In March, 17 people gathered in a downtown conference room on three afternoons to discuss an important question that will come before Hawaii’s voters Nov. 6: “Shall there be a convention to propose a revision of or an amendment to the (Hawaii) Constitution?”
In Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, “salons” were small gatherings brought together to discuss some of the pressing political, economic and philosophical issues of the day.
We called ourselves the “Con-Con Salon.”
Article XVII of the Hawaii Constitution mandates that if any nine-year period elapses without the Legislature proposing a constitutional convention, Hawaii’s citizens can decide for themselves.
Constitutions are our highest-level rules-of-the road. They reflect fundamental state policies about the structure and function of government. Statutes, regulations, agency rules and ordinances must ultimately comply with them. Constitutions define basic rights and duties and memorialize the social and legal compact between the people who are governed and those who are elected to govern.
They are also meant to be stable. Constitutions can be amended, but not easily. Nor do citizen constitutional conventions happen often. That is why the question of whether to have a fresh “con con” hangs in the air and bears careful consideration.
As a point of reference, 42 other states have provisions that allow for citizen conventions to review their constitutions, but generally speaking there has been a steady drop-off in numbers over time. Only 233 have been held in U.S. history and only 13 since 1973.
It has been 40 years since Hawaii’s last one. Do we need one? What are the pros and cons of staging one and, if a constitutional convention goes forward, how will it work?
It was precisely in this spirit that 17 of us came together as a “study group,” rather than the usual model of rhetorical debate.
Ours was an analytic deliberation. We wanted to examine some of the considerations behind the ballot question and look at the issue from a variety of angles. We thought it might be helpful to educate ourselves, develop shared facts and perspectives, and share our insights with others.
It has been 40 years since Hawaii’s last constitutional convention. Do we need one?
The Con-Con Salon was a labor of love. No one got paid.
These days, civility, curiosity and respect often disappear when people dig in and vociferously insist they are right. We came together on the con con question because most of us feel some degree of ambivalence about the need for a constitutional update.
Aside from being voluntary, we had ground rules. We would not be advocating positions or searching for consensus. Nor over the course of the meetings would any of us tell others whether we were bending in favor of, or opposed to, a new con con. We would talk openly, stay inquisitive, and do some productive fact-finding and brainstorming.
To stage a discussion like this in these hyper-polarized times, we sought out people who might be somewhat undecided about the issue or who might lean slightly in favor or against one but who had the demonstrated ability to remain open to give-and-take analysis.
A wide net was cast but everyone who attended understood this would be a “study group,” not an argument. We would exchange ideas, learn together, and share what we learned through Civil Beat.
A number of people declined the invitation but the group that emerged included ourselves and:
Learning starts with questions. Some of ours went like this: What was the mood in 1978 that led voters to a con con? What were the social, political, economic, and cultural forces in play? Why hasn’t there been one since? And what changes came from previous con cons, not just in 1978, but also in 1968 and 1950?
More to the point of this November’s question, what are the mechanics of organizing a con con and how much might it cost?
What are the arguments for and against holding one, the perceived benefits and risks, and if a con con does take place, what are some of the possible ox-goring agenda items that might come on the table from both center-left and center-right?
The Con-Con Salon met three times. The initial conversation was a briefing session with five alumni from the ’78 Con Con: Carol Fukunaga, now a member of the Honolulu City Council; Les Ihara, state senator; Peter Lewis, retired HECO executive; Jim Shon, an education consultant and former legislator; and John Waihee, former governor. The veterans of ’78 freely shared perceptions, reflections and information.
Then, we huddled.
In the coming three parts of this series, and as the discussions about a new constitutional convention heat up, we will share the Con-Con Salon’s insights in the hope that others will think deeply about the issue and initiate their own deliberations.
In the meantime, and in the spirit of a lively and vibrant local democracy, consider asking candidates for office the following: “Are you for or against a con con, and if so, why or why not?”
Others in this series:
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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