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Cumberland teen gives General Assembly lesson on the Constitution

June 5, 2013

PROVIDENCE – When Sam Ackerman, a Cumberland High School junior, saw news reports last February that Mississippi had, after all these years, finally ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery, he wondered which constitutional amendments Rhode Island hadn’t ratified.His research found that Rhode Island has not ratified four of the 27 amendments to the Constitution, more than any other state in the union. One that piqued his interest was the 17th Amendment, calling for the direct election of U.S. Senators who, until the amendment became the law of the land in 1913, were elected by the legislatures of the various states.“I see it as a very progressive and positive amendment,” Ackerman told The Times, “and I thought it was an unfortunate reality that we had not ratified it.” There is no time limit on the ability of a state to ratify an amendment. There are still five amendments awaiting ratification of the required two-thirds of the states, one dating back as far as 1789.Deeply interested in politics and government – he has plans to run for public office someday like his mother, Cumberland state Rep. Mia Ackerman – Sam decided to delve deeper into the history of the amendment, wrote an argument why Rhode Island should become the 41st state to ratify it, and submitted his work to Burrillville Rep. Cale Keable, who introduced it as legislation.Ackerman showed up at the House Judiciary Committee meeting after school on Tuesday and testified in favor of the bill, impressing several of the committee members with his knowledgeable arguments and his poise.
Exactly 100 years ago, on May 31, 1913, the 37 of the 48 states at that time, ratified the amendment and people got the right to pick their own U.S. Senators, Ackerman told the panel, “amidst an era of progressive reforms that helped empower the common citizen.”The 100th anniversary, he said, “is an ideal opportunity to ratify the amendment and rectify the mistake” made a century ago. Doing so, he said, “would serve an imperative symbolic purpose.”He noted that Delaware ratified the 17th Amendment in 2010 and Maryland followed suit last year, because “they recognized their states could not be defined by the regressive forces that originally forestalled ratification.”Ackerman said it is fitting that Rhode Island, “with its unique history of progressiveness since Roger Williams, shares the values of the reformers who conceived this amendment. The best way to assure a fair, honest government is to make the government report directly to the people. The only way to ensure that legislation is motivated solely by ameliorating the lives of the American people is to give the masses the power to directly vote for their legislators.”Introducing Ackerman and his bill, Keable said that at the turn of the 20th Century “there was, unfortunately, rank corruption in the state legislators,” drawing muffled chuckles from his House colleagues on the committee. In 1900, he explained, the election of a Montana senator by that state’s legislature was voided by the Senate amid reports of “Montana legislators leaving the floor with envelopes of cash.”Ackerman said he is aware that there are currently efforts by Tea Parties across the nation to repeal the 17th Amendment and go back to the practice of allowing state legislatures to choose their state’s senators.“I think it is kind of a hoax in my mind,” he said outside the committee room. “I don’t think there is any legitimate reason to take away this right from the people, especially since the Tea Party is all about empowering the people. It’s kind of a hypocritical notion.“In today’s day and age, more than at any time in our nation’s history, people have the ability to engage their government and have the resources to become involved. This awareness makes the electorate more knowledgeable about political issues, thus making electing senators or any kind of officials more close to the people because they actually know what they are voting for. Mom Mia Ackerman said Sam is “actually the politician of the family,” adding, “he has been like this since he was this high,” holding her hand at waist level. She said he worked on the legislation by himself, with no input from her.He called the process of engaging the government to get his ratification bill passed “eye-opening.” He said he has gotten help from lawmakers as he circulated among them trying to build support for his cause. It has encouraged him on a career path he seems to have well mapped out for a high school student. “I want to go to college to study political science and economics,” he said. “I eventually want to have a career somewhere in government or the law.” He envisions a career in politics, “a few years after my college career.” The amendment bill, along with all the other bills the Judiciary Committee heard Tuesday, was held for further study.
Follow Jim Baron on Twitter @Jim_Baron


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