The push to dismantle affirmative action is finally coming to a shove in one of Election 1996's most volatile and important campaigns.
The California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), now known as Proposition 209 on the November state ballot, sparked unprecedented public and media response when it was announced last year. The contentious measure seeks to end decades-old government programs that give preference to minorities and women for jobs, promotions, contracts, and college admissions.
Now, with eight weeks left before voters go to the polls and sentiment against the measure growing more vocal, Proposition 209 has become a potential election-year minefield, particularly for Republicans.
The candidates are treading lightly on the issue (President Clinton is officially against it, Bob Dole for it), while state, local, and congressional officials are coming down on all sides with varying degrees of vehemence.
Sentiment on the issue could sway enough votes to influence the fight for control of the state Assembly, the US House, and California's bonanza of 54 electoral votes. And if the measure passes, it has the potential to trigger a remake of social policy from statehouses nationwide to Congress.
"Politicians from here to Washington are holding their breath to see what happens to another big California initiative," says Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "This has the potential, like the Prop. 13 tax revolt and Prop. 187 immigration measure, to set new national norms on a vital national issue."
The initiative is heavily favored by voters (2 to 1 in most polls), prompting Mr. Clinton to keep quiet about his opposition for fear of alienating white men, a key voting bloc. Mr. Dole's support for 209, once considered a boon in a state he badly needs to carry, has become problematic, partly because of vocal opposition, partly because of similar federal legislation that he introduced then dropped, and partly because of strong attacks once heaped on Dole's antiaffirmative-action stances by Jack Kemp, now his running mate.
But despite Dole's desire to avoid stumbling on the issue, Republicans, among others, have pushed it to center stage in recent weeks. In the lead up to this week's state Republican convention, Gov. Pete Wilson and House Speaker Newt Gingrich called 60 of the state's corporate leaders, asking for strong support for the measure in the face of growing anti-209 sentiment.
"From my vantage point [CCRI] is vital because we have to be competitive in California to keep control of the House," Gingrich told the corporate leaders. Analysts say a strong showing by Clinton in California could influence other races down the ticket, helping Democrats to pick up as many as four seats in the House and reverting the state Assembly to their control.
"If [CCRI] is still ahead by a dramatic margin," Gingrich continued, "Clinton [will have] to take time and money out of the Midwest to put in California....I think this is as important as any single resource in the campaign."
The Wilson/Gingrich appeal was seen as necessary to counter a growing backlash that could hurt Republicans if anti-209 voters vent their displeasure at the polls. Women's and minority groups have recently staged demonstrations. TV ads criticizing the measure are beginning to appear. Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, has come out against 209, calling it "divisive ...[taking] one of our greatest assets, our diversity, and [turning] it into a liability." The Los Angeles Times lauded his remarks, saying they brought "clarity to a controversial and deeply misleading ballot initiative."
Critics charge the initiative is misleading because the words "affirmative action" appear nowhere in its language. The key section reads: "Neither the State of California or any of its political subdivisions or agents shall use race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group."
"The key pollsters have found over and over that if you word it this way, people are in favor of it," says Pat Ewing, director of 'No on CCRI.' "But if you tell them that this will cut affirmative action for women and minorities the [for-against] numbers are dead even or even somewhat reversed."
Some analysts lament that emotion rather than rational discussion has dominated the campaign. "When rumblings about rolling back affirmative action started over a year ago, both sides said they welcomed the public dialogue," says Sherry Jeffe, an analyst at the Claremont Graduate School. "But it still hasn't happened yet."