New fight begins over set-asides

A proposed Florida initiative to end affirmative action may send

Florida is emerging as the next major battleground over the future of affirmative action in America, with a ballot initiative underway that could interject an explosive mix of racially charged politics into the 2000 presidential election.

The referendum initiative is aimed at amending Florida's constitution to ban racial or gender preferences throughout the state in public employment, education, and contracting. Patterned on similar measures passed in California and Washington State, it's the kind of measure the Republican Party generally supports.

But Florida Republicans, particularly Gov. Jeb Bush, are worried that such a racially divisive issue on the Florida ballot in November 2000 would undercut efforts by the state GOP to woo minority voters. And in the worst case, it could spark a huge pro-Democratic backlash among women and minority voters that would undermine the campaign of the Republican presidential nominee, who could be Governor Bush's brother, George W. Bush.

"If your brother is running for president, you want to make sure that your state has as little confusion and controversy on the ballot as possible," says Leon Russell, president of the Florida chapter of the NAACP. "It does no good to have a divisive election in Florida. If Bush takes a clear position on affirmative action, it is going to turn somebody off, and they do not want to do that."

The ballot initiative is largely the work of Ward Connerly, a black businessman and University of California regent, who was the key mover behind the adoption of California's Proposition 209 in 1996 and Washington's Initiative 200 in 1998.

Mr. Connerly formed a group called the American Civil Rights Institute in Sacramento, Calif., which has identified five states - Michigan, Colorado, Nebraska, Oregon, and Florida - as being ripe for similar initiatives.

The group chose Florida first because polls showed significant grass-roots support for a ban on racial and gender preferences. It didn't hurt that the governor's brother was the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.

If the issue qualifies for a spot on the ballot, the affirmative-action debate is sure to play a role in the presidential election. And it will give Connerly and his pet issue national exposure and a possible high-profile victory in the fourth most populous state.

On a more basic level, if the initiative is approved, it would spell the end for affirmative-action programs that helped boost minority enrollment in once-segregated Florida colleges. It would end programs that set aside public contracts exclusively for minority or women-owned companies. And it would prohibit the state government from offering employment to workers on the basis of their race or sex.

At the heart of the debate over affirmative action is a fundamental disagreement about whether America is ready to try functioning as a colorblind society.

Opponents say programs that require quotas and set-asides are themselves a form of discrimination. They say outreach efforts should be based on more universal standards such as economic or family status.

Advocates say racial and gender discrimination remain major problems in America, and that existing programs are helping to draw long-excluded masses into the mainstream.

To qualify for a spot on the 2000 ballot, initiative supporters must collect at least 435,329 verified signatures. More than 50,000 signatures were collected in the past three months.

The initiative reads in part: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting."

REFERENDUM opponents say the wording is confusing because it does not clearly state that it wants to end affirmative-action programs. They say some signers may have thought they were supporting a basic civil rights measure that would help minorities, rather than hurt them.

Supporters counter that the measure is a basic civil rights measure that seeks to restore the nation's laws to a position that is fair for everyone. It is an idea that is catching on across the US, says Kevin Nguyen of the American Civil Rights Institute.

"You are seeing a whole new historical shift away from race and gender entitlements and toward more broad-based and aggressive policies addressing the root causes of discrimination and disadvantage," Mr. Nguyen says. "We all know that disadvantage comes in all colors."

How the initiative would do on the ballot is unclear, but some independent analysts say it would most likely pass.

Nonetheless, Florida Republicans see nothing but trouble if they enter the debate. One concern is that Republicans who support the initiative will be portrayed by their opponents as uncaring, mean, and racist.

Nguyen acknowledges that such initiatives can be a minefield for public officials. But, he says, if the issue is treated with sensitivity, it can pay big dividends to a candidate.

"In California and Washington," Nguyen says, "the initiatives did better than most people thought and had broad cross appeal to a large number of Republicans and conservatives, and gains among moderates, independents, women, and even ethnic minorities."

Mr. Russell of the NAACP sees the initiative as an effective rallying point for affirmative-action supporters. "Republicans in the state of Florida are going to feel the effects of this ill-conceived policy at the polls," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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