Affirmative Action: Rollback That Isn't

End to 'preferences' is not widespread - yet

The effort to roll back affirmative action may not be the juggernaut it once looked to be - despite a major boost last month from a federal appeals court in California.

In Washington, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia is resisting pressure from within his party to act on legislation that would end race and gender preferences in federal programs.

In some states, meanwhile, efforts to curtail preferences in state hiring, contracting, and education are moving forward - but slowly. Activists are working to draft language, raise money, and gather signatures for ballot initiatives, but even supporters offer a measured assessment of how quickly these initiatives can be brought to voters.

"There's been a lot of talk," says John Miller, spokesman for the Center for Equal Opportunity, which opposes affirmative action. He sees only two states, Florida and Washington, that might be ready for the 1998 ballot.

In April, a three-judge federal panel in California unanimously ruled that the state's 1996 ballot measure to end racial and gender preferences in state hiring, contracting, and education was constitutional. California voters had approved the initiative with 54 percent of the vote.

But even given that green light, some Republicans have been reluctant to seize the issue. Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, Congress's only black Republican, cautions that now is not the time to end the program. Speaker Gingrich, while opposing preferences, says he wants the GOP to do more to help minorities before curtailing affirmative action.

In an interview, Rep. Charles Canady (R) of Florida, Gingrich's main opponent on the issue, chided the Speaker: "The Speaker of the House says he's against preferences, but he's also unwilling to take legislative action to end preferences. He's not being consistent."

Until last week, Congressman Canady had no partner in the Senate to push for rollback legislation, but Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah has now been enlisted. He is taking a go-slow approach, calling for hearings to discuss the appropriate language for a bill.

Last week the Clinton administration took a little of the wind out of Republican sails when it proposed tightened criteria for the awarding of federal contracts to minority businesses. Conservatives complained that the change was minor but allowed the administration to claim progress.

Political perils

The problem with the affirmative-action issue for Republicans is that it does not lend itself to easy sound-bites. An effort to end "preferences" and "set-asides" could be characterized by the other side as an attempt to roll back opportunities for minorities and women. The GOP hopes to attract more minorities and does not want to appear insensitive.

The Republican Party - and Gingrich in particular - already suffers from an image of "meanness" from the last Congress, over issues such as the federal school-lunch program.

"Once we're labeled as harsh or mean-spirited, it's hard to get over that," says William Bradford Reynolds, a Justice Department official during the Reagan administration who stirred controversy in the 1980s for saying publicly that preference programs were wrong.

Still, Mr. Reynolds views affirmative action as a winning issue for Republicans, as long as the news media will let them make their case. The problem, he says, is that fewer people are harmed by affirmative action today than were in the 1970s and '80s, so it's harder to drum up grass-roots support to fight it. In addition, say other analysts, today's low unemployment makes for fewer aggrieved people over hiring practices.

View from Florida

In Florida, Orlando accountant John Barry is optimistic about his ability to put an initiative similar to California's on the ballot in November 1998.

But local political analyst Robert Joffee, a vice president at Mason-Dixon polling firm, notes that it's difficult in Florida to gather enough signatures to make the ballot without a lot of financial help, and he believes the business community will be reluctant to contribute. Top corporate leaders, he says, "have been speaking of affirmative action in a more politically correct way lately than even civil-rights and left-wing activists. They're used to the current system, and they don't want to alienate markets."

Moreover, Jeb Bush - the GOP's top prospect for the Florida governor's race next year - has steered clear of the issue, as has the Florida Republican Party.

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