At the outset, many participants in the 1978 state constitutional convention had no idea that some of the biggest accomplishments would be enshrining traditional and customary Hawaiian rights, ensuring some funding for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and establishing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
In retrospect, it all made sense. Hawaii was at the height of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance. Years of protests against evictions, the Navy’s bombing of Kahoolawe and lack of funding for Hawaiian homelands created a sense of urgency around recognizing and uplifting the islands’ indigenous people.
That was 40 years ago. Today, voters are deciding whether to hold another constitutional convention. Which raises the question: What factors are now at play that could influence ConCon delegates?
Nationally, 2018 has been defined by a polarizing Republican president, sharply partisan politics and the national #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct by powerful people.
In Hawaii, public employee unions still have considerable power and the Democratic Party is still dominant, if not progressive through and through. Many Hawaii residents are still suspicious of outsiders, concerned about overdevelopment and supportive of preserving the islands’ unique culture and environment.
A ConCon in 2020 would have to contend with more money in politics, the influence of social media and growing disillusionment with government. Many Native Hawaiians also fear that, both nationally and locally, there’s less support for programs specifically supporting native communities.
A new ConCon might reflect deep concerns about the high cost of living in Hawaii, where the median price of a home in Honolulu exceeds $800,000.
“How do we continue to make this (state) sustainable as the cost of living goes up?” asked local political analyst John Hart, a professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University. He says a looming question of 2018 Hawaii is, “How do we find a place for the people who clean the beds at the Hyatt to live?”
Some people fear a ConCon could fall victim to the political and corporate influences that make it tough to pass reforms at the Legislature.
“You don’t know (what will happen) and I think that’s why so many people who were in favor of the last one aren’t in favor of this,” Hart said. “The reformers of yesterday are the status quo of today.”
Many Hawaii residents feel that the current political system isn’t working. Even though people keep re-electing incumbents, that doesn’t mean they’re satisfied.
Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center, says many people are frustrated that the “Legislature isn’t being particularly responsive, that the state isn’t capable of solving these problems that people care about.”
In particular, he says people want politicians to do more to address the cost of living and improve education.
A recent University of Hawaii survey found that in deep blue Hawaii, the almost-all Democratic Legislature is less popular then President Donald Trump.
“What people want is a return to some imagined past and it’s not clear when that actually existed here, when you had a decent job and could afford to live here and the government responded to our needs and our concerns,” Moore says.
Part of what’s plaguing Hawaii is a lack of interest in politics. The state has consistently low voter turnout.
“There’s a pretty good argument to make that there is less political interest and attention generally in Hawaii than there was (in 1978),” says Neal Milner, a retired UH political scientist. “At this political moment, there’s been a trend toward people being less interested in state and local politics.”
Moore thinks that fewer young people are radicalized today than in the 1970s and that could mean convention delegates would be more traditional and centrist. But even though the 1978 delegates were largely new to politics, they still functioned like a legislature in terms of backroom dealmaking.
Milner says one obvious difference between 1978 and 2018 is the general lack of interest in a constitutional convention despite the ballot question.
“It isn’t that they’re talking for it or against it,” Milner says. “Nobody’s talking about ConCon.”
He also doesn’t see any strong political movement sweeping the islands.
“There is certainly nothing that I can see that is anywhere close to what the Hawaiian issues were in 1978,” he says.
Former Gov. John Waihee, who served as the unofficial majority leader during the 1978 ConCon, says that back then, there was more of a sense that the Legislature was progressive. Waihee thinks more people are disillusioned with government now.
Part of that has to do with more money in politics. The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC opened the gateway for influencing elections. And money plays a big part in elections even in rural parts of the islands. A recent voter initiative in Maui County to temporarily ban genetically modified farming attracted more than $8 million largely from mainland opponents like Monsanto, although it still passed, only to be overturned in court.
“Money has always been an issue in politics but at this moment big chunks of change are much more a part of the political environment than … in 1978,” says Milner.
Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie thinks a new ConCon could help counteract the “utter demoralization of the voting public.”
It could spur the return of multimember legislative districts, Abercrombie says, which he thinks would improve representation. Abercrombie says the switch to single-member districts coincided with a decline in voter participation.
Distrust of the Legislature could also encourage ConCon delegates to push for statewide citizen initiative, referendum and recall — ways for the people to go over the heads of their elected officials. These reforms were a big topic in 1978, although they ultimately were dismissed.
Ikaika Hussey, a Honolulu City Council candidate in this year’s primary, thinks disenchantment with the status quo and economic inequality could spur constitutional language that guarantees the right to a basic standard of living and higher quality education.
More than outside money, Waihee says his main concern is the perception that there’s less popular support for providing resources to Native Hawaiians. He’s not alone, especially in light of the recent appointment of conservative judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The national agenda is inclining toward a right-wing conservatism that is at odds with an indigenous agenda,” says Mahealani Wendt, the former director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. “It was always bad but it’s worse now.”
Former state Rep. James Shon, who participated in the 1978 ConCon, thinks corruption at Bishop Estate in the 1990s, tensions between the major landowner and its tenants and recent ethics problems at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs have tarnished the images of those institutions.
Shon says OHA used to be “on the cutting edge of sovereignty thinking,” but that’s changed.
“The mood now is, ‘Can we save it?’ If there’s a ConCon, is it going to be toast?”
Mahealani Cypher, a Native Hawaiian from windward Oahu, says that public perception of Native Hawaiians started going downhill once OHA meetings were televised and people saw the divisions within the community. She is worried that organizations that oppose race-based programs would use a ConCon to get rid of OHA.
But Abercrombie thinks a ConCon could actually save the embattled agency.
“The Office of Hawaiian Affairs doesn’t have any credibility,” he says.
OHA was intended to be an office representing Native Hawaiians, but the Rice v. Cayetano Hawaii Supreme Court decision opened up OHA elections to all voters in the state. That made OHA lose credibility within the Hawaiian community.
Abercrombie thinks that despite criticism of OHA, Hawaii leaders in general are committed to improving rather than abolishing it.
One of the most obvious differences between Hawaii 40 years ago and Hawaii today is the existence of social media. Some say it has leveled the playing field in getting voices heard. Others see it as another tool for propaganda, best illustrated by the Russian government’s information attack on the 2016 presidential election.
“I actually think it has empowered special interests,” Moore says of social media. “I think it has given a louder voice to some of the extreme elements of some of the left and the right.”
In Hawaii, Facebook and Instagram helped transform the longstanding opposition to building the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea into international news, connecting local arrests to an international movement to protect sacred sites.
Abercrombie says he’s already seen Facebook influencing the ConCon — many posters are urging people to vote against having one at all.
“The chances of having a ConCon are very, very difficult — there’s a very high probability of negative votes — precisely because of social media,” Abercrombie says.
The former governor seems to be one of the few members of the political establishment who thinks another ConCon is a good idea. He agrees that the potential influence of dark money is a problem, but he says that’s a necessary risk.
“The risk is not doing anything. The risk is it keeps getting worse,” Abercrombie says.
“Tell me one damn thing, one thing, that’s going to get better as a result of the status quo.”
Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.
The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.
Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.