For years, cable television has been anticipated as one of the last great chances for blacks in Washington to be in at the beginning of a bonanza.
Building the system would create jobs, and those jobs could be reserved for District residents, the reasoning went. Running it would produce considerable profits, a large share of which minorities could reap. Blacks might get unprecedented opportunities in programming, and all this economic activity, properly guided, would generate benefits for the city as a whole.
But when it finally came time to vote on shaping a cable system last week, the City Council rejected proposed strict affirmative action rules. Instead, council members specified that the company that eventually wins the city's cable franchise must adhere to existing laws on minority participation.
Those laws are stronger than most. But they are far weaker than what some people had in mind, and the council now finds itself in the midst of a politically awkward debate. The majority decided last Tuesday night that more stringent affirmative action rules were impractical, and could drive some cable operators away.
The D.C. Cable Coalition, a 2 1/2-year-old group of community and civil rights activists, denounced the council's vote on cable and pledged a lobbying campaign to restore the defeated affirmative action proposal before the council takes final action on the bill later this month.
"I'm stunned. I don't believe what I saw," said Kay Pierson, a spokeswoman for the coalition. "There was no commitment displayed to affirmative action."
"It is critical, if minorities are going to be involved in this technological explosion, that they have to be involved in the early stages," said Curtis T. White, a Washington attorney who specializes in communications law.
White said the District's unique role as the nation's capital, its high per capita income and its growing function as headquarters for communications-based industries would virtually guarantee success for any cable company operating here, notwithstanding strict affirmative action rules.
The measures rejected by the council would have required that any cable company operating here have as a goal the employment of at least 70 percent minorities--about equal to the ratio of minorities in the District--on all levels of its workforce within two years of being granted a franchise.
In addition, 51 percent of the employes would have had to live in the District and the cable operator would have had to set up extensive training and apprenticeship programs.
Instead, the council approved by voice vote an amendment offered by Chairman Arrington L. Dixon to subject cable operators to existing laws. Dixon's amendment also encourages the setting up of training programs, but not as strongly as the proposal rejected by the council as unrealistic.
"It's almost criminal for us not to do the best we can," said council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) who offered the original proposal. "We have the right as legislators to set the tone of the cable bill. It will make the bidding and the competition more lively and more spirited. We are not being unreasonable." Only Rolark and Nadine P. Winter asked to be recorded as opposing Dixon's amendments.
But other members of the council contended in interviews last week that Rolark's proposal would have been so restrictive it would have discouraged cable firms from bidding, particularly smaller, minority-owned companies that they said are traditionally underfinanced.
"I'm not going to sit here and have people say I'm trying to stop black people from getting jobs," said council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), a former civil rights activist. "I'm not opposed to affirmative action. I'm opposed to lunacy."
"The problem with Rolark's proposal is that we might lock out some of the firms that can deliver" on affirmative action and cable services, said Dixon.
"We want to draw as many cable bids as we can," Dixon said. He said with more companies competing for the franchise rights, the city would be in a position to negotiate strong affirmative action guidelines with them, judging each company individually.
Council member John Ray (D-At Large) rejected Rolark's contention that minority-owned firms could form joint ventures with stronger predominately white firms that could help finance cable in the District.
"That's just a paper sham," said Ray, comparing such arrangements to joint ventures of building office building complexes in the District, which have sometimes failed to produce true minority ownership.
Ray said he would have had no problem with Rolark's hiring proposal if she had included a special provision reducing the requirements for minority firms, which he said could not afford the massive job training it would require.
"If minority owners are required to reach hard and fast goals . . . they may not be able to carry the burden," Ray said. "They won't have the staying power."
Robert Johnson, president of District Cablevision, a minority-owned firm that wants to bid on the franchise, indicated his company would need help to meet Rolark's provision, but nevertheless would still make a bid under the provisions she suggested.
White, whose firm has represented cable companies and government agencies outside of Washington, said he doubted that the affirmative action would "in and of itself" keep major cable companies from seeking the franchise.
"Nobody cited an example" of cable companies balking at strong affirmative action laws, said Pierson. She said Howard University, the University of the District of Columbia and Gallaudet College could be brought in to help train minorities, easing the financial burden on cable firms. "We have lots of training facilities," she said.
Regarding Rolark's rejected residency proposal, Dixon argued that the company should give a preference to District residents, but "should not exclude those who live a few miles or a few feet from this community."
Dixon said he was satisfied the city's human rights law and affirmative action guidelines provided in the bill would be sufficient to assure compliance by the cable companies.
The rights law forbids a broad range of discriminatory practices by either the District government or private companies, including discrimination by race, religion, sexual preference, marital status, age and sex.
Council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), who wrote the law in 1977, said, "it is one of the strongest laws in the nation."
Dixon said the cable bill, which gives the council control over the design commission and authority to select the winning cable company, assures that the council will be able to monitor affirmative action proposals by the cable companies at nearly every step of the cable process. The council could take final action next week