The State of Aloha

Prepare yourself. It’s another election year. Granted, it’s not a presidential election so at least we can be spared the endless debates and obsessing about the weather in Iowa on primary day. Then again, it could still get weird here. 2018 will surely bring a lot of noise. We have ourselves a governor’s race. And it could be a doozy.

First, we will have a primary race within the Democratic Party with an incumbent. Gov. David Ige is running for re-election. As he did with Neil Abercrombie, then the governor and a former congressman, Ige’s faced with another opponent from Congress. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa has pretty much made it clear that she’s going to run against Ige. Once that is resolved in August, it’s on to the general election.

So far the lone Republican candidate is state House Minority Leader Andria Tupola. She’s a different sort of Republican. She graduated from Kamehameha Schools and is currently working on her Ph.D. in music education. If elected, she’d be the first Samoan-American governor.

But aside from the personalities that I’m sure we are all going to learn more about in the coming months, the election of 2018 will include the great question: “Shall there be a convention to propose a revision of or amendments to the Constitution?”

The words come directly from the Constitution of the State of Hawaii itself and the question must be presented to the electorate at least once every 10 years.

A Constitutional Convention, or Con Con, is kind of spooky. We’ve only had two in our young state. The first one was held in 1968 with a very specific agenda: to redraw and correct voter districts. It didn’t turn out that way. The 1968 Con Con gave us a constitutional right to organize (and go on strike). It also carved out a specific right to privacy — something our federal Constitution does not expressly provide.

A decade later, there was another Con Con. This time it had no set agenda, and the oftentimes contentious, soul-searching meditation on what it means to be Hawaii is still considered the watershed moment in our state’s history.

With only about 20 years of statehood under out belt, special delegates were elected from all over the state to gather, discuss and come up with grand revisions to the document that serves as the cornerstone of our government.

Future politicians like John Waihee and Maui’s own Joe Souki were delegates to the Con Con before they went on to higher offices. There were more than politicians, though. Lawyers like Anthony Takitani, business executives and activists were in the mix too.

The delegates at the convention came up with a number of revisions to the then-existing state constitution. Those amendments were then submitted to the electorate and most of them passed. The result was a dramatic shift in our founding document.

Institutions like the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Judicial Selection Commission were born out of the ’78 Con Con. Hawaiian became an official language of the state. The state was also given extraordinary powers to control and maintain natural resources, real property and water for the benefit of the people of Hawaii. It even conferred an individual right to a clean and healthy environment that “may enforce this right against any party, public or private, through appropriate legal proceedings.”

That was 40 years ago. Now the question will be once again on the ballot. Are we in the mood for another one?

Some think so. The 1978 Con Con was conducted with the dismay and disappointment with our public officials from the Watergate scandal still fresh in many minds. Surely a similar sense of dismay and disappointment is afoot.

So how would it look if this November we decided yes, let’s have a convention to amend and revise the constitution? Well, there’d be another timetable to allow delegates to represent the different parts of the state. (I’m sure they’d have to get paid like delegates of Con Cons past.) Once elected, they would convene and come up with amendments to the constitution.

But then what? That’s the spooky part. What would this delegation unleash on our constitution? Would we start to remove portions of the constitution? Would ambitious lobbyists seize the Con Con as a chance to do away with the rights and protections granted from the last one?

Or would it be the platform for an even more progressive path forward? How about a living wage? A right to health care? A right to cultivate marijuana?

If the last big election in 2016 is any indicator, things may not go according to plan.

• Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”

COMMENTS