Hot Topics Divide Voters in Washington
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 26, 1998; Page A01
SEATTLEThree hot-button initiatives on the November ballot in this northwestern state have split the electorate on racial, religious and class lines. The issues could not be more diverse: a ban on state-sponsored racial preferences or affirmative action; outlawing some forms of late-term abortion; and mandated increases in the minimum wage.
All three have shown majority support in early polls, but opponents of the measures on civil rights and abortion have mobilized top public and private-sector leaders and will likely outspend the sponsors when the media campaigns begin in a few days. It remains to be seen how much money and effort business will muster to block the labor-backed minimum wage plan.
All of the issues are being closely watched by politicians and interest groups in Washington, D.C., on the theory that if they pass here, they will be tried in many other states -- and in Congress.
The minimum wage measure would give successive bumps to the take-home pay of thousands, and then, for the first time anywhere, index that pay scale to future cost-of-living increases.
The anti-abortion measure employs new and legally untested language, outlawing as "infanticide" the extinction of the life of any fetus that has begun to move from the uterus into the birth canal.
The third measure represents the first time any state has been asked to ratify the controversial action California voters took in 1996, when they struck race, gender and ethnicity from the list of factors to be considered in hiring for state jobs, awarding state contracts or admitting students to state schools.
It is that last measure -- Proposition 200 -- that has drawn the greatest attention here. Washington's 86-percent white population has elected African Americans as mayor of Seattle and as King County (Seattle) executive and in 1996, voters made Gary Locke the first Chinese American governor of a mainland state. Both sponsors and opponents of Proposition 200 agree that if it passes here, clones will be offered in many other states and it will boost chances of similar national legislation being passed.
The measure, identical to Proposition 209 (the California Civil Rights Initiative), would "prohibit state and local government entities from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin."
The drive to place the same measure on the Washington ballot was faltering last spring until Ward Connerly, chief sponsor of the California initiative, gave $170,000 through his American Civil Rights Institute to hire a professional signature-gathering organization in Tacoma. Later, Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity, a political action committee controlled by Republican presidential challenger Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, donated mailings and other in-kind support valued at $35,000.
At the same time, the backers enlisted John Carlson, a Seattle talk show host who had previously promoted two successful anti-crime initiatives, to head up the Proposition 200 drive. Carlson's station was the target of a protest march by opponents of Proposition 200 and the station asked him to resign -- at least for the duration of the initiative fight.
Opponents of Proposition 200 contend that it will end all outreach and affirmative action programs. But a court rejected their effort to include the words "affirmative action" in the official ballot title -- a critical strategic defeat, because polls have shown a significant number of people support affirmative action as they understand the term, but oppose racial preferences and quotas.
The most recent public poll by Mason-Dixon Research indicates that if the voting had been held this month, Proposition 200 likely would have carried. It found 53 percent in favor, 34 percent opposed and 13 percent undecided. But pollster Dell Ali said the answers to other questions showed that "the majority of people do not want to abolish affirmative action entirely. If the opposition can make the argument that this will wipe out affirmative action completely, they win."
Massive amounts of prestige, power and money are lined up against Proposition 200. Opponents include Locke, who says, "I benefited from affirmative action" in gaining admission to Yale Law School. Sen. Patty Murray (D) and almost all other Democratic elected officials oppose it, as do most of the major newspaper editorial pages and business giants including Microsoft Corp., Boeing Co., Starbucks Coffee Co., U.S. Bank and Eddie Bauer Inc., all of which have made five-figure contributions to the "No on 200" campaign. One indication of the intensity of establishment opposition could be found in last Sunday's Seattle Times, which included an editorial criticizing the initiative and a full-page ad condemning Proposition 200 paid for by Blethen Corp., majority owner of the newspaper.
The state GOP, controlled by conservatives, has endorsed Proposition 200. But the split between populist conservatives and establishment Republicans was one reason the GOP-controlled legislature ducked the issue. "This issue frightens Republican politicians," Carlson said. "They know how they feel, but don't want to roll up their sleeves and confront the issue." Other insiders attribute the legislature's reluctance to the split between grass-roots activists, who back the measure, and big contributors, who oppose it.
Reflecting the split, Rep. Linda A. Smith, the Republican Senate nominee and conservative populist, supports Proposition 200, while former governor and senator Daniel J. Evans, a hero to the moderate wing of the GOP, opposes it.
Opponents have raised $800,000, including $75,000 from Boeing, which is in court on several job discrimination suits, but the total is expected to be much higher. Vice President Gore earlier this month attended a "No on 200" fund-raiser here. The NAACP and the National Urban League both have pledged to spend $50,000 on their efforts to defeat Proposition 200. Carlson said proponents spent $320,000 getting the measure on the ballot and hope to raise $450,000 "for a respectable ad campaign. But we'll be outspent 2 to 1 or 3 to 1."
The lines of demarcation are almost as clear on Proposition 694, backed by abortion foes and opposed by a number of women's organizations, Locke and other Democrats. Proponents stunned the opposition by quietly collecting 216,000 signatures in six weeks last spring. "You almost never saw them on the streets," said Marilyn Knight, who is leading the opposition campaign. "They had no paid signature gatherers, and yet they submitted very few invalid signatures. They did an amazing job."
They succeeded, according to Robert Bethel, the osteopathic physician who is the spokesman for Proposition 694, because of "the network" of conservative activists who came together to support Locke's opponent in 1996. They had help from conservative Protestant congregations and the support of Washington's three Catholic bishops, who encouraged churches in their dioceses to collect signatures at Mass.
As with Proposition 200, opponents' hopes rest on convincing voters that the impact of the initiative would reach far beyond what the language of the measure suggests. The official ballot title says it would make "the termination of a fetus' life during the process of birth a felony crime except when necessary to prevent the pregnant woman's death." This summer, a poll, using exactly that language, found 49 percent to 37 percent in favor of the initiative, with the rest undecided.
Explanatory language on the ballot says the birth process begins when a live fetus has partially or wholly left the womb "by any means, including artificial extraction." Once any part of the fetus is in the birth canal, abortion would be defined as "partial-birth infanticide" and would constitute a felony, unless it was necessary to save the life of the mother.
Proponents say it would "stop the horrible killing of partially born infants" and insist it would not infringe on established abortion rights up to the moment the fetus begins to leave the womb.
Opponents say state records indicate that there are virtually no abortions in Washington after 26 weeks of pregnancy and no evidence that "partial-birth infanticide" ever occurs. Bethel does not dispute the figures but says, "It is important to draw the line." He dismisses as "poppycock" opponents' contention that the untested language of the initiative "could ban most abortions."
The outcome may well turn on how voters interpret the ballot language. "Our focus groups show voters think from the ballot title it's about killing a baby at the time of birth. We have a lot of educating to do," Knight said.
They will have the money to do it. Knight said they are more than one-third of the way toward their media budget of $1.2 million. Backers spent $35,000 qualifying the initiative and, according to Bethel, have raised $70,000 toward their $600,000 goal for ads -- which will be mainly on radio. The Republican Party voted a $12,000 contribution last week.
The last of the three initiatives, Proposition 688, was also a volunteer effort, organized by the state's unions and sympathetic liberal groups. It would raise the minimum wage from the current $4.90 to $5.70 an hour in 1999 and to $6.50 an hour in 2000. After that, it would be adjusted to reflect changes in the consumer price index.
The rival arguments are clear. Backers say in their literature, "If you work full time, you shouldn't live in poverty," and claim raising the minimum wage will reduce public assistance costs. Opponents warn it could boost prices and "hurt working families and those on fixed incomes, especially senior citizens."
The Mason-Dixon poll showed that the initiative is favored by 68 percent, and Carolyn Logue, the top lobbyist in Olympia for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), conceded that "it's a very difficult issue for us."
Logue said it was hard to mobilize her 17,000 members on the issue, partly because of the polls and partly because many of them pay higher salaries already and do not think they will be affected. She said, however, that internal mailings are stressing the long-term impact of the indexing provision, "what it might mean if we again have a time of high inflation and high unemployment." NFIB is also trying to warn rural small businesses that they will be hurt if rising costs in the Seattle metro area push the inflation index up faster than their customers' incomes are rising.
"People view it as a question of justice and fairness," said Tim Flynn, who is running the proponents' campaign, "but the other side will try to confuse the issue." Labor has budgeted a full-scale ad campaign, and Logue said there will be nothing to match it. But labor is wary, remembering a 1996 initiative to raise the minimum wage in Missouri. It too led in early polling but lost by 44 points after a late-starting opposition media blitz.
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