August 13, 2008

Vote on ConCon key decision this election

By David Shapiro

All of a sudden it's "ConCon who?"

A couple of months ago, the question of whether or not to call Hawai'i's first Constitutional Convention in 30 years seemed the hottest local issue on the November ballot, with Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann and most other incumbent office-holders seemingly cruising to re-election with little opposition.

Now, Hannemann has opponents he'll have to pay attention to in Ann Kobayashi and Panos Prevedouros; the mayor's races on Kaua'i and the Big Island are hotly competitive; and there's a fair chance that a rail-transit initiative will be on the O'ahu ballot.

These developments have created so much buzz that ConCon has slipped into the background and the discussion has gone nearly silent.

"It's been a real challenge to keep the conversation flowing," said Peter Kay, who organized HawaiiConCon.org along with former U.S. Rep. Ed Case, state Rep. Della Au Belatti and others.

The slick Web site quickly drew 168 members and produced "a ton of content" on the pros and cons of a Constitutional Convention, Kay said, but "the conversations have turned down a lot."

"The mayor's race/rail debate has essentially sucked all the oxygen out of the political atmosphere," he said.

While the hot-button rail initiative clearly is drawing away attention and resources that otherwise would have gone into advocacy for or against a ConCon, it doesn't necessarily diminish the chances of voters approving a Constitutional Convention to look at restructuring the state government.

According to The Advertiser/KGMB9 Hawai'i Poll, partisans on both sides of the rail dispute agree by a good majority that voters should get a say on the matter, a strong show of support for direct participatory democracy that could transfer to the ConCon question.

It's no sure thing that rail will be on the ballot. The city clerk refused to accept the paperwork for an initiative submitted by Stop Rail Now, throwing the matter to the courts, and Hannemann and the City Council haven't sealed the deal on wording for a City Charter amendment to put rail before voters.

If nothing ends up on the ballot after 50,000 people signed Stop Rail Now's petition, a lot of folks will go to the polls looking for ways to express their displeasure, and a "yes" vote on the ConCon would be an obvious gesture.

The embarrassing fumbling by elections officials in qualifying candidates at the filing deadline added to a sense that something is wrong with our political system that needs to be fixed.

Attempts by legislators and unions to discourage support for a ConCon by emphasizing the cost seem to have been muted by Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona's report pegging the cost at between $2.3 million and $11.1 million, depending on the number of delegates and the length of the convention.

Whether or not a ConCon is the sexiest issue on the ballot, it remains one of the most important things we'll decide this year, with potentially huge implications for Hawai'i's future in all aspects of our lives. It warrants a lot of quality discussion between now and the election.

Groups such as HawaiiCon Con.org will have to work hard to keep a vibrant conversation going not only on whether to call a ConCon, but how it should be set up to assure a true citizens' convention and not a reunion of the status quo.

"We've definitely got a challenge in front of us," Kay said. "I keep wondering, how much worse does it have to get before the voters get mad enough to start voting? And I hope it's not too far away."

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@vol canicash.net. His columns are archived at www.volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at vol canicash.honadvblogs.com.