This is a tough one. On the one hand I want to celebrate and embrace the concept of a grassroots “people’s democracy” that a state constitutional convention (con con) symbolizes. On the other hand, risking our existing constitutional protections on a roll of the dice makes no sense at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not risk-averse. Going into business, running for elected office, buying my first home, starting up new organizations, and embarking on various issue campaigns were all high-risk ventures. Trust me, I know, understand, and often embrace the risk involved with putting it all out there and “going for it.”

But it is one thing to risk it all when you have nothing, and an entirely different thing when you risk your entire treasure. And this is what a vote in support of a con con equates to.

Hawaii State Capitol building.
The writer believes that the people who already hold the power in the Capitol would also be calling the shots during a constitutional convention. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

At risk is having our constitution changed to diminish the strong language it now contains protecting the environment, indigenous rights and working men and women.

Here are just a few of the provisions that could be deleted, or changed from a “shall” to a “may” (two of the most important words in lawmaking):

• “For the benefit of present and future generations, the State and its political subdivisions shall conserve and protect Hawaii’s natural beauty and all natural resources, including land, water, air … All public natural resources are held in trust by the State for the benefit of the people.”

• “Each person has the right to a clean and healthful environment, as defined by laws relating to environmental quality, including control of pollution and conservation, protection, and enhancement of natural resources. Any person may enforce this right against any party, public or private…”  

• “The State reaffirms and shall protect all rights, customarily and traditionally exercised for subsistence, cultural and religious purposes and possessed by ahupuaʻa tenants.”

• “The State shall promote the study of Hawaiian culture, history and language.”

• “The State has an obligation to protect, control and regulate the use of Hawaii’s water resources for the benefit of its people.” 

• “Persons in private and public employment shall have the right to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining …”

The above are just a handful of provisions that make Hawaii’s existing constitution exceptional. Please read the entire constitution and see for yourself the many positive items contained that provide a civilized framework for us to preserve all that we love about Hawaii and make life here sustainable and healthful for all.

We recently completed the primary election and I was encouraged by the fact that those who support bold progressive change focused on economic, environmental, and social justice did fairly well. We picked up a few seats in the House and in the Senate. Those few seats represent a significant step forward.

But progressives are a long way from holding a majority, and, of course, the majority rules.

Should voters say “yes” to a con con on Nov. 6, those who hold a majority of the delegate seats and those who hold the money will drive the process. It isn’t hard to predict the outcome.

The process would be as follows:

1. During a special session of the Legislature in 2019, the existing House/Senate would establish the number of delegates and the manner in which they are elected (at large or by district), staffing, and budget for the con con.  Proposed budgets for a future con con range from $7.5 million to $48.8 million, as per the Hawaii State Legislative Reference Bureau. 

2. Based on the rules established by the 2019 Legislature, there will be an election of con con delegates.In past con cons there was no prohibition against legislators themselves running for these positions. In  the 1968 con con approximately one-third of the convention delegates were legislators; a majority of the rest were closely connected to the Legislature. In 1978, fewer legislators served on the con con. As is true in all elections, existing political incumbents and former office holders (with big money behind them) have a much greater chance at being elected than the grassroots citizen advocate.

3. The convention is convened after the delegates are elected and the delegates divide into factions, select their own leadership, form committees, and proceed to develop proposed constitutional amendments. As is the case in every democratic structure, the majority will decide which proposed constitutional changes will be placed on the ballot and which will not. 

4. At the November 2020 general election, the proposed constitutional amendments approved by the majority would be placed on the ballot for voters to approve or not.

Organizations and interest groups with money (think local as in carpenters/Pacific Resource Partnership and national as in Koch Brothers) will form super PACs and drown the airwaves with “vote yes and vote no” messages.

Those with the most money will win.

After considering this process, remember that we already have contained within our existing constitution, very strong provisions protecting the environment, indigenous rights and labor. Voting “yes” for a constitutional convention puts all of this on the table and gambles that delegates who support our world view will gain a majority during the delegate elections.

Some will argue that the people could gain the right to initiative, referendum and recall, cannabis legalization, and possibly publicly funded elections (three of the most talked about measures).  Others are hoping to put term limits for state legislators into place. 

A majority of the elected delegates (barring a major miracle) will in all likelihood, consist of forces representing the status quo establishment and institutions now in power. Their natural agenda is to preserve the status quo and to strengthen their own power and influence.  

So they ain’t going to give us publicly funded elections, and nor will they be in support of term limits, of that you can be sure. It is pure folly to think otherwise.

To be clear, I believe in miracles. David can, and does occasionally conquer Goliath, and a small group of focused individuals can indeed triumph in the end to change the world for the better. But I also believe that it would be irresponsible to gamble with the future of our children and grandchildren at this particular point in time. 

Please join me in voting “no” on con con.

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