By: Jack Notar
In 1931, the American Mafia reorganized leadership. Rather than have one boss at the head of the table, each of the major crime families would have a seat, sharing power and making decisions as a cohesive unit. “The Commission,” comprising of the seven premier mafia families in the country, was formed. The Commission would go on to meet up every few years or so to settle disputes, set boundaries, and discuss innovations in crime. Occasionally, the bosses would vote on whether or not to whack someone. To anyone’s knowledge, the last time The Commission met as a whole was in 1985. By then, there had simply become too much to lose by gathering all family heads in one place. Any major decisions of importance could always be made in a safer, less vulnerable manner. This strategy has paid off, with no major mafia busts in recent years. A boss or underboss might get arrested or clipped, but never more than one at a time, and business is still flowing. “Per noi e solo noi, ora e per sempre.”
In December, I wrote about Hawaii’s limit on out-of-state campaign contributions. This month, the topic is “ConCon” – aka the Hawaii Constitutional Convention Question, an initiative on the 2018 ballot in Hawaii. It was the only initiative on the state’s ballot that year.
Hawaii is one of fourteen states that mandates the holding of a statewide ballot election on constitutional conventions. That means that every so often, the state automatically poses the question “should we have a constitutional convention?” on the ballot for the people to vote on. Other states that require the peoples’ vote include: Montana, New Hampshire, New York, and Alaska – a smorgasbord of the country. A second set of states have their legislatures vote on whether or not a constitutional convention should be held, requiring a majority or a supermajority of legislative votes (Hawaii is actually one of the states that has both a statewide ballot and a legislature mechanism). And a third set of states has no procedure for constitutional conventions.
Putting important governmental questions to voters is not a novel concept. However, automatic ballot referrals are almost exclusive to constitutional conventions. Whereas most state decisions are left up to the legislatures, when it comes to changing the constitution, the decisions are automatically referred to the people. Power to the people, right? Wrong.
The ConCon ballot initiative question in Hawaii read as such: “Shall there be a convention to propose a revision of or amendments to the Constitution?” That was it, one sentence for the people to respond “yes” or “no” to. The first time I read this sentence, I thought to myself, “sure, who doesn’t like conventions?”
The Hawaii vote went as such: the “yesses” received 24% of the vote; the “noes” received 69%. Blank votes counted as “no” votes (a problem for another blog post), but apparently the answer to “who doesn’t like conventions?” is “Hawaiians.”
With a name like “ConCon,” some say the initiative was doomed from the start. It was all too easy for opponents of the initiative to begin a campaign with the catchphrase: “don’t be ConConned.” And the ribs kept on coming. The day after the votes were counted, one newspaper’s headline read simply, “ConCon is Gone Gone.” Who knew Don Draper moved to Hawaii? (Don’t tell me if he actually does, I’m only on Season 5). In addition to catchy slogans, the opposition had its share of big backers: the Hawaii Democratic Party (the dominant party in the state), the ACLU, the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, a ton of unions, and even the cops. In fact, every dollar spent on the measure was spent by the opposition. In contrast, on the support side, there was one state senator (who I incidentally thought made some very good points). So, what is it about the idea of a ConCon that’s so unlikable? Are Hawaiians just different?
Turns out the answer to the second question is a resounding “no,” Hawaiians are not different. In fact, if there’s one thing everyone in this country hates, it’s apparently ConCons. That’s right, in recent decades, constitutional conventions have become simply untenable to the American people. Citizens in a number of states have faced the same sort of ballot initiative Hawaiians faced, and just like their Aloha State counterparts, they have overwhelmingly voted “no.”
Constitutional conventions are themselves fairly simple affairs. A bunch of delegates get together to propose revisions and amendments to their state’s constitution. And unless you’re in one of the few states that has no procedure to deal with ConCons, you as a person will either be voting on the measure yourself, or your representative will be voting on it for you. Ultimately, the power remains with the people. And the people have thrown away the idea of ConCons for years now.
Out of the fourteen states that mandate holding an election to answer the ConCon question, the best showing for the “yesses” in recent years was in 2014 in Rhode Island. 45% of Rhode Islanders said “yes.” From there it only gets worse. Montanans were a close second at 42% for the “yesses” in 2010. New Hampshire, 36% in 2012; Alaska, 33% in 2012; New York, 17% in 2017… I’m pretty sure that a ballot initiative to legalize heroin would get more than 17% of the votes in New York.
The people have a number of reasons to vote “no” for ConCons. For starters, constitutional conventions are pricey affairs. Hawaii ConCon would’ve cost taxpayers $56 million. To put that into perspective, that’s 30% more than what the state pays to keep all 51 public libraries up and running for a year. But taxpayer worry isn’t the main reason for the overall lack of support for the idea, not in Hawaii anyways. The real reason is much bigger, and it’s tied to Hawaii’s last ConCon, which took place in 1978.
Out of the 1978 Hawaii ConCon came one of the most progressive state constitutions ever created, giving unprecedented rights to Native Hawaiians, ushering in environmental protections, and setting term limits for governors. Since 1978, Hawaiian Democrats have dominated the political sphere of the state (I touched upon this previously in my last post). It’s impossible to argue the alternative. They control the State Legislature, the State’s say in federal matters, the Executive branch, and the Judiciary. Occasionally, a Republican will win the governorship, but they’re then hamstrung on all sides. It’s this total domination that’s the reason there was no ConCon in 2018 (and probably won’t be one until the Democrats are out). The Hawaii Democratic Party, the ACLU, the Sierra Club, the unions – these are the masters of the State. Why would they give up their power to delegates at a convention? Last time Democrats did that, Calvin Coolidge, a Republican, beat the red-blooded, career civil servant, John Davis, and a year later the country sank into the Great Depression. There’s simply too much to lose. Opponents of the ConCon initiative expressly told Hawaiians that they were afraid all the 1978 progress would be undone if there were to be another ConCon. It was for this reason that they opposed the initiative.
And what a cockamamie reason that is.
In 1978, all 34 proposed amendments passed and were ratified into law. The reason for this is simple: those who ran the state ran the convention. They controlled the issues, the mood, and the path forward that would be taken. They even control how many delegates attend, and where they attend from; then the people vote on the delegates. The Democrats and the unions of 2018 have missed their chance, so I say, to do the same thing again; to make the Hawaiian constitution even more progressive. Through a sort of a delegate gerrymandering, they could have sent their people to the convention, to plunder and return with the spoils. Instead, the state remains the same. They say Hawaiians move at a slower pace than the rest of us, but “don’t be ConConned” is in fact a red-light slogan – slowing things to a crawl at best, a halt at worst. It’s not the supporters who are ConCon-ing the people, it’s the opponents of the measure who are. For there’s a reason Hawaiians are asked every ten years if they’d like to have a constitutional convention – because every once and awhile, major things have to change. But if the powers that be – the Democrats, the unions, the cops – don’t want them to, then what good is it to ask the people in the first place?
ConCon won’t be back on the Hawaiian ballot until 2028. If the Democratic Party is still in control of the state then, I expect another ConCon will pass them by. And it’s those who let opportunities pass them by that have the most to regret later. After all, missing an opportunity because “there’s too much to lose” is the reason the Mafia’s in the gutter, and the reason Hawaii’s a tourist attraction first, and an American state second.