Washington Stages Next Affirmative-Action Fight
State lawmakers may decide initiative to end race-based programs, bypassing voters.
SEATTLE — In a victory for opponents of affirmative action, Washington State took a major step toward rolling back preferences for minorities and women last week when an initiative modeled after California's Proposition 209 gathered enough signatures to go directly before the state legislature.
If the initiative becomes law, Washington would be the first state to follow California's ban on the use of race and gender preferences in government contracting, employment, and college admissions.
But controversy has surrounded Washington's signature-gathering campaign, in which dozens of people - including several black petitioners - say they were misled about the initiative's real purpose. This has fueled charges that out-of-state money and political interests are corrupting the initiative process.
As the business of professional signature-gatherers grows, some analysts say it compromises the integrity of what has been, until recently, a volunteer-led, grass-roots process.
"Outside paid signature-gathering subverts the original intent of the initiative, because the drive behind it is not really popular, it's money," says Maurice Foisy, a political scientist at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.
Backers of the initiative include prominent conservatives such as publisher and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, philosopher William Bennett, and Ward Connerly, whose American Civil Rights Coalition in Sacramento, Calif., contributed $50,000 of the nearly $200,000 in contributions to the campaign as of a month ago, state disclosure documents show.
ALTHOUGH several states are working on legislation to scale back affirmative action, so far these measures have made little headway. In Florida, petitioners last month gave up on a drive to put a constitutional amendment banning affirmative action on the ballot next year.
Anti-affirmative-action campaigns appear to be making more progress through ballot initiatives in states such as Colorado and Washington.
Organizers of the Washington campaign on Friday submitted to the legislature more than 280,000 signatures in support of the initiative - well over the 179,000 required by state law. The Republican-controlled state legislature can now decide whether to place the initiative on the November ballot or pass it directly into law. The state Republican leadership has endorsed the measure. Gov. Gary Locke (D), who has said he opposes the initiative, has no veto power.
"The clear majority of the people have been waiting for some time for the legislature to act," says John Carlson, the Seattle talk-radio host who led the campaign, known as Washington Initiative 200. Mr. Carlson and some leading Republican politicians favor direct adoption of the measure by lawmakers in Olympia.
Critics, however, charge that the campaign used tactics that misled the public.
"This is an example of out-of-state money basically buying an election where there is very questionable grass-roots support," says Kathleen Russell, manager of No! Initiative 200, a volunteer effort to oppose the measure. "It's a dangerous initiative that gets where it gets by deception."
A major source of concern, opponents say, is the language of the initiative, formally called the Washington State Civil Rights Act. The proposed ballot title also gives no indication that the measure would dismantle government affirmative-action programs.
Richard Blount, a retired Seattle businessman, was one of at least 24 people to request formally that their names be removed from the petition because they misunderstood its purpose. "The thing that misled me was the title - in big bold print," says Mr. Blount, who was approached by petitioners outside a Safeway supermarket on Seattle's Capitol Hill. "I thought this was an issue that would open up employment." Blount, who is college-educated, believes it is likely that others were confused by the wording.
A similar misconception may have existed among voters in California. According to a Los Angeles Times exit poll, 28 percent of state voters who backed Proposition 209 also said they support affirmative action.
In another incident, five black petitioners bused to Washington from California and the Midwest to gather signatures left the campaign last month after learning it was not the kind of civil-rights initiative they understood it to be.
Pro Mayes, an unemployed father of two from Gerber, Calif., hoped to earn some Christmas money when he was offered transportation, a free room, and as much as $600 a month to gather signatures in Washington. But he and four others said they did not know the true purpose of the campaign.
"No one said anything about affirmative action," Mr. Mayes says. "We had a big sign that said, 'Civil Rights, Equal Justice for All.' That sounded cool to me."
But Mayes started asking questions and eventually left the job after facing hostile responses from the public, including some local blacks.
Leaders of the initiative deny that the five were misinformed or that they were deliberately recruited in an effort to elicit more signatures from nonwhites.
They also assert that the measure's language, which was taken in part from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, is not misleading.