A few minutes before two last Thursday afternoon, the city council chambers were almost vacant. A graying, portly middle-aged man sat alone at a desk facing the council dais, surrounded by stacks of legal documents.
It was Douglas Bruce, waiting patiently for the title-setting board to rule on his latest proposed charter amendment.
Shuffling his papers absent-mindedly, the fierce, old tax-cutter seemed tired and distracted.
Citing various sections of the state Constitution, Bruce explained to a reporter that the title-setting board was exceeding its authority, treating him unfairly, and by doing so trampling upon all of our rights.
He was referring, of course, to the right to petition and the right of citizen initiative. The former is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the latter by the Colorado Constitution.
Later that afternoon, fresh-faced young signature-collectors were much in evidence along Tejon Street. They weren’t there because they cared about the petitions they were carrying, but because they were paid to do so. Were they living evidence of the rights embodied our constitutions? Or did they symbolize the re-assignment of those rights to corporations and wealthy individuals?
Here’s the text of the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
And here’s the relevant section of the Colorado Constitution (article V, section 1).
“…the people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws and amendments to the constitution and to enact or reject the same at the polls independent of the general assembly…”
Those rights were not incorporated in the original 1876 constitution.
In 1910, widespread outrage at an incompetent and corrupt legislature led voters to approve, by an overwhelming 3-1 margin, a constitutional amendment giving Colorado residents the right of initiative and referendum.
Two years later, there were 32 initiatives and referenda on the November ballot. Eight passed, including measures which guaranteed eight hour work days for women, miners, and underground laborers, granted state aid to dependent children and established juvenile courts. Failed initiatives included proposals to ban the sale of alcohol, to authorize state highway bonds, and to drill a tunnel beneath James Peak (which, authorized by the legislature 10 years later, became the iconic Moffat tunnel).
Then, as now, initiative backers had to gather signatures equal to 5 percent of the votes cast for Secretary of State during the previous election. How did they do it?
Many of the successful measures were heavily supported by labor and progressive interests. Others (none of which passed) were supported either by business interests or referred by the legislature. Someone had to collect all those signatures — so were they paid to do so?
In an era when newspapers, legislators and judges were often for sale to the highest bidder, it’s hard to believe that businessmen and elected officials stood on street corners and collected signatures, risking scorn, opprobrium and mud thrown from the wheels of passing carriages. Just as they do today, initiative proponents likely depended on paid collectors and/or passionate volunteers.
Colorado voters have approved an amazing mishmash of popularly initiated measures in the last century. From 1912 to 2000, residents voted on 178 proposed amendments to the Constitution, passing 64.
The result: a constitutional crazy quilt which embodies the passionate discourse of the last hundred years. It’s as if a vast, dysfunctional family had carefully recorded every one of their family quarrels, and bound their descendants to abide by the results.
“Direct democracy” was one of the keystones of the progressive movement a century ago, but today’s progressives have little use for government by initiative. They argue that what was once a means of correcting injustice has become a tool to enrich special interests, codify mean-spirited prejudices, or promote eccentric agendas.
Yet with all its flaws, the initiative is the purest expression of our Colorado democracy. The people may rule foolishly, impetuously, or angrily — but they rule. Taken from its Greek roots (demos and kratein), that’s what the word means — the people rule.
So that’s the old warrior’s mission: to preserve, protect and defend democracy, even though some of us would rather that Douglas Bruce find a new cause.
Hazlehurst can be reached at email@example.com or 719-227-5861. Watch him at 7:20 a.m. every Tuesday and Friday on Channel 3, Fox Morning News.