Affirmative-Action Backlash Softens

Drive to set aside minority preferences in California runs into funding problems

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE rush to dismantle racial preferences and set-asides has slowed here in California, the birthplace of the crusade against affirmative action.

After sparking a political brush fire last February that swept from coast to coast, the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), a ballot proposal that aims to end government programs giving minorities and women preferences in employment and schooling, now looks more like a controlled burn.

The announcement of the proposal spawned an unprecedented media and public response. Other states drafted similar resolutions, President Clinton and Congress each called for possible overhauls of racial preference policies at the federal level, and the Supreme Court jumped in last month with a key ruling.

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But now, with presidential candidates of both parties withholding endorsements of the California measure, and opposition women and minority groups joining forces, CCRI organizers are running into fund-raising jams and lackluster public support.

After legislative versions of the initiative failed in committee, the citizen-backed version has yet to be formally filed or collect a single signature. Backers have reached one-fourth of their funding goals.

Larry Arnn, chairman of the CCRI campaign, thinks the initiative will eventually pass handily. But he says waking up a state as big as California takes months of hard work, preparation, and planning.

''There are inherent difficulties in building from the ground up over such a huge state as the first big, national battleground,'' Mr. Arnn says. ''We knew it would be darn tough raising the amount of money we need, and now I'm ready to admit it's been harder than we thought.''

John J. Miller, vice president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington, notes that a competitive fund-raising atmosphere has stifled CCRI organizers at the outset. Several GOP candidates are trying to raise money in the state. A half-dozen other initiatives are being readied for the ballot. And opponents are confusing donors and voters by introducing initiatives of their own with similar titles and language, but with references to protections for such groups as homosexuals.

''Organizers are now having to fight the perception that CCRI is a done deal,'' Mr. Miller says. ''They've gotten a zillion dollars in free publicity, but so far that has not translated into what they need for a successful campaign.''

Pounding the pavement

The goal is to raise about $1 million over the course of the campaign. After formally filing papers of intent with the state attorney general - intended for late July or August - organizers will then have 150 days to obtain 700,000 to 800,000 valid signatures. So far, $250,000 has been raised, according to Joe Gelman, manager of the campaign.

Because large corporations and wealthy investors do not want their name associated with such a controversial issue, he says, CCRI's will be a small-donor, grass-roots campaign. ''We are being methodical and calculated, but logistically this is hard to do,'' Mr. Gelman says.

Such comments are music to the ears of those opposed to the measure such as Elizabeth Toledo, California coordinator for the National Organization for Women (NOW). She says efforts by coalitions of women and minority groups have been successful in raising consciousness over what dismantling state laws would mean.

''Republicans thought this was going to be a slam dunk, an automatic revisit to the kind of support they had to get immigration reform through,'' Ms. Toledo says. But, she says, ''candidates are now wary of awakening some of the sleeping giants on this issue - including women.''

The US Department of Labor says 6 million women have found employment that would have otherwise been denied to them thanks to formal invocations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - compared with about 5 million minorities.

''Public discussion sparked by CCRI has helped women realize what's at stake,'' says Toledo, noting that polls show many pro-CCRI women as now undecided. ''When the debate heats up further, more will withdraw their support,'' she predicts.

Fred Jordan, president of the California Business Council of Equal Opportunity, a coalition of dozens of African-American, Hispanic, and other minority groups, says his members are ''organizing to fight CCRI every step of the way.'' That means public meetings, school-based seminars, and neighborhood canvassing.

''We will be explaining that to endorse CCRI would be to reverse all the progress of civil rights made in 30 years,'' Mr. Jordan says. Noting his forces' calculated introduction of copycat initiatives that use similar language as the CCRI initiative, Jordan says: ''If we can't beat 'em, we'll confuse 'em.''

The search for support

Both sides say they are enlisting bipartisan support, but running into hesitation by those waiting to see how the issue will play out. Republican Governor Pete Wilson and the state Republican Party have formally endorsed CCRI, but presidential candidates Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Phil Gramm have not been forthcoming.

''Affirmative action used to make Republicans nervous, while Democrats felt morally superior about it,'' says Abigail Thernstrom, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based public policy research organization. ''But both are finding out the public doesn't like preferences and quotas - or politicians who appear to be mean on the racial front.''

Polls in California show about 60 percent of respondents are against quotas and preferences. But buried in that question a key question of semantics that both sides say will be fought over and elucidated in coming debate: What is affirmative action?

''If you ask people if they are in favor of affirmative action, they are much more inclined to say yes,'' says John Brennan, director of the Los Angeles Times Poll. ''If you ask, 'Do you favor quotas, set-asides, or preferences,' They say, 'No way.'''

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