Guest Column

Montana Constitutional Convention: A Model for Today

Every delegate’s ideas were duly considered and every delegate was fairly heard

By Evan Barrett

I recently sat in awe as I listened to 94-year-old Montana Constitutional Convention Delegate Wade Dahood, one of twelve remaining delegates of the original 100, talk about his convention experience 50 years ago. From his Anaconda law office, Dahood addressed a camera and a reporter for an interview, part of a series noting and celebrating the 50th anniversary of Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention where the delegates drafted what is arguably the best state constitution in the nation.

Dahood, chair of the convention’s critically important Declaration of Rights Committee, mostly answered questions about the important rights conveyed to Montanans by Article II. Under Dahood’s guidance, the committee, and the entire convention, made the conscious decision to maintain every right Montanans had under the 1889 Constitution, then added immeasurably to those personal rights. As a result, in the 35 sections of Article II – Declaration of Rights, the citizens of Montana have been guaranteed more constitutional rights than any other American citizen – things like the right of privacy, right to know, right to participate, right of individual dignity, right of suffrage, right to a clean and healthful environment, and more.

The reporter asked about the importance of the unusual alphabetical seating in the Convention as a means of reducing partisan rancor. While addressing that, Dahood reflected concern about the bitter divisiveness of today’s political climate, yet voiced an optimism, tempered by time and experience, that Montanans and our elected officials can return to the time of civil discourse – where we can be opponents without being enemies, where we can argue ideas yet still come together, sometimes compromising, to do what is best for our state and country – where we can understand that we all are striving to find a common good and find good faith in the efforts of all.

Dahood, a Republican delegate, spoke eloquently about the efforts of Democratic Convention President Leo Graybill, Jr. of Great Falls and the other officers to operate the convention with shared responsibilities, even though Democrats had a significant majority (58 Democrats, 36 Republicans and six Independents). Republicans like himself chaired some committees and the vice chair of each committee was the opposite party of the chair. Delegates sat alphabetically, with no aisle to accentuate partisanship. Side by side delegates sat and grappled with the issues as Montanans, not as members of a political party. Every delegate’s ideas were duly considered and every delegate was fairly heard.

When Dahood was asked what thing about the 1972 Constitutional Convention brought him the most pride, he didn’t point to any victory on any particular issue by himself or any other delegate or caucus or party. He told the interviewers that on the final day of the convention, after 56 days of vigorous debate, the final version of the new Constitution was laid upon the desk of Convention Secretary Jean Bowman (Republican from Billings) and made available for the 100 delegates to sign if they so chose. He recounted how, one-by-one, every one of the 100 delegates came forward and put their signature on the document, even those who would oppose it when it was placed on the ballot. All 100. Tears came to Dahood’s eyes as he noted the pride he felt when all 100 diverse Montanans could unite as signers to the Constitution, effectively recognizing that they had done this important job together, not as partisans, but as Montanans. Those same tears were in his eyes on March 22, 1972, the signing day, as he watched all 100 unify as Montanans.

Tears came to my eyes as Dahood described that moment from 1972, as he confirmed his continuing optimism that Montana and Montanans, perhaps even our elected leaders, can rise above the current rancor and prove once again that Montanans are the best people in the Last Best Place. I share Wade Dahood’s optimism and will continue to do whatever I can to bring Montanans together, firmly advancing our political ideas, but doing so with respect and civility.

Won’t you commit yourself to that and demand the same from those who ask for your vote? 

Evan Barrett lives in Butte. He worked for 47 years at the top level of Montana economic development, government, politics and education.