Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of Community Voices about the November ballot question regarding whether to hold a state constitutional convention.

Some countries have sham constitutions that actually serve as camouflage for more despotic forms of government. In free societies, constitutional conventions (also known as “con cons”) convened to propose amendments are mirrors of the social forces and public mood of their time.

Thus far, Hawaii has had three.

Hawaii’s first constitution was established in 1950 as a part of statehood. That initial one created the core branches of government, its prerogatives and the citizen and governmental protections needed for a new state. It put Hawaii on a common footing with other states.

By 1968, voters seemed reasonably accustomed to the new political arrangements of statehood, but also saw the need for adjustments. Hawaii had become a one-party state, unions had grown in size and influence, and along with military spending, visitor industry dollars had become a powerful economic force. Sugar and pineapple were steadily losing ground in the world marketplace, the state’s population had grown to 734,000, and Hawaii was urbanizing.

Hawaii State Capitol building.
A constitutional convention could change how things are done at the Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

The ’68 con con was largely driven by a federal court decision requiring redistricting in several states. A number of conventions were convened to make that fix. Once created, delegates did a review.

While 1968 wasn’t earthshaking, it did produce some valuable constitutional refinements beyond reapportionment and districting: collective bargaining for public employees; a code of ethics; and some specific improvements to the way the legislative, judicial and executive branches function.

The 1978 Convention

The ’78 con con was far more seismic. The convention essentially opened the big identity question: Who are we and what do we want to become?

That question still lingers.

The mood in Hawaii in 1978 had changed significantly, in part a result of the political, cultural and civil rights forces that had swept the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Hawaii had its own anti-war movement but more important were the escalating number of homegrown land-use conflicts like Kalama Valley, Kahoolawe and Ohta Camp. A rising tide of environmental concerns over terrestrial and aquatic contamination was in motion along with a growing anti-development sentiment.

One answer to the identity question came from the “Hawaiian Renaissance.” The Hawaiian language was being resurrected, traditional chants and hula were embraced, and a new and politically savvy generation of Hawaiian activists was emerging.

Some of the participants in the 1978 Constitutional Convention of Hawaii. Courtesy

Being Hawaiian and honoring the first nation wasn’t the only answer. The “Palaka Power” movement harkened back to the early immigration waves from Asia and the melding commonalities of plantation camps. Bob Krauss’ book, “The Island Way,” also touched a nerve. His observations and ruminations, while walking and sailing an outrigger canoe around the Big Island of Hawaii, seemed to capture a collective nostalgia in a rapidly changing society.

The emerging idea from the 1978 crosscurrents was this: It doesn’t really matter where you were born. It’s where your heart is that counts.

One hundred and two individuals were elected as convention delegates, two from each district. The average age was 35 and the majority were lawyers, business professionals and educators. Thirty of the delegates were women, 11 were Native Hawaiians, and two were sitting legislators. Many attorney delegates were newly minted and highly energized graduates of the William S. Richardson School of Law.

Not unexpectedly, the convention was in part a new forum for old political battles. In the background were the running disputes between the political camps of mainstream Democrat George Ariyoshi and the flamboyant populist Frank Fasi. There were also the established institutional elites of the day and an emerging cadre of young and aspiring independents.

A few of the independents were dubbed “The Panasonics,” a takeoff on Panasonic Corporation’s ad: “Just slightly ahead of our time.”

Once the con con was underway, 800 proposals were drafted. The leading issue at the start centered on provisions for initiative, referendum and recall, none of which passed.

What emerged instead were 116 constitutional changes that included, among others, an affirmation of the right to privacy, open primaries, campaign spending limits, a recognition of natural resources as a public trust, the need for an administrative water code, merit selection of judges, the creation of an Intermediate Court of Appeals, a package of bills recognizing Hawaiian as an official state language, and the creation of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Reflection And Remembrance

At the first of our three Con-Con Salon meetings, we invited five veterans from the 1978 convention to give us a briefing before we started our own deliberations. Joining us were Honolulu City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, state Sen. Les Ihara, retired HECO executive Peter Lewis (who was also a delegate to the 1968 convention), former legislator Jim Shon, and former Gov. John Waihee.

We asked them to take us back in time and share their reflections and insights. What they shared with us was insightful and possibly predictive of some future crosscurrents should voters approve a new constitutional convention later this year.

The presumption going in, they told us, was that 1978 would be a citizen’s conclave rather than a gathering of legislators and professional politicians. Media hammered that point home. Most sitting legislators who actually ran, lost. Even with that, only 34 percent of the electorate turned out to vote for delegates.

Once underway, factions developed as two forces seemed to be in play: an establishment group of business and union interests, and the independents.

Nonetheless, the atmosphere was both collegial and messy. William Paty was voted in as chair and the first big issue to hit the table was initiative and referendum. It wasn’t neatly divided. Not all independents or all establishmentarians were predictably for or against it. Initiative and referendum failed.

The 1978 convention proved pivotal and continues to reverberate today as a reference point.

There were also surprises and heroines.

Charlene Ho championed water issues and led the effort that would eventually lead to today’s water code. Frenchy DeSoto relentlessly brought Native Hawaiian issues to the fore and organized a coalition that led to the addition of Hawaiian as a second official state language and what is now the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Judicial selection and the election of judges were hot issues.

By the end, and as happens when many people sit together for an extended period to take up important questions, the coalitions that had started on Day 1 changed. New alliances and friendships developed on an issue-by-issue basis and produced a package of proposed constitutional amendments that have been implemented over the last 40 years.

In hindsight, the 1978 convention proved pivotal and continues to reverberate today as a reference point. Just as important, perhaps even more so, was the changing of the guard. It launched a new generation of political leaders.

In the meantime, and in the spirit of a lively and vibrant local democracy, consider asking candidates for office the following: “If a con con goes forward, what issues will you champion? And if you oppose one, what is your plan to move those issues forward once you are in office?”

Others in this series:

• “Should We Open The Door To Changing How State Government Runs?

“What A Constitutional Convention Might Cost Hawaii Taxpayers”

• “Political Volatility Could Affect Hawaii Constitutional Convention Question”

Editor’s note: Peter Adler was the organizer and moderator for the Con-Con Salon. Jenna Leigh Saito helped capture the discussions in the notes that led to these articles. 

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