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Pandora's Ballot Box

Why voting "yes" on the constitution question could let the conservative monster out of the cage

Andy Bromage

October 30, 2008

Peter Wolfgang broadcast an urgent plea to his holy warriors.

"Last Friday, four judges on Connecticut's Supreme Court undemocratically forced same-sex 'marriage' on our state," Wolfgang wrote in an e-mail blast to supporters. "Our best very likely our only chance to restore marriage and self-government in Connecticut is for the majority of state voters to vote 'Yes' on Question 1 on Election Day (Nov. 4th) to have a constitutional convention."

Wolfgang runs the Family Institute of Connecticut, a conservative religious organization bent on abolishing same-sex marriage. The state Supreme Court's recent approval of gay marriage was a major setback for Wolfgang's cause and leaves him only one avenue to overturn it: a constitutional amendment.

When your ballot asks you next week whether to call a state constitutional convention in 2009, you won't see anything about gay marriage. But that's what's at stake, along with the conservative agendas of the Vote Yes campaign and who knows what else.

The Constitution Convention Campaign claims to be "issue neutral," their only agenda to amend the constitution to give voters the power to make laws through ballot initiatives, a form of direct democracy that's legal in 31 states but not here.

But a close look at who's backing and bankrolling the campaign reveals actors with well-established, mostly hard-line conservative agendas. The anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage Connecticut Catholic Conference last week dropped $132,700 on TV and radio commercials for the Vote Yes campaign that began airing last weekend, according to documents obtained by the Advocate. The TV spot shows a young woman outside the state Capitol urging viewers to vote yes on Question 1 for "democracy" and "change," but mentions neither ballot initiatives, nor the Catholics' political agenda.

In states where they're legal, ballot initiatives have opened a virtual Pandora's Box of laws that range from good to horrible. Connecticut's convention backers will note that ballot drives have abolished the death penalty, legalized medical marijuana and given women the right to vote. What you won't hear them say is how they've also legalized discrimination and undone civil rights. Just look at the kinds of ballot questions up for a vote this year:

Colorado and Nebraska vote on banning affirmative action. South Dakota votes on outlawing abortion. Arkansas votes on banning all unmarried couples (gay or otherwise) from adopting or fostering children. And Arizona, California and Florida vote on outlawing same-sex marriage.

Referenda allow anyone who collects enough signatures to place a question on the ballot, such as, "Shall the state define marriage as one man and one woman?" Then a simple majority vote makes it law. That's how Wolfgang hopes to get gay marriage overturned. And that's how anyone with a pet issue and enough money could bypass the legislature to enact laws that cooler heads have deemed unfit for public consumption.

Granted, social conservatives don't hold sway here like they do in other states. But tax opponents do. And anyone wondering what a citizen-driven campaign to abolish the income tax would look like need only look to Massachusetts, which will vote Nov. 4 on doing just that. Forty percent of the Bay State's revenues come from income taxes and experts foresee disaster if the measure passes: schools not getting funded, roads not getting fixed, low-income families paying higher sales and property tax.

Connecticut's legislature is hardly perfect. For a state as rich as ours, lawmakers can seem shamefully nonchalant about failing public schools, soaring property taxes and urban violence that's tearing our cities apart. But the alternative is a free-for-all that would invite special interests to funnel millions of dollars into single-issue ballot campaigns decided by sound bites and slick advertising.

Here's a look at three key players backing the Vote Yes campaign and what they might want to petition into law:

Peter Wolfgang

Family Institute of Connecticut, Executive Director

Wants: Same-sex marriage ban, parental notification law for teens seeking abortions.

Credits a recent anti-gay-marriage rally for the Supreme Court issuing its decision when it did, before election day, giving the issue more urgency than it otherwise might have had. "Having achieved our goal, there is now far more attention on the constitutional convention question ... and our chances of getting a 'Yes' vote are greatly improved," Wolfgang wrote on his Web site. "Getting a 'yes' vote on Question 1 on Election Day in order to have a constitutional convention is very likely the only chance we will have to restore not only marriage, BUT OUR VERY RIGHT TO SELF-GOVERNMENT IN CONNECTICUT!"

Matthew Daly

Constitution Convention Campaign Chairman

Wants: Daly ran for state Senate in 2006 on repealing the state income tax. He donated a generous but undisclosed sum of money from his family trust to the Yankee Institute, a conservative think tank that abhors the income tax and wants to dismantle public employee unions in favor of privatizing government services. Daly's on record opposing abortion rights and gay marriage. He was one of the few candidates to receive funding from the Family Institute in 2006, which donated $1,350 directly to Daly's campaign and spent another $2,841 on his behalf. "I have a family member who is a homosexual and he knows I am against gay marriage," Daly told a 2006 debate crowd. "I am trying my best to get used to the idea. But I am a Roman Catholic." (Daly did not return a call requesting comment.)

Susan Kniep

Former East Hartford mayor and president of the Federation of Connecticut Taxpayer Organizations.

Wants: A pay freeze for public employees, even as the cost of living goes up. Suspenion of binding arbitration as a tool to solve labor-management disputes. Cap on local property taxes. Ban on eminent domain for private development. "Unions themselves are going to have to understand, eventually, that they cannot continue to exert the control they do," Kniep tells the Advocate. "There may be a time when Jane Doe in one union may be asked by the mayor of a town, 'You are going to have to go and do that job,' and if she doesn't she may have to be fired."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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