This story was co-published by TIME.
Amid historic re-enactors wearing tricorn hats and carrying muskets, more than 120 state legislators from all over the country pretended to overhaul the U.S. Constitution two years ago in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
But some believe the event was not just a history lesson. Critics say the Williamsburg get-together may have been a dress rehearsal for the real thing, and the implications of that could be both explosive and far-reaching.
Since attending the mock constitutional convention, legislators in at least 27 states have proposed bills calling for an actual convention of states, a Center for Public Integrity review has found. Attendees from five states — Arizona, Illinois, Missouri, North Dakota and Texas — have already successfully passed legislation. And today, similar bills are pending in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey. There’s still a long way to go — but the prospect of a real constitutional convention no longer seems like just an abstraction.
The mock convention in Virginia was the creation of two nonprofits operated out of the same office suite in Houston, Texas, run by the same man: Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, an attorney and former Herbalife distributor. The two groups, Citizens for Self-Governance and Convention of States Action, paid at least $130,000 combined for 81 of those lawmakers to attend the trial run. Convention of States Action also promotes model legislation, provides citizen toolkits and lobbies state legislatures to promote a convention of states.
Meckler declined to discuss the groups’ finances. But both organizations have been growing financially, albeit from largely secret benefactors, according to their tax records.
Citizens for Self-Governance, also known as the John Hancock Committee for the States, collected more than $4.2 million in 2016, quadrupling its revenue since it began six years earlier. The conservative Mercer family that helped underwrite Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has donated at least $500,000, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of tax records. The Greater Houston Community Foundation, a donor-advised fund that doesn’t need to disclose its funders, has contributed more than $2 million to the nonprofit, too.
Convention of States Action raised just under $122,000 in its first year in 2014, but in 2016 that amount shot up to almost $5 million, in part after one mystery donor gave just under $1.7 million.
The two groups are helping keep lit a slow-burning fuse of what could be an explosive movement for the United States. Thirty-four states are needed to call for a convention that critics say could upend the Constitution. Only six more are needed for a meeting to curb national debt, but other topics are also being pursued with varying success.