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A Rush to the Defense of Affirmative Action

By Peter Behr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 14, 1995; Page A01

Minority business leaders from the Washington area and across the nation, stung by a U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday that sharply narrows the scope of affirmative action programs, yesterday called on President Clinton and Congress to defend the policies.

Robert L. Johnson, founder of the Washington-based Black Entertainment Television cable network, said a newly formed political action committee is seeking contributions of $5,000 from each of the 100 largest black-owned U.S. companies "to oppose the dismantling of affirmative action." The group includes many prominent black entrepreneurs whose businesses began with minority preference contracts.

"I think the decision sounds the death knell for affirmative action and minority set-asides," said Johnson, who credits such programs for opening doors to his education and career. "There is no sugarcoating you can put on it."

Some legal experts believe the Supreme Court's 5 to 4 decision in a Colorado highway contracting case still leaves some ground for policies that give minorities preferential access to federal contracts.

Johnson, however, said the ground was too weak to stand on. A steering committee for the new Minority Enterprise Opportunity PAC will meet soon in Atlanta to begin identifying political candidates who support the group's goals, Johnson said.

The court decision also has galvanized a group of more than 300 minority business entrepreneurs attending a White House-sponsored conference on small business in Washington this week that was designed to focus on more general commercial issues.

The executives are asking their white counterparts to join them in issuing declarations supporting affirmative action.

Denise M. Ransom, who heads an Oakland engineering management services firm, spent much of yesterday lining up signatures on one proposed resolution to be considered by the 1,800 conference delegates in a series of votes last night and today.

"We want Congress and the president to take control of this issue," rather then let the courts marginalize or eliminate the programs, Ransom said yesterday, en route to a caucus of business delegates at the Washington Hilton Hotel conference site.

Although several such resolutions had been endorsed by conference committees yesterday, it was not clear whether they would attract sufficient backing to be adopted by the entire conference. About 20 percent of the delegates are minorities.

Under conference rules, only 60 recommendations will be forwarded to the president and, as of yesterday, more than 400 were on the table.

"Affirmative action was an issue {for conference delegates} before Monday's decision," said Alan Patricof, who is chairman of the White House Conference on Small Business, but so are proposals to reduce regulation and paperwork burdens on business owners, for example. "Everyone has priorities."

Thea Lewis Johnson, president of Ness Inc., a Reston computer services firm, said she and other delegates have tried to word the affirmative action resolutions to attract broad support from the delegates.

A resolution that Johnson helped craft urges the president and Congress to "support the principle of equal opportunity," to orient government policies "toward diversity and fair economic opportunity" and to punish discrimination in bank lending, contracting and hiring.

Congress and the White House will have to redefine how minority preference contracts will be awarded in the future, said Pedro Alfonso, president of Dynamic Concepts Inc., a D.C. telecommunications and business services firm. "The important thing is not to lose the commitment."

The court's decision, administration officials said, has given new life to an idea the White House floated several months ago: creating a bipartisan "blue-ribbon" commission to examine the future of affirmative action.

Two members of Congress who have expressed concerns about the future of set-aside programs affecting women's businesses, Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), yesterday sent Clinton a letter urging that he appoint a commission to determine which programs are defensible in the wake of the court's ruling, and to make recommendations for changes.

Some area minority leaders echoed the call for a campaign to revive affirmative action programs. "The playing field has not been level for a long time, and the only way to change that is through these types of procurement programs," said Michael Veve, general counsel for the Greater Washington Ibero-American Chamber of Commerce, a Hispanic leader.

Others were pessimistic about the prospects, noting the intense opposition to affirmative action among Congress's Republican majority.

Affirmative action "has been a tremendous support to me. At the same time, I cannot depend on it because of days like Monday," said Antoinette Ford, an African American who is chief executive of Landover-based Telspan International Inc.

The court's decision also jarred many of the nearly 200 minority graduate business students who gathered in Washington yesterday to meet corporate recruiters at a career forum. Students selected under the program get fellowships that cover two years' tuition and small stipends.

"It's scary for the simple fact that affirmative action was a door-opener for minorities to prove themselves to white corporate America; for women as well," said Derrick Colton, a business student at Indiana University.

"It scares the hell out of everybody," added Francisco Ruso, who is attending the University of Southern California's business school.

Several corporate recruiters said the court decision would not affect their voluntary efforts to hire more minorities and women.

"We strongly support {a} push for diversity," said Dolores Watson, Bell Atlantic Corp.'s human resource director.

"Until something happens in the legal sense that says we can't continue to support these . . . programs, we'll continue to do so," said Peter Thorp, a Citibank vice president.

For Arnold O'Donnell, a white D.C. businessman who owns a construction company with his brother, the court's decision is particularly ironic.

In May, O'Donnell, who has spent seven years lobbying for elimination of the federal set-aside programs, won a reverse-discrimination battle and was designated by the Small Business Administration as being at an "economic and social disadvantage," making his company certified for the SBA's Section 8A set-aside program. The decision came after years of lawsuits and appeals by O'Donnell.

"I think this proves how bizarre the set-aside program is," he said. "But the truth, in the District of Columbia, a {non-minority} company like mine is at a disadvantage. That's the climate these set-asides have created."

Staff writers Anthony Faiola and Yvonne Chiu contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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