WHEN Chicago Mayor Richard Daley recently decided to bypass the results of a Chicago police exam in order to promote minority officers, he touched off a chain reaction of protests.
Police and firefighters picketed City Hall. A lawmaker in Springfield started pushing legislation aimed at rolling back state affirmative-action laws. In response, a coalition of women's, civil rights, and labor groups formed to fight the backlash.
The fracas in Illinois underscores how the debate over the nation's 30-year-old program of race- and gender-based preferences is expanding to statehouses and city halls across the country.
While much of the debate's focus so far has centered on Congress and the federal courts, it is state and local political groups that are now waging battles over what affirmative action means and whether it works -- an issue that looms as one of the most potentially divisive of the 1996 presidential campaign.
California has captured the most attention with a widely publicized ballot initiative that would ban ''preferential treatment'' in public employment, contracting, and education. But similar attempts to roll back affirmative action are under way in the legislatures of at least a dozen states, including Illinois, Oregon, Texas, Florida, and Colorado. How these battles are resolved will help define the direction of the debate nationwide.
''The issue is popping up all over the place,'' says Wyatt Closs, who monitors affirmative action for the Service Employees International Union in Washington.
In Chicago, the rancorous debate over affirmative action began after only a handful of blacks and Hispanics passed a sergeant's exam. Mayor Daley then ordered the ''merit promotions'' of a group of 13 mostly minority cops. That this occurred during an election campaign in which Daley was courting the minority vote added to cries of wrongdoing.
Daley won the election soon afterward.
''The numbers did not come out right. There were not enough blacks and Hispanics on the list, and the mayor was facing reelection,'' says Sgt. Bruce Engstrom, president of the 1,300-strong Chicago Police Sergeants Association, which opposed the merit promotions.
Officers accused Daley of ''changing the rules'' by breaking a pledge that the exam alone would determine who advanced. James McArdle, who believes he scored 55th on the test and should have been next in line for advancement, sued the city and won a temporary court order nullifying the merit promotions. His suit goes to trial in September. ''It was totally unfair. It was their way of implementing a type of affirmative action promotion,'' says Sgt. McArdle.
The ire of police sergeants helped fire a campaign by Illinois conservatives, led by state Sen. Walter Dudycz (R), who is also a Chicago police detective, to eliminate affirmative action programs -- which would affect hiring practices and admissions policies statewide. The bill's wording is similar to that of the California initiative.
In response, the new Coalition for Equal Opportunity, which includes women's, civil rights, and labor groups, used newsletters, press conferences, and an ''action alert'' to mobilize thousands of people against the bill. ''This is the strongest attack [against affirmative action] as well as the most political and divisive that we have experienced,'' says Nancy Kreiter of the Chicago-based Women Employed, part of the coalition.
THE outcry worked. Mr. Dudycz agreed not to call for a vote on the bill during the spring legislative session. Hearings are expected this summer.
As in Illinois, activists in California and other states say their success will depend mainly on how well they overcome public ''misperceptions'' about affirmative action. They say many Americans wrongly equate the program with hiring quotas and other preferential treatment rigidly tied to a person's race or sex -- practices that are in fact illegal. Affirmative action only requires business, government, and educational institutions to make ''good faith'' efforts to meet goals and timetables for employing women and minorities.
While few expect the outcome of America's grass-roots debate over affirmative action will be to dismantle the program, some believe it will be considerably weakened. ''I don't think the commitment that existed at one time is any longer there,'' says James Compton, president of the Chicago Urban League.
Nevertheless, from Boston to Birmingham to San Francisco, many supporters of affirmative action agree that current policies should be reexamined, updated, and improved. ''Affirmative-action programs are not permanent; they are remedial and temporary,'' says Roscoe Morris, who is heading a review of Boston's affirmative action programs. ''It's time to see what's working and what's not.''