JACKSON On the heels of a fife-and-drum-corps performance, a crowd of Tea Partiers showered retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Allen West in applause as he took the stage in Fort Lauderdale. Bathed in spotlight in an otherwise dark room, the black Republican military man soaked in the anti-Obama energy that permeated the room. He then recounted the stories of those he called "the original insurgents"—the "patriots" of yore who met in taverns and plotted the American Revolution.
"This is where we are right now in our country," he shouted with the timbre of a man rallying his troops. "We need to meet in places and start talking about restoring our liberty and fight back against a tyrannical government."
It was late 2009, and though he had lost a bid for Congress the year before, West rode the Tea Party rage to stardom in the wake of Barack Obama's inauguration. Inspired by a speaker before him who had come carrying Revolution-era weaponry and wearing colonial regalia, West issued a command to the crowd to "take this country back."
"If you're here to stand up, to get your musket, to fix your bayonet, and to charge into the ranks, you are my brothers and sisters in this fight," West said. "You need to leave here understanding one simple word—that word is 'bayonets.' And charge this enemy for your freedom, for your liberty, for the future ..."
Nearly 10 years into that future, West, whom Republicans sent for a brief two-year stint in Congress in the 2010 Tea Party-wave election, stood in the rotunda of the Mississippi Capitol building in Jackson. There, on Feb. 21, 2019, he held up a pocket Constitution and asked state legislators to do something Americans have not done since the time when muskets and bayonets were commonplace—call for a convention of the states to amend the document in his hands.
Activists Want Amendments Tackling Debt, Limiting Regulations
Changing the U.S. Constitution is not an easy feat. All 27 current amendments to the Constitution became law via resolutions supported by two-thirds of both houses of Congress that were then ratified by three-fourths of the states. That can take a long time, though; Congress passed a resolution calling for an amendment to prohibit members of Congress from raising their own pay during their current term in 1789, but only in 1992 did the requisite number of states finally ratify it as the Twenty-Seventh Amendment.
To amend it via a constitutional convention, though, two-thirds of the states would need to pass resolutions calling for a convention of the states. To date, 28 states have passed such resolutions. If supporters are able to get one passed in just six more states, Congress would then have to call for a convention made up of delegates from the various states.
At the Capitol last month, other out-of-state advocates, along with proponents in the Mississippi Legislature, joined West to support a resolution pushed by the Texas-based organization Citizens for Self-Governance, or CSG, which has deep ties to right-wing organizations nationwide.
Sen. Angela Burkes Hill, a Picayune Republican, is the lead sponsor of Senate Resolution 596, which calls for a convention of the states like the one CSG advocates. She explained to the Jackson Free Press why she decided to back the movement at the Feb. 21 event.
"I see a runaway federal government, and I see the opportunity that the founders gave us in the Constitution to reclaim the powers that belong to the state," she said. "And I try to keep our federal government from going bankrupt, which I don't think Congress has any intention of doing right now."
Since it would be states, not Congress, that would propose amendments at a convention, advocates believe a convention would allow for amendments that better reflect the desires of individual states, rather than the federal government.
'I Don't Think You're Going to See 38 States Taking Civil Rights Away'
CSG is responsible for resolutions in 13 states that call for a constitutional convention to specifically address four of the group's priorities: curtailing the national debt, limiting regulations on business and industry, stopping federal "attacks" on "state sovereignty" used to impose a "radical social agenda," and what it calls the "federal takeover of the decision-making process" by the courts and the executive branch.
In Mississippi, conversations about "state sovereignty," encroachment by the federal government and "radical social agendas" inevitably, whether intentional or not, evoke the language of the state's past. Here, southern whites defended everything from slavery, to Jim Crow, to school segregation by making arguments for "state's rights" and "state sovereignty."
From 1956 to 1977, Mississippi governors used the taxpayer-funded Sovereignty Commission to defend segregation and to collaborate with local law enforcement to spy and clamp down on civil-rights activists, even orchestrating firings and evictions to convince them to give up their activism. The spies also reported any activity by everyday white people seen as helping the goal of black freedom, down to a gas-station owner in Philadelphia, Miss., who allowed a black man to use his bathroom.
Curtailing civil rights, Hill told the Jackson Free Press, is "absolutely not" what the resolution is about. Under Article V, three-fourths of state legislatures would need to ratify any amendments the delegates passed at a constitutional convention for them to become law. She said that would make it unlikely that an amendment highly offensive to the right or left, like the watering down of civil-rights protections, would pass.
"This is not the intent of this convention," she said. "It's not even in the parameters of what we're trying to accomplish here. And I don't think you're going to see 38 states taking civil rights away from people."
Opponents Fear a 'Runaway Convention'
While CSG argues that a convention would be limited to only a small set of issues, opponents have warned otherwise. In Oklahoma in 2015, Republican State Rep. Mike Ritze urged his fellow Oklahoma lawmakers to vote against their convention of the states resolution, warning that it could lead to a "a runaway convention."
Writing in 1988, former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger warned that efforts to contain a constitutional convention would fail.
"There is no way to effectively limit or muzzle the actions of a constitutional convention," he wrote. "The convention would make its own rules and set its own agenda. Congress might try to limit the convention to one amendment or one issue, but there is no way to assure that the convention would obey. After a convention is convened, it will be too late to stop the convention if we don't like its agenda."
In 1787, the only constitutional convention in American history far exceeded its mandate. There is no guarantee that a second constitutional convention would even need three-fourths of the states to ratify its proposed amendments. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out in 2017 report, if a new convention followed the precedents the one in 1787 set, it could simply amend the ratification process to make it easier for their other amendments to pass.
During his remarks in Jackson, West said proponents were not trying to rewrite the Constitution.
"This is not a constitutional convention," West said, even though that is exactly what a convention of states is. "This is not what they did after the Articles of Confederation. This is an opportunity for you, we the people, through your state, to exert your power so that we can get the balance right in the United States of America, because the balance is supposed to be with our states."
'Non-partisan' Plan Endorsed by Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Sarah Palin
Mark Meckler, the CSG president who also spoke that day, tried to assure the crowd that their convention of the states idea is not partisan. A quick look at the website for CSG's lobbying arm, Convention of States Action, or COS, though, tells a different story. It includes endorsements from Republicans like Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and right wing radio host James O'Keefe. Of the 37 endorsees, Palin is the only woman listed.
Before Meckler headed CSG, he co-founded the Tea Party Patriots, one of numerous groups that formed under the Tea Party banner in 2009. Other Tea Party groups targeted him for criticism, accusing him of using tactics like those employed by Herbalife, a multi-level marketing company, or MLM, where he and his wife were top distributors at in the early 2000s. MLMs distributors make money by selling "opportunity" to distributors who work under them, and whose profits they share.
The couple claimed they earned $20,000 a month on average, even as 8,700 other Herbalife distributors filed a class action lawsuit, claiming individual losses of $10,000 to $50,000 and alleging the company was a pyramid scheme. The Mecklers were not named in that 2004 suit, and they left Herbalife that year.
Amid that criticism and on the heels of a felony charge in New York for attempting to check in a glock pistol and ammunition on a Delta airlines flight, Meckler left the Tea Party Patriots in February 2012. He joined CSG in 2015.
Posts on CSG's Convention of the States Facebook page make its ideological bent clear, with attacks levied against the Environmental Protection Agency, universal health care proposals, New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Activists Want to Strip Power From the Supreme Court
In a 2015 blog post on its lobbying arm's page, CSG suggested that a convention of the states could help overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 ruling that legalized marriage for gay and lesbian Americans nationwide, undo rulings upholding the Affordable Care Act, and undo Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion.
"Abortion and now same-sex marriage have both ripped our country apart," the blog post reads. "On both of these issues, if it had not been for Supreme Court intervention, the law would vary from state to state as the people of the state desired."
A convention, CSG implied, would disempower the U.S. Supreme Court from making such rulings, and return those issues to the province of the states.
"The majority justices are not just foisting Obamacare or same-sex marriage on us," the blog post reads. "The Supreme Court of the United States is systematically denying the American people the right of self-government."
Left up to conservative states like Mississippi, of course, abortion and same-sex marriage would still be illegal. While supporters of the marriage and abortion decisions say the Court simply affirmed the Constitutional rights of U.S. citizens, CSG argues the rulings were "political."
"The Supreme Court has become a political agency and we're hanging by a thread there right now," Convention of the States Mississippi Deputy Director Bruce Cook told the Mississippi Tea Party at a 2016 gathering.
At least one Natchez Democrat in the Mississippi Senate supports the effort. Sen Bob. Dearing is among the resolution's sponsors.
"I think it would give us a voice as far as the federal government is concerned," he told the Jackson Free Press in a Feb. 21 phone interview. "These guys have been coming around the Capitol for three or four years. I think if it got to the floor, it would pass."
Last year, the House passed a CSG-backed resolution calling for the convention of the states, with support from a handful of Democrats, but the Senate Rules Committee blocked it from reaching the Senate floor for a vote. That could happen this year, too, Meckler said, if activists do not push the senators on the committee, including committee chair Sen. Gray Tollison, to bring it to the full floor for a vote.
"So what we need y'all to do as Grassroots activists is, you need to let the chairman of the rules committee Tollison know we want that thing coming out of the rules committee, and we want that go into the floor for an open debate in both houses," Meckler told the group during his remarks. "The people deserve a vote on that,"
At a Tea Party event last fall, Mississippi COS Director Rob Scarbrough said he was shocked when the 2018 resolution died in committee, because the group had assurances from enough members on the committee that it would pass. A majority of senators, he said, had already pledged to vote for it.
Scarbrough's state-level organization has supporters pushing for the resolution in each house district. On Facebook, the Mississippi Convention of the States page has nearly 11,000 followers.
Other Right Wing Groups Want Pro-Corporate Amendments
Outside of CSG's effort, other groups are pushing for a constitutional convention, including the GOP and business-friendly American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which writes model legislation often aimed at axing corporate regulations and favoring private schools over public education. Already, ALEC has secured resolutions for constitutional conventions in more than two dozen states.
ALEC is influential in the Mississippi Legislature, where it works behind closed doors with legislators to craft bills. The lobbying organization, which is organized as a charity that can accept tax-deductible contributions, would like to see amendments to the Constitution that would radically transform the legal and political environment to make in favor of corporate America.
ALEC has proposed an amendment that would require Congress to obtain approval from two-thirds of state legislatures to raise new taxes, to increase federal spending or to increase the federal debt. That would make levying new taxes extremely difficult, but beneficial to the companies that back ALEC, which include Koch Industries, Comcast, AT&T, Pfizer, UPS, and Chevron.
At the Capitol on Feb. 21, West told the Jackson Free Press that he opposes "crony capitalism" in which politicians act corruptly at the behest of corporate interests. But, he said, corporations should not be demonized for getting involved in the political process.
"We don't have this sense of demonizing corporations for an ideological agenda, when corporations are part of who we are, and corporations are people," West said.
That phrase, "corporations are people," is born of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. The ruling struck down decades of campaign finance law that had limited the amount of money wealthy interests could donate to political action committees, known as PACs, and made it easier for vested interests to pour money into political efforts without disclosing their identity. In the ruling, the court found that money is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.
The ruling gave rise to political action committees, known as Super PACs, that can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and individuals so long as they do not coordinate with political campaigns.
"Corporations are people, my friend," 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney once famously declared during that year's primaries, in support of the ruling.
Left Wing Groups Want a Convention to Overturn Citizens United
That controversial ruling spurred some left-wing groups to push for a constitutional convention, too. Since 2011, Wolf PAC has raised more than $650,000 to support efforts to push blue states to pass resolutions calling for a convention to amend the Constitution and overturn the Citizens United decision.
Controversial left-wing political commentator Cenk Uygur started Wolf PAC in 2011. He is the host of the online show The Young Turks, which is named after the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide who, at the behest of the Ottoman government, systematically murdered 1.5 million Armenian Christians in the early 20th century. Uygur has repeatedly come under fire for his history of denying the mass extermination ever happened, but in 2016, he offered a semi-apology, saying he would "stay out of things I don't know about."
Through Uygur's work, Wolf PAC has succeeded in convincing legislatures in California, Illinois, New Jersey and Vermont to pass resolutions calling for constitutional conventions. Those efforts could combine with right wing efforts, like those spearheaded by ALEC and CSG, to make a 21st century convention of the states a reality.
Follow state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Email story tips to [email protected]. Taylor Langele contributed to this report.