Affirmative Action Special Report
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Affirmative Action Curbed in California

By William Claiborne
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 1995; Page A01

LOS ANGELES, JUNE 1 – California Gov. Pete Wilson (R), vowing to lead a growing conservative movement to end three decades of racial and gender preferences as an antidote to discrimination, today signed an executive order abolishing a wide range of affirmative action programs affecting hiring and contracting in state agencies.

Wilson, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, eliminated or sharply cut back scores of affirmative action policies or programs that are not mandated by state or federal laws or that exceed those laws. He also abolished 118 boards and commissions created to advise state agencies on ethnic and gender diversity issues.

Although he has no direct authority to order policy changes for public schools, colleges and universities, Wilson told his appointees on state educational governing boards that he wants them to dismantle race and gender preference programs that are not required by law.

As mayor of San Diego in the 1970s, Wilson championed affirmative action, adopting a plan to increase the hiring of minority workers and requiring major city contractors to adopt similar programs. But opposition to affirmative action has become a common theme of the Republican presidential candidates and many Republicans in Congress.

Flanked today by a group of Forestry Department firefighters from various minorities, who the governor's aides said symbolize Californians who resent a public perception that they were hired on the basis of preferential treatment, Wilson said affirmative action is "not only unfair, it stigmatizes the achievements of those it was intended to help." His order repeals affirmative action orders signed by three previous governors, including Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Deukmejian.

In a statement released earlier, Wilson said "great societal guilt" had stimulated the creation of affirmative action programs in the 1960s and would undermine the "very foundation of the American dream" if hiring and contract programs based on race and gender preference were not rolled back.

Wilson blamed the "misfired good intentions" of leaders dating back to John F. Kennedy for programs he said unfairly discriminated against certain ethnic groups to compensate others for past injustices.

The Republican governor said he would aggressively pursue further cutbacks in preferential treatment for minorities and women in order to assure a "new era of meritocracy."

"This executive order is an historic step forward. By itself, it doesn't complete the change we must make. Special preferences remain embedded in state and federal law. I vow to fight for changes in those laws," Wilson said.

Sean Walsh, the governor's press secretary, said Wilson is the first governor to roll back affirmative action programs. He said the order would affect all of the state's approximately 150,000 full-time job positions. According to the California State Employees Association, about 60 percent of the state government work force is white, 16 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black, 6 percent are Asian and the remaining 6 percent from other groups.

Wilson's action appeared designed to capitalize on public dissatisfaction with minority preference programs and on a backlash against what is characterized as "reverse discrimination," while at the same time setting him apart from the eight other contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, none of whom are sitting governors. It comes a day after senior White House officials said President Clinton is still weeks or even months away from completing a review he has ordered of federal affirmative action programs.

Wilson already had announced his support of a proposed 1996 state ballot initiative that would go further than today's order by abolishing affirmative action in all state hiring, contracting and university admissions practices. At least six other states – Washington, Florida, Illinois, Oregon, Colorado and Nevada – have similar ballot initiative campaigns in the works.

Critics accused Wilson of flip-flopping on the issue in hopes of helping a presidential campaign that has been hampered by his slow recovery from his throat operation – his remarks today were read out by a member of his cabinet – and a sluggish fund-raising effort.

"He wants to be the voice of the angry white males," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. She noted that Wilson's come-from-behind reelection last year was boosted by his vociferous support for Proposition 187, the ballot initiative aimed at cutting off social services for illegal immigrants, another popular "backlash" measure.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in a statement, called Wilson's order a "desperate effort to recover his bid for the presidency by further polarizing Californians." MALDEF said Wilson's action was "as noble as previous governors' attempts to keep African Americans out of public schools in the South."

Affirmative action orders signed by three previous governors -- Deukmejian, Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. (D) and Reagan – were repealed by Wilson, who said they had "encouraged the gradual development of racial and gender-based preferences and set asides." Among the agencies affected by Wilson's order is the state transportation department, Caltrans, which is required by agreement with the federal government to allocate 20 percent of its contracting funds to minority-owned firms. Wilson ordered Caltrans to negotiate a new agreement lowering that goal to 10 percent. He also ordered Caltrans to abolish an informal policy of awarding small purchase contracts of $500 or less to women or minority-owned firms and to make such decisions based on non-preferential competitive pricing.

The governor ordered the Department of Forestry, which has a 50 percent goal for the hiring of women and minorities as seasonal firefighters, to eliminate that program and hire on the basis of merit.

He eliminated a requirement that the racial and gender ratio on job interview panels for civil service and career executive positions mirror that of the population as a whole, and directed the Department of Water Resources to end its practice of setting aside two-thirds of all student intern openings for minority candidates.

Special correspondent Kathryn Wexler contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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