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Affirmative Action Gets Key Test in Wash.

The Ballot Battle Related Links
  • Full Coverage: Ballot Initiatives

  • By David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, October 24, 1998; Page A1

    SEATTLE Opponents of a ballot measure to ban racial or gender preferences are scrambling desperately, with little more than a week left, to keep Washington from becoming the second state after California to roll back its affirmative action programs.

    Both sides say the battle will have large national repercussions. Ward Connerly, the African American businessman who led the successful 1996 fight for Proposition 209 in California and who has been stumping Washington all week for the identically worded Proposition 200 on the Nov. 3 ballot here, said in an interview that "victory here will reignite the movement and make this the national issue it should be."

    It would also, he said, "put a little spine" into national Republican leaders, who have been "timid" about making the issue their own.

    Connerly, through his California-based American Civil Rights Institute, supplied most of the signature-gathering money to get Proposition 209 on the ballot and has mounted a half-million-dollar radio and TV "educational campaign" extolling the principles behind the measure. He is resisting demands from the state Public Disclosure Commission that he reveal the names of his donors. The commission asserts that these are political ads, while Connerly maintains that they are purely educational.

    Opposition groups, fueled by large contributions from Boeing Co., Microsoft Corp., Eddie Bauer Inc., Starbucks Corp. and other local businesses, have more than twice as much to spend to sink the measure. But their top consultant, Sue Tupper, conceded this week that "this is an uphill struggle for us."

    Every public poll has shown Proposition 209, which would ban preferences in government jobs and contracts and college admissions, out in front. The most recent private survey showed it holding a double-digit lead but with less than 50 percent of the vote and almost one-quarter of the respondents saying they were undecided.

    That poll was taken after opponents had fired what they consider their heaviest weapon a week of 30-second TV spots in which Gov. Gary Locke (D), the Chinese American first-termer who is the state's most popular politician, warned that Proposition 200 is "full of hidden consequences" and "will abolish affirmative action and hurt real people."

    The No on 200 committee has followed the Locke ad with another TV spot and a mass-mailing to the third of the electorate who have requested absentee ballots claiming that Proposition 200 would endanger the progress women have made in achieving equal pay for equal work. The ad and the flyer use Liz Pierini, president of the state League of Women Voters, in a targeted appeal to women, identified in polling and focus groups as more persuadable than men.

    John Carlson, the former Seattle radio talk show host enlisted by Connerly as leader of the Proposition 200 drive, said opponents are lying when they claim, in the flier, that "by blindly abolishing all affirmative action in our state, I-200 will eliminate programs that have been successful in allowing women to gain the skills and knowledge they need to compete fairly in the workplace."

    "I-200 has no effect on private employers," he said, "and it explicitly bans governmental discrimination based on race or gender. Making claims like this shows just how desperate the opposition is," Carlson added.

    As was the case in California, surveys here show that support for the initiative drops sharply if voters believe its effect will be to end affirmative action outreach programs. But Carlson and Connerly gained the advantage when state officials approved the use of the California initiative language on the Washington ballot. Omitting any reference to affirmative action, it says: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting."

    That proposition, Connerly said, "sells itself."

    In a state whose electorate is almost 90 percent white, proponents of Proposition 200 are pushing the race issue as hard as opponents are stressing gender. The "educational" ads paid for by Connerly's tax-exempt foundation show a black youngster playing with a white friend. She asks, "Does it matter what color someone is? Should it matter?" Proposition 200, the narrator says, is about "bringing us together."

    The first direct advocacy ad from Carlson's committee uses the controversial case of Katuria Smith, a white honors graduate of the University of Washington whose application for its law school was rejected. Smith complained that she who had struggled to become the first in her family to earn a college degree was the victim of reverse discrimination, a charge the law school has vehemently denied. The ad asserts: "The UW law school rejected her. Why? She was white; 90 percent of the blacks who enrolled had lower qualifications."

    "They just want to talk about race," said Michelle Ackerman, head of the No on 200 committee, "but the fact is that the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action in this state are white women."

    But Mary Radcliffe, an African American businesswoman who co-chairs Carlson's committee, said the opponents of Proposition 200 are using "below-the-belt scare tactics. They are threatening women with economic retaliation, the same way people threatened blacks who tried to register to vote in the South in the 1950s."

    The rhetoric is getting rough on both sides, but the opposition has more resources to deliver its message. Almost all the major newspapers in the state have come out against Proposition 200, and the publisher of the Seattle Times has run full-page ads in his paper, at his own expense, condemning the measure. Establishment Republicans such as former governor and senator Daniel J. Evans and Secretary of State Ralph Munro have joined a solid phalanx of Democratic leaders in the opposition drive. The state GOP, on the other hand, has endorsed Proposition 200.

    Despite the lineup of powers against it, polls so far support Carlson's contention that "when people read the language of the initiative, they instinctively say, 'That's fair. That's right.'"

    And Connerly is already calculating how a victory here can be exploited nationally. His first step, he said, will be to put an identical measure on the ballot in Houston. In a referendum a year ago, local government leaders opposed to the Houston measure succeeded in changing the wording to make explicit that it would jeopardize affirmative action. The initiative was defeated, but a subsequent court challenge produced a ruling that the change in language was illegal. "We will definitely go back to Houston next year," Connerly said.

    After that, identical initiatives will be launched in Michigan, Arizona or Nebraska, he said, to "keep up the momentum in 2000."

    And if it loses in Washington? "It would be somewhat of a setback," Connerly said. "It would tell the opponents that they'd found a formula for derailing this movement, by getting big business to buy into the gobbledegook about wanting diversity in their work force, whatever that may mean, and then taking that money to spread the lie that this is anything other than what it says a ban on discrimination."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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