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California's New Ballot-Box War: Racial Set-Asides

A PIONEERING and controversial initiative that will provide the nation's first voter test of whether to roll back decades of affirmative-action laws appears headed for the California ballot in November.

After a year-long campaign filled with fits and starts, organizers are expected to hand in enough signatures today to bring the California Civil Rights Initiative before the public.

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Supporters say the measure would mark a major step toward producing a "color-blind" society - one in which hiring, promotion, and college admission are based on criteria other than skin color and gender. But critics argue it threatens 30 years of progress toward racial equality.

Either way, the initiative will be a bellwether poll on a subject that is bedeviling the courts, Congress, and state legislatures across the country. Already, a measure similar to CCRI is headed for the ballot in Florida, and conservatives in Washington have drafted legislation to strip racial preferences from federal law.

"The California vote on CCRI will spark the same heated debate coast-to-coast on racial quotas and preferences as Prop. 187 did about immigration the year before," says Alan Heslop, Calif. director of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College in California. "Prop. 187 forced a national reappraisal of vital national premises and so will this," says Mr. Heslop of the ballot initiative to end state services for illegal immigrants approved by California voters in 1994.

The new initiative, if passed, would amend the state Constitution to read: "Neither the state of California nor any of its political subdivisions shall use race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group in the operation of the state's system of public employment, public education, or public contracting."

The measure would not bar the state from granting preferential treatment to individuals on the basis of other criteria such as socioeconomic disadvantage.

"We are simply trying to reaffirm the principles of individual rights, equality of opportunity, and equal protection before the law," says Glenn Custred, an academic who co-wrote the initiative. "This leaves the door open for any kind of recruitment or advertising for minorities or disadvantaged.... It just removes policies that have been shown to go beyond their legal mandate."

Opponents hold that CCRI will reverse all progress made by women and minorities since the civil rights era. "Passing this would be tantamount to saying sexism and racism no longer exist in America," says Eva Paterson, executive director of the San Francisco affiliate of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. "That, unfortunately, is far from true."

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In national spotlight

In the months leading up to the vote, California is expected to become a site for demonstrations by national organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the National Organization of Women. NOW's annual march on Washington, for instance, will be held in Sacramento this year, largely in an attempt to focus attention on the anti-CCRI campaign in this state.

But most observers feel the anti-CCRI forces have the harder battle ahead of them. A recent poll shows the initiative has 2 to 1 backing among voters. A campaign that reverses a strongly held opinion is more costly and time-consuming than one where voters are largely undecided, they say.

"The 'no' forces may have an organized campaign, but if they don't sink lots of money into media, the 'yes' forces can just sit back and hold onto the initial predispositions of voters," says Mark DiCamillo, one of California's leading pollsters. "Raising that much money could be a problem for them."

Funding at times has been a problem for supporters of the initiative as well. The campaign early on ran into major snags when wealthy corporate donors declined to support CCRI out of concern that the public would boycott their products. Anticipating a similar lack of support in coming months, CCRI backers say they will rely more on free media than paid-for advertisements.

CCRI turnaround

The turnaround in CCRI fortunes came once California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) and University of California Regent Ward Connerly signed on to the effort. Governor Wilson made affirmative action one of his key presidential campaign issues and has continued to lobby behind the scenes with big donors and volunteer groups.

The campaign has also capitalized on the status of Mr. Connerly as a black American who can articulate what backers feel is the fundamental unfairness of affirmative action, despite the advances the laws have made for blacks.

Both sides say an unprecedented war of rhetoric lies ahead. Strategists know that if people are asked if they favor affirmative action, they are more likely to say "yes." If they are asked if they favor set-asides and quotas for women or minorities, they are more likely to say "no."

"How this issue is framed will be paramount," notes Larry Arnn, director of California's Claremont Institute. "The writers of CCRI have very cleverly not used the term 'affirmative action' in the language of their initiative."

The battle over CCRI will also depend on how and when key politicians and presidential candidates gravitate to the issue. The state GOP convention last year adopted a resolution embracing CCRI, while the Democratic convention adopted one opposing it.

"One of our key priorities will be going after key, big-name Democrats who we feel disagree with their party position," says Arnie Steinberg, leading strategist for CCRI. "We feel many are committed to its principles but have been pressured by the party to stay uninvolved."

Because the Golden State's 53 electoral votes are considered pivotal to presidential hopefuls, the issue will be thorny for President Clinton.

"Will Clinton risk the enthusiasm of black voters here who have been very potent and deeply loyal constituency or risk the support of conservative Democrats?" asks Heslop. "The issue skewers him on the horns of a dilemma."

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