Saturday, February 21, 2009

Shelby can be powerful agent of constitutional change

(Originally published 2/21/09)

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby thinks Alabama should have a new constitution.

He told me so in a quick conversation we had as he left his town hall meeting in Auburn on Tuesday.

But our short exchange on the sidewalk in front of his waiting car left me with mixed feelings.

On one hand, I was pleasantly surprised to find not only that he supports the constitutional reform movement, but that he is passionate about it.

"Oh, we should have done that a long time ago," Shelby said. "That thing is this big," he said, raising his right hand and stretching his thumb and index finger apart to illustrate the massive size of the 108-year-old document and its 800-plus amendments. He reached into his jacket for the pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution he had been carrying for comparison.

But when I asked him if he would support the joint resolutions pending in the State Legislature that would allow Alabamians to vote on organizing a constitutional convention, I was disappointed that he took a pass.

"That's a state issue," he said, delivering the line politicians give when they are simply trying to steer clear of someone else’s mess.

Richard Shelby has spent nearly 40 years in politics. He served in the State Senate before being elected to the U.S. House in 1978 and the U.S. Senate in 1986. He's established a national profile on financial issues and brought billions back to this state in education and infrastructure funding.

He is perhaps this state's most prominent conservative, with the possible current exception of Gov. Bob Riley. He has contacts and influence with conservative groups that is unmatched by any other GOP leader.

Imagine the difference Shelby's persistent, public support for constitutional reform could make.

If Shelby believes in reform so strongly, why won't he throw his full political weight behind making it happen?

I suspect it's because he doesn’t want to ruffle the feathers of influential conservative groups that oppose constitutional reform.

But the reality is that, his political prominence aside, Shelby is an Alabamian, too. He is underserved and misrepresented by the shortcomings of the current constitution as much as the rest of us.

I hope that as reform proponents continue to spread the word about the need for a new constitution, Shelby will have a change of heart and decide to lend his significant political clout to our efforts. He is uniquely equipped to assuage the fears of many new-constitution opponents -- individuals, not special-interest groups, who oppose reform for their own reasons –- who misunderstand the reform movement. He could play a unique and irreplaceable role in reshaping state government.

He could leave a legacy beyond Washington by making Montgomery more accountable to the people.

As we parted, Shelby apparently felt that he needed to clarify himself, so he added one last comment.

"I trust the people," he said, raising his voice above the noise from the street.

He can demonstrate that trust by supporting the joint resolutions that will empower them to decide for themselves whether their governing document should be rewritten.

Sen. Shelby, be a leader on this issue. Trust the people. Help us get the vote.

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