HELENA - Wednesday at the Montana State Capitol, delegates from the 1972 state constitutional convention gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the document they created.
For two days, the room that normally serves as the House chamber is once again “Convention Hall,” just as it was when 100 delegates from across Montana started hammering out a plan for a new constitution.
“It’s always nostalgic to be in that House chamber,” said Mae Nan Ellingson, who was the youngest delegate at the 1972 convention. “It’s a beautiful chamber, the Capitol is beautiful, the Charlie Russell painting behind the speaker’s podium that we looked at every day for the 54 days that we were in session – it all brings back such memories.”
Ellingson is one of ten living delegates. Eight of them were on hand in Helena for the start of a two-day celebration.
The delegates have gotten together annually since the convention, though they haven’t been able to gather for a while due to COVID-19.
Gene Harbaugh, a delegate who represented Poplar, came in from New Mexico, where he now lives. He says this group has shared an important connection.
“In lots of ways, it’s like a family reunion kind of experience,” he said.
On Wednesday morning, the ceremony included a roll call. Former clerk of the Supreme Court Ed Smith, who was a clerk at the constitutional convention, read out the names of each delegate. Those who were in attendance sat in the same seats they used in 1972. Others had family members on hand to speak on their behalf.
“Our family just expresses deep thanks to all of you who continue this work in promoting public education about the constitution, and to protect the rights that are guaranteed in the constitution for this and future generations,” said Elizabeth Campbell. Her father, Bob Campbell of Missoula, passed away in April.
The delegates represented a broad cross-section of Montana. They came from all parts of the state, and ranged in age from Ellingson at 24 to Lucille Speer at 73. 19 of them were women – at a time when no more than two women had ever served at one time in the Legislature.
The delegates included 58 Democrats, 36 Republicans and six independents. Notably, they chose to sit not in party groups, but in alphabetical order – starting with Magnus Aasheim of Antelope and ending with Robert Woodmansey of Great Falls.
“We represented all walks of life,” said Arlene Reichert of Great Falls – the oldest living delegate at 96. “The one thing we had in common is a love of the state of Montana. And what we did when we wrote that document is we just kept thinking about Montana. We forgot about our party affiliations, we forgot about everything else – the important thing was Montana and its future.”
Gov. Greg Gianforte addressed the delegates in a recorded message. They also heard a speech from former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
In the afternoon, delegates and other panelists took part in discussions about some of the specific provisions of the constitution. Those panel discussions will continue on Thursday.
The event is highlighting some of the key provisions in the document. They include an extensive declaration of rights – like the “right to know” what public officials are doing, and a specific right to privacy – as well as a guarantee of a “clean and healthful environment” and recognition of the “distinct and unique” culture of Montana’s tribal nations.
Ellingson and Harbaugh told MTN they weren’t sure a constitutional convention could work together the same way today as it did in 1972. They hope this anniversary will be a reminder of all the effort and cooperation that went into making something that works for Montana.
“This was not a document that was put together by elitists; it was not put together by political interests that represented only one aspect of Montana,” said Harbaugh. “This is really a document of the people.”
“I think you can only do things for ‘this and future generations’ if you set aside a lot of political power – little issues,” Ellingson said. “You’ve got to really focus on the big issues, and I think that’s what we did."