Constitution rewrite board may get more black members
by Tim Lockette
Feb 23, 2013 | 4838 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — As a survivor of the infamous civil-rights-era bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Carolyn McKinstry is used to being a spokeswoman for black Alabamians.

But she really can’t represent the opinions of all African-Americans in the state, she says. Not by herself. And especially not when rewriting the Alabama Constitution of 1901.

“I’ve never had a problem speaking for myself,” said McKinstry, a member of the state’s Constitutional Revision Commission. “But I can’t possibly represent the views of everyone who looks like me.”

McKinstry is the only black full member the 16-member commission, which is working through an article-by-article rewrite of the state’s fundamental legal document.

To McKinstry and other black leaders, that looks lopsided. In 2011, 27 percent of Alabama’s 4.8 million residents were black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If the Constitutional Revision Commission were similarly apportioned, four of the 16 members would be black. The current 1-in-16 setup looks more like Kansas.

But that could change soon. On Thursday, Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, introduced a resolution to expand the commission by two members, expressly for the purpose of increasing the board’s diversity. The measure passed the Senate but still awaits a vote in the House.

Long constitution, painful history

In a state where race has always been politically important, the demographics of political appointments are often a subject of debate. But the passions run deeper where the state’s constitution is concerned.

When Alabama last convened a constitutional convention, 112 years ago, all the delegates were white, and racism was very much on the agenda.

“If we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law — not by force or fraud,” said Anniston representative John B. Knox, the 1901 convention’s president, in his opening remarks to the convention.

In addition to segregationist wording that’s no longer enforceable, the 376,000-word Alabama Constitution contains a mystifying jumble of amendments, more than 800 in all. And because the constitution denies local governments control over much of their affairs, voters confront new amendments, a dozen or so at a time, at every statewide election.

The Constitutional Revision Commission was created to clean up the mess, by reviewing the document article-by-article and proposing changes.

Legislators set up the commission with a structure that’s typical of Montgomery committees. Gov. Robert Bentley, Marsh and House Speaker Rep. Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, all have positions on the board and each appointed three additional members. Four House and Senate committee heads also got seats.

That structure meant that the commission started out with seven white male members before a single appointment was made.

“We’re top-heavy with legislators,” said McKinstry, a Marsh appointee.

Checks and balances

Former Gov. Albert Brewer said a more diverse commission would be “ideal,” but he doubted that a lack of racial diversity would lead to results similar to 1901.

“We have strong minority representation in our Legislature,” said Brewer, who chairs the commission. “The commission is just looking at best practices and making recommendations, it’s up to the Legislature to take the recommendations.”

Brewer doesn’t have a say in who’s on the commission. He was appointed by Bentley, likely because of Brewer’s experience in constitutional reform. A longtime reform advocate, Brewer convened a similar board in the late 1960s, when he was governor.

Brewer said the commission is, ultimately, only an advisory board. Its suggestions must be approved by the Legislature and, eventually, by the voters. It’s a safeguard that wasn’t present in 1901, he said, when black Alabamians were disenfranchised.

But McKinstry sees some items being left off the commission’s table.

“I was hoping that we would do something to regulate payday lending,” she said, noting that the black community is affected by the prevalence of high-interest loans.

The commission rewrote the constitution’s wording on banking without introducing new regulations on payday lending. Voters approved that wording in November.

McKinstry isn’t always the sole black person in the room at commission meetings. Some commission members have the power to send a proxy to vote for them, and in recent months Bentley has dubbed Rebecca Boykins, a policy adviser who is African-American, as his stand-in. Still, commission staff, fellow commissioners and Boykins herself acknowledge that Boykins is there to represent the governor’s views.

“We’re not actual members of the commission,” Boykins said of proxy commission members.

Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis said the governor values diversity on boards, though the first consideration is getting the right person for the job.

In addition to Brewer, Bentley originally appointed Heritage Foundation member Vicki Drummond and Wetumpka Tea Party leader Becky Gerritson to the commission. He later replaced Gerritson with Al Agricola, a Montgomery lawyer.

Ardis said the change came as the commission began work on the constitution’s sometimes complicated language on home rule.

“The governor wanted someone with legal expertise,” she said.

Gerritson’s departure left the commission with only three female members. Gerritson said the demographics of the commission don’t matter to her.

“What matters to me is that citizens are showing up and keeping track of what the commission does,” she said.

House Speaker Hubbard appointed Montgomery pollster John Anzalone, Birmingham lawyer Greg Butrus and Rep. Patricia Todd, a Democrat and the only openly gay member of the Legislature.

‘You should try’

The resolution creating the commission came out of Marsh’s office, and it came with wording that mandates the commission “reflect the racial, gender, geographic, urban/rural and economic diversity of the state.”

That wording has become common for boards created by the Legislature. But Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said the reality is often very different.

“If you look at a lot of these boards, there’s one African-American out of 15 members,” he said.

Singleton said the state’s way of setting up appointed boards is partly to blame. Some state boards, he said, have automatic seats for the state’s constitutional officers. All the state’s constitutional officers are white. Other boards demand an appointment from each of the state’s seven Congressional districts. Only one of those districts is majority-black.

Appointments are another matter. Singleton, head of the black legislative caucus, said that not long ago, the caucus recommended two black licensed landscape architects for appointment to a state landscaping board. Both were invited to join the board, and both turned the offer down.

“If we reach out and can’t find anyone, that’s fine,” he said. “But you should try.”

Singleton said Republican leaders haven’t always been trying. He’s been pressing the governor’s office to maintain a list of appointments, broken down by race.

The Star asked the governor’s office for that list, too. Ardis sent a list of 39 appointments made by the governor in 2013 and approved by the Legislature so far. On the list were 23 white men, five white women, five black women, five black men and one Hispanic man.

That makes the 2013 appointments 72 percent white, 26 percent black and 2 percent Hispanic. That’s pretty close to the composition of the state itself, which is 70 percent white, 27 percent black and 4 percent Hispanic. Women made up only about a fourth of those appointments, however.

State boards are appointed a few members at a time, and it takes a long time to move the demographic needle. Most of Bentley’s 2013 picks were reappointments, or replacements that didn’t change the racial makeup of a board.

Singleton said one way to change that is to expand boards where possible, adding new members for diversity.

That’s exactly what Marsh’s resolution proposes for the Constitutional Revision Commission.

“I was talking to the black caucus earlier, and they had some concerns that seemed very legitimate,” Marsh said of the measure.

Marsh’s resolution, if passed in the House, would give him and Hubbard each one new appointment to the commission.

Marsh said he didn’t have a new member in mind yet, but would consult with the black caucus for ideas.

Attempts to reach Hubbard on Friday were unsuccessful. It’s not clear when the resolution will come up in the House.

Singleton said he appreciated Marsh’s move, but wished the state’s leaders had gotten it right the first time.

“This is the extent we have to go to, to get this taken care of,” he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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