Amendment Fans Bulk Up

Posted February 14, 2005 at 6:24pm

On election night 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his supporters attended a party in Beverly Hills to celebrate the passage of several state ballot initiatives he had championed. But the news that came out of the event had less to do with the California Republican’s past successes than with his future political prospects.

That shift was in large part the result of a well-timed political accident. Pictures of the Beverly Hills confab captured prominent partygoers, including former Golden State Gov. Pete Wilson (R), wearing buttons that simply read, “Amend for Arnold.”

Absent the star power of their subject, the colorful buttons’ message would have been almost cryptic. But no one at the party or in the national media had to ask what they signified. Schwarzenegger, a naturalized U.S. citizen, cannot run for president. A constitutional amendment would change that.

The publicity wasn’t planned, at least not right then. The nascent grass-roots organization bearing the same name had been launched just two months prior and wasn’t yet seeking national attention. And the buttons themselves were not official party favors.

Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones, who launched the group, recalls having a stash of the buttons near her purse at the party. A friend and former lobbyist hijacked them and began pinning them on prominent California politicos and other famous partygoers, whose faces found their way into the next day’s papers.

The movement to amend the Constitution to allow naturalized citizens to become president has been gaining steam since last fall, and it counts many supporters who have no particular desire to see Schwarzenegger, a native of Austria, become president. Just last week New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), in remarks at the Democratic National Committee, added his voice to a growing chorus hoping for the change, so that Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), who was born in Canada, could run.

Indeed, the Web site for Morgenthaler-Jones’ group, which started off as Amend forArnold.org, is now labeled “Amend for Arnold and Jen” and links from the more non-partisan-sounding AmendUS.org.

And the effort has attracted bipartisan support, including Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), as well as Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.).

“I told people all along that this wouldn’t have a shot unless people were actively involved to push it from the outside,” Rohrabacher said in interview. “I didn’t expect a group to emerge as soon as this.”

A handful of lawmakers introduced resolutions last year to change the Constitution, and many of them have already been reintroduced. Last year, when Hatch was still chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the Utah Republican held a hearing on the various proposals. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who now wields the panel’s gavel, has indicated vague support for the idea and has stated his intention to put the matter before his committee.

The issue is likely to meet more resistance on the House side, where Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is less than enthusiastic about the idea. “He’s not generally enthusiastic about amending the Constitution unless there is a strong need,” spokesman Jeff Lungren said. “There has been more interest on the Senate side.”

Constitutional amendments to allow naturalized citizens to run for president have been introduced at least 35 times since the Civil War, and in recent decades names such as Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger have been invoked as examples of foreign-born citizens who perhaps should be able to serve as president.

But on balance, and whether he likes it or not, Schwarzenegger is the effort’s current poster boy.

A Schwarzenegger donor and until 2000 a political independent, Morgenthaler-Jones said in an interview that the idea of “Amend for America” is “poetic, beautiful and is not going to get anybody off their butts.”

All indications are that Schwarzenegger likes the idea, if not the political implications of being perceived as too close to a campaign that could directly benefit him. When asked on “60 Minutes” in October if he’d like to be able to make such a run, he said, “Yes, absolutely. Why not? With my way of thinking, you always shoot for the top.”

But around the election he became more coy about being a symbol to change the Constitution. Two days after the Election Night party, he told a gaggle of reporters in Sacramento that his being part of the debate unnecessarily politicizes the discussion.

Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver, may pose the biggest obstacle. Shriver, a Democrat and member of the famed Kennedy clan, has told Vanity Fair magazine that, while she supports a constitutional amendment, she doesn’t expect her husband to take advantage of it. “Forget about it,” she told the magazine. “It’s not going to happen. The process takes years, and this is as far as it goes.”

In alluding to the length of time amendments take to become adopted — only 17 ever have since the Bill of Rights — Shriver was expressing a popular, but perhaps erroneous, understanding of the process.

“If the circumstances arise,” namely broad geographic and ideological support, “constitutional amendment can be achieved very quickly,” said David Kyvig, a constitutional expert at Northern Illinois University. “Probably the clearest example of this is the 18-year-old vote amendment. Congress adopted the 26th Amendment, sent it to the states and within a matter of three months it was ratified.”

Many amendment supporters in Congress have not tried to hide their ties to the governor. Rohrabacher, who introduced an amendment resolution in the 108th Congress and intends to reintroduce it this year, claims a longstanding friendship with Schwarzenegger. His plan would make those who have been citizens for at least 20 years eligible for the presidency. Schwarzenegger became a citizen in 1983.

Hatch introduced almost identical language in the 108th Congress. He got to know Schwarzenegger when the Californian campaigned for his re-election in 2000.

Not all of the proposals in Congress appear to be drafted with Schwarzenegger in mind, however. Snyder introduced a proposal last year that would require at least a 35-year citizenship in addition to 14 years as a resident. Issa and Frank co-sponsored that resolution. Under that scenario, the Austrian-born governor would be 73 years old when he could become eligible for the 2020 presidential election.

Issa, who is also close to Schwarzenegger, financed the successful effort to mount a recall election of then-Gov. Gray Davis (D) in 2003.

Frank’s involvement actually pre-dates the recent flurry of interest. He introduced resolutions in the 106th Congress and again in the 107th and was able to get a hearing in the summer of 2000.

Frank said his interest was prompted by a naturalized citizen in his district who wrote him on the issue. “I said, ‘You know, you’re right,’ and so I filed the amendment,” Frank recalled in a recent interview.

Frank said he would prefer something closer to the 20-year time frame, as his own proposal had sought to do. But he believes such details could be worked out later.

Yet another proposal, introduced by Conyers last Congress and reintroduced with Sherman this session, is similar to that of Hatch’s and Rohrabacher’s in its 20-year citizenship requirement.

It’s unclear where all these amendments are going. To many, the idea remains quirky and, at the very least, a long shot. In addition to a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate, supporters would need approval of three-quarters of the state legislatures.

Most Americans oppose amending the Constitution to end the natural-born prerequisite for the presidency. In a recent Gallup poll, two thirds of those surveyed were against such a change, although that figure fell to 58 percent when Schwarzenegger’s name was mentioned.

Regardless, the effort seems to be gaining currency. Morgenthaler-Jones — who co-founded the group with fellow Californian Mimi Chen, a Democrat-turned-Green Party member — claims 900 volunteers in all 50 states. Morgenthaler-Jones points out proudly that the number is more than double the amount Howard Dean (D) had as he launched his presidential run from the Vermont governorship. The AmendUS.org Web site has sold more than 1,000 T-shirts, mugs and buttons. And the movement is less than six months old.

For support, Morgenthaler-Jones is looking to the country’s 12 million naturalized citizens, the 700 Medal of Honor winners who are not native-born, the 30,000 naturalized citizens serving in the armed forces — and all of their friends and family. “If they are good enough to die for us, they are damn sure good enough to lead us,” she said.

The 47-year-old activist also noted that the grass-roots effort to amend the Constitution is likely the first to tap the power of the Internet. Her site went live just hours before Schwarzenegger spoke at the Republican National Committee in August. Within several days, she had volunteers in 11 states.

AmendUS.org is not the only site hoping to start a national movement. A year-old populist group based in Sacramento, TheRestofUs.org, has also set aside a domain and begun collecting signatures on a petition to amend the Constitution. According to the group’s founder, Derek Cressman, the site, ArnoldAmendment.org, has generated a good deal of interest even without any promotion or public outreach effort. Although Cressman conceded it has a long way to go before it catches on as a bona fide movement, he asserted that “Arnold has a way of capturing attention.”

“I’m not sure when or where, but I’m confident that sooner or later this Arnold issue will come” to the forefront, Cressman said.

Louis Jacobson contributed to this report.