CA's Confusing Affirmative Action Initiatives

When a Berkeley-based group announced its intention last year to place a so-called California Civil Rights Initiative on the November 1996 ballot--one that would rescind all state affirmative action programs--political activists who didn't like the idea rallied to defeat the effort, or at least give voters an alternative. Now things have gotten confusing. One year later--with statewide polls indicating that voters are ready to turn against affirmative action--we're looking at having as many as four competing, pro-affirmative action counter initiatives vying for attention. When the CCRI was first launched, activists like Arnoldo Torres (of Torres & Torres policy consultants) began strategizing and researching and eventually authored the 1996 No Quota Civil Rights Initiative. James Reede of the NAACP likewise penned a California Civil Rights Initiative that the attorney general titled the Affirms Affirmative Action Initiative, and Ron Baker, Otis Jackson, Roland Holmes, and Ron Jackson developed the Californians for Economic & Educational Opportunity Act of 1996 (CEEO). Many of these activists say they assumed their efforts would eventually coalesce around one strong counter initiative. But just three weeks ago, another initiative popped up, authored by David Oppenheimer, an associate professor of law at Golden Gate University who is closely aligned with the Democrats and the Bay Area Coalition but operates under the name Californians for Affirmative Action. This initiative closely resembles the Torres & Torres initiative and plays to the perception that affirmative action means quota systems, displaced white male employees, and contracts awarded to undeserving minority- and women-owned firms. The Torres initiative maintains equal opportunity and fairness programs, but allows for the programs to phase themselves out as parity is reached and builds in safeguards against abuses. The other initiatives simply maintain affirmative action programs as they currently exist. So now there is a widening rift among the various authors. Some accuse the Democratic Party and Eva Paterson, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for the Bay Area Coalition for Civil Rights, of vacillating on which initiative to support--and in the end high-jacking the Torres & Torres idea and lifting its language for their own.Says new initiative author Oppenheimer: "People from various civil rights groups and labor groups started working together in June 1995 and met periodically over the summer and fall, drafting ideas and seeking comments and suggestions. There are similarities to the Torres & Torres initiative, and the preamble was written with theirs in mind, but there are substantive differences." Paterson says the coalition called Californians for Affirmative Action had been meeting since this time last year to draft language for its own counter initiative."My organization [Lawyers' Committee] endorsed it on Friday [Nov. 10]. We've been working with a group for a year formulating an initiative." Until Oppenheimer filed his initiative with the attorney general's office a few weeks ago, Baker and Torres expected Paterson and the Democrats to endorse one of the other initiatives. Both groups met several times with Paterson and Bill Press, executive director of the California Democratic Party, earlier in the year to make their pitches. While no commitments were made, communication continued. Now the Torres & Torres camp and the CEEO camp are angry that the big political boys have acted "disingenuously."Paterson takes offense at the idea. "We did some polling ... [Oppenheimer] initiative espouses the 'mend it don't end it' philosophy. We talked with everyone who has an initiative. [CEEO] people met with us and we thought their language was too complex. The Torres people met with us, and we were uncomfortable with them for a number of reasons. But I've never endorsed anything. We were always working on our own language. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that people in California don't like quotas. The Torres people gave us language and asked if we would put this in, and we said yes." Says Arnoldo Torres: "We gave them [Paterson] our initiative a long time ago and what they came back with was what we had drafted. They never once told us that that was what they were going to do. I was surprised that their initiative would look so much like ours." Torres and brother/partner Rodrigo Torres drafted their 1996 No Quota Civil Rights Initiative in February. They enlisted the grass-roots services of student interns to research the issue before writing an initiative they felt could defeat the CCRI. "We have to deal with the perceptions," says Arnoldo Torres of his initiative's approach. "White men feel the pendulum swinging against them. Facts don't bear out those fears, but we have to deal with that perception."Now that there is a similar initiative that will likely get backing from the Democratic Party, Torres & Torres is considering pulling their No Quota Initiative out of the running. Financial backers have promised $400,000 that Torres could match, but, says Torres, "if we do not get the money this week, we will withdraw." Meanwhile, Ron Baker of CEEO says they have already collected 217,000 of the 750,000 signatures needed to place it on the ballot. Since January 1995, that group has worked to get its initiative on the ballot to preserve affirmative action in education, employment and contracting. The group, comprised of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Peace & Freedom and Green party members, drafted a concept paper and submitted it to the Legislative Counsel office for authorship in March. The finished product was fine-tuned with input from group members as well as senators Diane Watson and Nicholas Petris. It was then submitted to the attorney general for title and summary in September. CEEO is now collecting more signatures. "Paterson's group supported our initiative, then Torres & Torres', then both, then suggested a merger, then a 'vote no' campaign. Now they've written their own with Oppenheimer," Baker says. "We're about a day behind the CCRI people. When we submitted ours to the attorney general on Aug. 2, we discovered that the CCRI had submitted the day before." Meanwhile, Reede says fund raising has been hindered because of the indecisiveness of the civil rights coalitions."The coalitions have not made a decision, so the organizations they encompass have not put up any money," Reede says. "The initial three [initiatives] weren't all-encompassing, so Eva Paterson, David Oppenheimer and Judith Kurtz took the best of all three. The one that is most comprehensive and has the greatest chance of success, I'll support. All of them are more complicated than need be. I've emphasized that to them, but whatever is necessary to defeat the CCRI, I will do. "They couldn't decide whether to file a counter initiative or put all their money into defeating the negative campaign," Reede says. "If affirmative action is suppose to be preferential treatment, why, in a state with 40 percent minorities, do only 3 percent of state contracting dollars go to women and minority firms? Media focuses on angry white males who need to be angry at those white males who send their jobs overseas. ... We're being scapegoated."

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