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If you strongly believe that California’s local governments need more power and discretion, you probably should get behind the constitutional convention.

It’s hard to predict how an event that may never take place might work. But the just-filed initiative to call a convention, considered in the light of history, offers some clues.

Here’s what jumps out: the method of delegate selection all but guarantees that the views of cities, counties and school districts will be extraordinarily well represented. It’s possible to imagine the locals dominating the convention.

How’s that? The exact number of delegates that would be selected by local governments (either through county selection committees that include county supervisors, mayors and a school board representative, or by city councils in the state’s three largest cities) is not yet known because it would be based on population. The locals would get one delegate for every 175,000 residents (every county is guaranteed at least 1 delegate). Assuming California’s population is 38 million people next year, that’s 217+ locally appointed delegates. That’s not a majority, but it’s a big minority.

In practice local appointees would likely be the largest and most organized bloc at a convention. Yes, the majority of the convention would be the 240 delegates representing the 80 Assembly delegates, but these would be regular citizens chosen essentially at random. It’s unlikely that people selected that way would cohere into a governing majority. But local governments would be able to choose their own delegates. And so cities, counties, and their advocacy organizations would almost certainly try to organize these delegates around a coherent agenda for local government.

If such organizing efforts were to succeed, the locals would have to win over only a small percentage of the unwashed, randomly-selected delegates to put their priorities in the proposed new constitution. (The convention would decide most matters by majority vote, according to the initiative.)

Something similar happened in California’s last convention, back in 1878-1879. The Workingmen’s Party (aka the Kearneyites) were a sizable minority (a little more than a third) of the convention, and proved to be better organized and more cohesive than the majority, a collection of non-partisan delegates who didn’t know each other. Voting as a bloc, the Workingmen prevailed on most of the big questions.

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