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.