constitutional convention that would leave us better off than before? The office-holders who understand the things that Vincent and Tom understand about our system are few and far between.

I must admit, I’d have to go back and research what it would take to set up a constitutional convention. At this point, I’m not familiar with the procedures. Maybe there are ways to do it that I would find reassuring. But before I could say I favored having one, I’d have to hear a lot of assurances as to who would attend such a convention, and what they’d be likely to do.

17 thoughts on “Sheheen thinks it’s time for a state constitutional convention. I’m still not there yet.

  1. Mark Stewart

    How about simply figuring out which state constitutions are generally considered to fall in the top quarter in the country? Then use that lottery machine to pop out a numbered ball – numbered 1 through 12.

    And there is our new Constitution.

    Without even thinking about it, we would end up with a Constitution at least 300% better than the one we have now.

  2. Karen McLeod

    Perhaps we could select our constitutional convention in the following manner: 1) let people form their own parties around whatever their core beliefs are (eg. get gov. small enuf to fit in the bathtub, then drown it, or legalize everything)–10,000 signatures gets you a party; 2) let those parties select potential members for the constitutional convention; 3) hold an election to allow everyone to vote, but that vote would be for 1 person in 1 party; let the winner of each party be a delegate to the convention. This means might work if the convention had a rule that if it could be shown that a person could not/would not be willing to work with others, then 2/3 of the conventioneers could vote him ‘off the island.’ I’m sure this idea could use some tweaking, and I have no idea how many “parties” would be represented, but at least we might have legitimate representation. Oh, BTW, did I mention that these people would be provided with meals and reasonable accommodations, but would be expected to work without pay or with minimal pay, and would not return home until the reworking of the constitution was complete.

  3. Brad

    How about this? How about a committee of four to appoint the delegates to the con-con? Consisting of Vincent Sheheen, Tom Davis, Blease Graham and Walter Edgar. I’d like to be on the committee too, to watch the others, but since that’s self-interested, appoint Cindi Scoppe. That way, you’d not only have someone who fully understood all the issues that we spent a year identifying in Power Failure, but who has spent the 20 years since then writing about all the ways those problems bear out in day-to-day issues.

    Let that bunch choose the delegates (and with Tom in there, the government haters couldn’t say they weren’t represented, but they’d be represented by a reasonable man), and I say have a convention.

    But letting a bunch of parties choose the delegates? You’re scaring me over here…

    The idea of a new government being drafted by a bunch of people who think the greatest challenge to the state is whatever was hollered about the loudest at their last town hall meeting… that’s a recipe for disaster.

    Oh, and if you think I’m being anti-democratic, you’re right. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution worried about mob rule, too, which is why they gave us a republic, designed to check and contain the passionate popular whims of the moment just as it checked and contained other destructive forces.

  4. Karen McLeod

    I was simply hoping that such a diverse group, each of which constitute a ‘mob’ of 1, would eventually realize that in order to help anyone you have to offer everyone something. In short, I was looking for a way to force debate and compromise.

  5. Elliott

    I live in a state that has elected Mark Sanford governor, not once, but twice. This preceded the election of Governor Nikkie Hayley. I am definitely against a constitution that gives more power to these governors. We are fortunate that our state constitution has limited the power of these two. I want to be sure SC will elect a competent governor before we decide to give the governor more power.

  6. Phillip

    I won’t hold my breath for them to remove the clause (Article VI, Section 2) of the state Constitution that makes me ineligible for public office on the basis of my religious beliefs. (although the SC Supreme Court did rule it unenforceable, but still, would be nice to get it out of there).

  7. Steve Gordy

    I’m in favor of the idea, although I can see the basis for Brad’s qualms. One thing we ought to aim at is to limit the constitution to the fundamental organization of the state government and drop a lot of the extraneous material that does nothing except complicate matters.

  8. Mark Stewart

    The first thing we would have to draw a red line around is our constitutional right to huntin’ & fishin’.

    And then we would have to make sure that “minimally adequate” survives the redrafting.

  9. Mark Stewart


    That’s the attitude that got us the gawd awful mess that we enjoy today.

    No other state has ever fallen prey to a despotic governor; that fear is a red herring. On the other hand, we have always had a corrupt legislature here in SC.

  10. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    The Legislature has long, either openly or implicitly, played up the fear of putting too much power in a governor who may turn out to be despotic, unstable, corrupt or all of the above.

    Meanwhile, we’ve endured, off and on, many sessions filled with legislative leaders who have displayed those same characteristics, yet possessed considerably more power than any governor.

    Mark is right; the argument doesn’t hold water. It only serves to keep those in the Legislature who benefit from the status quo in power.


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