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Governor Vetoes Gay Job Bias Bill : Discrimination: Wilson says legislation is bad for business. Its author calls action ‘cave-in to the right.’

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Siding with Republican conservatives after much agonizing, Gov. Pete Wilson on Sunday vetoed legislation that would have outlawed job discrimination against homosexuals.

The GOP governor, facing one of the hottest issues of his young Administration, asserted that he vetoed the bill because it could have harassed the business community, especially small firms.

Supporters of the measure, however, accused Wilson of bowing to political pressure.

Wilson, regarded as a moderate on social issues, said he had been “strongly tempted” to sign the measure because of the “abhorrent excesses” of a “tiny minority of mean-spirited, gay-bashing bigots” who had vehemently opposed the legislation.

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But the governor said that in the end he concluded there already were enough laws on the books to protect homosexuals against job discrimination.

“While there is no question that bigots exist and engage in abhorrent, utterly repugnant gay-bashing, the real test of whether (the bill) should become law is a test of the fairness of the remedy it proposes,” Wilson said in a lengthy, carefully worded veto message.

“The test of fairness to be applied to (the bill) is whether there is evidence of discrimination so pervasive as to warrant state government imposing so widely a burden so oppressive to (so many) innocent employers.”

The governor cited several laws that he said already protect homosexuals against job discrimination.

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The bill, AB 101 by Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Los Angeles), would have added sexual orientation to the list of categories protected by the state Fair Employment and Housing Act. The categories include race, religion, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical handicap, medical condition, marital status, sex and age.

Friedman called Wilson’s veto “a cowardly cave-in to the right-wing extremists and hate groups.”

“The governor had an extraordinary opportunity to do the right thing, but instead he has proven himself to be afraid of the fringe,” Friedman said. “It is intellectually dishonest to say AB 101 is bad for business when the major business organizations in the state--the Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers Assn.--were neutral and scores of businesses supported the bill.”

Indeed, the influential Chamber of Commerce had briefly opposed the measure while it was wending through the Legislature, but managed to secure amendments from Friedman that resolved its objections.

This clearly was an issue with far more than California’s business climate at stake. Politics was a paramount consideration for Wilson’s advisers, even if the governor denied it for himself.

The California Republican Central Committee two weeks ago adopted a resolution demanding that Wilson veto the bill, calling it “anti-family” and an “insult to legitimate minorities.”

Only Saturday, U.S. Sen. John Seymour, Wilson’s handpicked successor, announced his opposition to the measure for basically the same “bad for business” reasons the governor gave.

Seymour’s advisers also were worried that if the bill became law it could be bad for the senator’s election chances next year because opponents had threatened to wage an initiative campaign to repeal the measure. Such an initiative campaign at the June primary could have brought out an extraordinary number of right-wing voters and benefited Seymour’s more conservative opponent, Rep. William Dannemeyer of Orange County.

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Republican conservatives up and down the state, already angry at Wilson for raising taxes by $7 billion in order to help resolve a $14.3-billion budget deficit, had flooded the governor’s office with letters, telephone calls and telegrams urging him to veto the measure. At last count, the governor’s office had received an estimated 115,000 communications with the messages running 20 to 1 against the bill.

Republican State Chairman Jim Dignan, a Modesto food processor, said he was “very happy” that Wilson had vetoed the measure because “it is a bad bill, anti-business and anti-family. . . . There are enough laws on the books to protect against discrimination.”

Wilson did a lot of soul searching, torn between his support of gay rights and his desire to protect the business community, aides said. In his veto message, the governor noted that “California should and does presently treat sexual orientation as a private matter.”

Addressing a group of newspaper editorial writers last spring, Wilson said it was “very likely” that he would sign the bill. After that, however, he began taking a lot of political heat from the business community on his tax increases. And some of his closest advisers began urging him to veto the bill, as former Gov. George Deukmejian had a similar measure in 1984.

Only one Republican assemblyman and three GOP senators voted for the bill as it passed the Legislature, a clear indication of its opposition within the governor’s party. “If he signs it, he crosses the Rubicon with his own right-wing,” Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) said recently.

Last week, veteran political consultant Stu Spencer, a longtime close friend of Wilson, said he had advised the governor to veto the measure. “Not on the merits of the case,” Spencer said candidly, “but on the politics of the case. This is a very, very emotional issue that’s going to create a firestorm within the base of the Republican Party (if he signs it).”

In his veto message, Wilson insisted he gave the arguments for and against the bill “conscientious and thorough analysis.”

The governor said he “genuinely regretted” the “profound disappointment” his veto would cause “men and women of good faith whose goodwill I value.” And, in tough language, he added:

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“I regret even more any false comfort that may be derived from it by the tiny minority of mean-spirited, gay-bashing bigots. Their own need for tolerance ironically exceeds their capacity to extend it. The excesses of such bigots strongly tempt me to sign the bill. But their abhorrent conduct cannot be the basis for my decision, any more than the excesses of a minority of the bill’s supporters.”

Wilson said he could have “easily accepted” a measure merely declaring that “simple fairness demands the elimination of discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation.” But he said AB 101 was “not a simple resolution declaring an acknowledged right.”

“It is a statute imposing, in addition to present protections, a specific remedy which does, indeed, create burdens upon employers, both guilty and innocent,” Wilson said.

He said more than 10,000 complaints now are filed each year with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging job discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age or some other protected class. Up to one-quarter may wind up in court, he said, “adding substantially to the flood-tide of litigation which increasingly and importantly threatens California’s competitiveness as a place to do business.”

“The cost to employers of defending against these lawsuits is not readily quantifiable, but it is real and substantial, especially to small employers,” Wilson said. “Litigation in any form is expensive.”

One Wilson strategist, who asked not to be identified, said the governor disclosed to insiders last week that he had decided to veto the measure. It then was decided to publicly announce the veto late this week. But the announcement suddenly was pushed up to Sunday when the governor’s office heard that the California Poll, directed by Mervin Field, planned to release the results of a statewide survey on the bill for Tuesday’s newspapers.

Only four states--Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Hawaii--have laws similar to the one Wilson vetoed. Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, a fellow Republican, had written Wilson urging him to sign the legislation.

But Wilson, generally regarded as a presidential prospect for 1996, was under intense pressure from both the state GOP and the religious right to veto the bill.

“I would say that Gov. Wilson has seen the polls, and realizes that he is in a no-win position, and he’s in a better position politically if he vetoes the bill,” said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of Traditional Values, a group that had strongly opposed the legislation and threatened to mount the repeal campaign.

“We are thrilled that he vetoed it, but we don’t know if it’s for the right reason--that he honestly believes it is bad legislation,” Sheldon said.

From the other side, Wilson was called “a political coward” by John Duran, co-chair of the Lobby for Individual Freedom and Equality, which had helped sponsor the bill.

“He gained absolutely nothing by this veto other than the ire of the gay and lesbian community,” Duran said. “Wherever he goes, we will be there to remind him of his veto. He will not become president of the United States.

“Is that a threat? Absolutely, that’s a threat. Demonstrations? Wherever he goes.”

David Smith, director of public information for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, said that Wilson “has just sold out every single gay and lesbian Californian. It’s a mistake for which he will pay.”

Times staff writer Tracy Wood contributed to this article.


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