Question and Answer
Wayne Whalen on Con-Con
The Chicago lawyer and vice president of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Foundation board was a delegate to the state's 1969-1970 Constitutional Convention. He represented the northwestern counties of Carroll, Jo Daviess, Ogle, Stephenson and Whiteside, and chaired the Style, Drafting and Submission Committee.
After earning his law degree in 1967 from Northwestern University in Evanston, he got a taste of politics at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He represented the presidential campaign of Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who lost the nomination to then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Whalen formed strong feelings about the state of the country's politics and about civil rights, leading him to run as a delegate to the constitutional convention the next year. He says he won because voters trusted him as a 30-year-old Hanover native and high school athlete from a family of duck farmers, not because of his stance on such controversial issues as merit selection of judges. He still supports that idea.
He foresees candidates in any future convention facing different challenges fueled by political polarization. "I don't think anybody ever asked me for my views on abortion the entire time I ran, for example. And gay rights and marriage were not on the table."
He talked with Statehouse Bureau Chief Bethany Jaeger about these and other characteristics of the 1969-1970 Con-Con, as well as what voters should consider when they see the 2008 ballot question on whether to convene another. This is an edited version of that conversation.
Q. What made conditions right for the 1969-1970 constitutional convention?
There were strong leaders in the General Assembly with the governor and with the mayor of Chicago. The changes made in local government authority and powers, the home rule provisions in particular, were very dramatic. I think that the electorate had to have confidence in the elected officials at the time, which they seem to have had. And those officials were strongly supportive of the changes in the Constitution.
Q. How do the current conditions compare?
As we sit here today, the conditions seem quite different. I think that there's probably an uneasiness [about] empowering governments, whether it's the state government or Cook County government or the city of Chicago government or other home-ruled units.
Q.Should voters consider the political tensions among House Speaker Michael Madigan, Sen. President Emil Jones Jr. and Gov. Rod Blagojevich when voting whether to hold another convention?
Yes. They should. Because any constitutional convention has to be called pursuant to legislation passed by the General Assembly and approved by the governor. It's the lawmaking process. So it is this General Assembly, and this governor, which will determine how the constitutional convention is composed, how it is funded and when it is held.
Q.What would you expect to be the top issues if voters called for a convention in 2008?
There would be an effort to affect the guarantees of public pensions, which are contained in the existing Constitution. I think there would be an effort to roll back the powers of local government that are currently contained in the Constitution. I think there would be an effort to curtail the power of the governor in granting vetoes and pardons. For example, I think there's some that view the governor's power to pardon convicted felons [in] capital cases — the death penalty — there would be an effort to roll that back. The current Constitution of Illinois has an Equal Rights Amendment for women. That's different than in a lot of places, so that will be an issue. There's the issue of marriage and how that should be defined. That would be a question. The current Constitution is very clear on the separation of church and state as that applies to the funding of education. And I think it's reasonable to assume that there would be an effort to change that.
Q.What about other such hot-button issues as education funding reform, ethics and property tax relief? Do you see those as appropriate for a constitutional convention?
No. I think that that's something the legislature should deal with itself. They have the full power to do it. They should have the political will to do it. There is no meaningful restriction on them, and they should act. They should not try and lay off those kinds of decisions beyond themselves.
Q.Are delegates more or less isolated from special interests than lawmakers are during a regular legislative session?
In 1970, given the fact that the delegates were selected on a nonpartisan basis and there was a real sense that politics — in the sense of partisan politics — should be limited in its effect on the convention, that was a shared value. It gave us some freedom [that] might not otherwise exist.
Q. But is it true that advocacy groups applied pressure on delegates during the '69-'70 Con-Con?
It was true. But it was certainly very low-key. The first action of the constitutional convention was a motion by then-Mayor [Richard J.] Daley to censure Gov. [Richard] Ogilvie for seeking to inject partisan politics in the convention process.
Q. What advice would you give to voters when they consider the ballot question in November 2008?
I think an enormous amount of care has to be taken before such a step is undertaken because the rights are very important, the balance of power is very important, and to open that up is a high risk.
Special interests were relatively marginalized during the '70 constitutional convention. I don't think that's realistic to assume as we sit here today. Take your view on abortion. That is an interest that is very high on people's agenda these days. And that could be a major issue. Your view of marriage — that could be a major issue. State funding of religious education or religious schools could be a very major issue. They came up, but they were relatively minor. And we moved past them pretty quickly.
Q:Should voters consider the cost of a convention, estimated to be about $78 million in 2008 dollars?
It's very expensive. Absolutely. This is a $100 million decision. That's the cost of the convention, and then there's the cost of the people running, which is hard to quantify in any way. But it would be very substantial. Forty years ago, I probably spent $30,000. (For more information see Illinois Issues, November, page 20.)
Illinois voters will see a question on the November 2008 ballot asking whether the state should convene another constitutional convention to reconsider the state charter. It was last revised in 1970.
For a convention to be called, at least 60 percent of the voters who answered the question or a majority of all voters in the election would have to approve the idea.
Then the Illinois General Assembly would have to approve legislation providing for the election of two delegates from each of the state's 59 Senate districts. That legislation also would determine whether delegates run for election on a partisan basis or as independents — they ran as independents in 1969. The legislature also would have to approve funding for the delegate election and for the actual convention.
Voters then would get a chance to vote on the drafted constitution.
The state's most recent Con-Con lasted from December 1969 to September 1970, and voters approved the new state Constitution in December 1970, making it effective July 1, 1971.
Issues, December 2007
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