In a key test of voter sentiment on affirmative action, Houstonians head to the polls on Tuesday to consider abolishing a city program that helps women- and minority-owned businesses get municipal contracts.
The vote is being watched closely nationwide as the first major anti-affirmative-action effort since California's landmark Proposition 209 outlawed racial and gender preferences last year. Currently 26 states and countless municipalities are mulling over variations of the plan. The outcome not only will shape the emerging national debate over preferences but also, residents here point out, how the world views Houston.
"This is a defining moment in the city of Houston," says Jew Don Boney, a black City Council member and firebrand minister. "Literally, the soul of our city is at stake. We should not equivocate to partisan outside forces that would divide us and destroy all that this city has become."
With its relatively tranquil race relations and rapidly improving economy, Houston may seem an unlikely staging ground for the next voter-driven effort to abolish affirmative action.
Not so for Edward Blum, an investment broker and former congressional candidate, who conceived and bankrolled the Houston Civil Rights Initiative with the help of key architects of the California initiative.
Dubbed "Son of 209," Mr. Blum's initiative would amend the city charter to outlaw discrimination in city contracting and employment.
"Any program establishing quotas and preferences for one group necessarily discriminates against another group that is not granted a preference," Blum says. "Racial discrimination and racial preferences are merely different sides of the same coin."
Businessman vs. mayor
In his campaign, Blum has been careful to assemble a coalition of supporters from various backgrounds and ethnicities. However, the articulate and erudite Blum is unquestionably the singular force driving the issue.
That position sets him squarely in opposition to Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, a six-year incumbent with an approval rating that hasn't dipped below 80 percent - and the man responsible for drafting the city's current affirmative-action program.
For Mr. Lanier the goals-oriented program is emblematic of the value placed on diversity that's the backbone of Houston race relations.
"You would be telling Anglo men - contractors who look like me - that they don't even have to try to find a minority- or women-owned firm that could do some of that business. They wouldn't even have to look. That is a tragedy."
The program crafted by Lanier and passed in 1995 requires a good-faith effort by prime contractors to include minority- and woman-owned firms.
$1 billion a year at stake
Much is at stake beyond issues of image and diversity, however. The city awards about $1 billion in contracts a year. Among Blum's supporters are many prominent, Anglo, male-owned companies, who claim the city's zealous enforcement of its "voluntary goals" program at times resembles enforced quotas.
But prior to the first affirmative-action contracting program in 1984, about 95 percent of city contracts went to firms owned by Anglo men. Under the current program, these firms receive 80 percent of city contracting.
Demographically, the city of Houston is 40.6 percent Anglo, 27.4 percent black, 27.6 percent Hispanic, and 3.9 percent Asian.
When Lanier muscled his affirmative-action program through City Council two years ago, he fought off efforts from black leaders to cut white women from the program and deferred efforts to include the disabled. At the time, the city's program bucked a prevailing national trend toward abolishing affirmative action.
In the two years since, that force has grown even stronger, says Roger Pilon, of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. "And at the end of the day, most people understand that it is simply wrong for government, which belongs to all the people, to favor some of the people at the expense of other people," Mr. Pilon says.
Whatever the result in Houston - polls show the outcome hard to predict - the affirmative-action issue is expected to march on. Both the US Supreme Court and federal lawmakers are soon expected to wade into the affirmative action debate.
"These programs are being abolished by the courts. They will eventually be outlawed by Congress," Blum says. "The passage of [the Houston plan] will restore our city to the long-abandoned ideals of a color-blind society."
Lanier, a wealthy Anglo developer, admits he never gave the issue much thought before coming to office. He says ensuring women and minorities an economic stake in Houston's prosperity is key to the city's future and place in the world.
"We don't need lessons in race relations from California," Lanier says. "This relates to something I believe with every fiber of my body - that this city needs this program. It is vital to our well-being, and to throw it away now would be a terrible thing."