When Gov. Pete Wilson emphatically endorsed the California Civil Rights Initiative at a Republican state convention Saturday, he ironically did what the measure's backers had been trying to avoid: He formally politicized the issue of affirmative action.
Politicization was only a matter of time anyway, most people figured.
The GOP was lining up solidly behind the initiative, projecting it as the party's next Proposition 187. The Democratic Party was being pressured in the opposite direction, feeling heat to preserve government preferences in hiring, contracting and university admissions for two core constituencies--minorities and women.
Still, Democrats in the Legislature and in the state party headquarters had not yet decided how much blood to sacrifice, if any. They have been agonizing over how to respond to the escalating attack on affirmative action's race and gender preferences. And the initiative's sponsors--two apolitical professors--quietly have been trying to persuade the Democratic-controlled Legislature to place their state constitutional amendment on the March, 1996, primary ballot.
This would save the sponsors $1 million in signature-collection costs and drape the measure in bipartisanship. The quid pro quo for Democrats is that the issue would be decided at the benign primary rather than the November general election, when the initiative unquestionably would help GOP candidates by inspiring a high voter turnout of white men.
So it was by design that there were no balloons or banners, no glitzy hats or hyperventilated rallies, for the CCRI at the GOP convention. The initiative's strategist, consultant Arnold Steinberg of Sherman Oaks, was playing it low-key. "I'm trying to do coalition-building with Democrats," he explained.
Then came Wilson.
Wilson, of course, had his own agenda. He couldn't care less about initiative strategy. In fact, he never even talked to the measure's sponsors before his endorsement.
His immediate goal was to move reporters beyond the mere Is he or isn't he running for President? stories; more specifically, away from the embarrassing Should he? pieces. Many delegates felt strongly he should do the job he was reelected to and not turn over his office to a Democratic lieutenant governor.
Long-term, Wilson obviously was strengthening his position for a potential presidential race by staking claim to a hot national issue. And he was defining the initiative in his own words, as a measure "to restore fairness and equality." He steered clear of the delicate label affirmative action.
Wilson also wanted to toss GOP delegates some raw meat. In past years, he himself was the prey for these predator activists. This time, the governor repeatedly was interrupted with applause, twice with standing ovations.
"Let us begin to undo the corrosive unfairness of reverse discrimination," he declared, adding, in a manner reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's old "light a prairie fire" exhortations: "Just as with Proposition 187, let the people of California lead the way in ending unfairness and the increasing festering resentment which it has bred."
To lure TV crews and assure a full weekend of endorsement stories, aides leaked the news a day ahead to The Times and the Sacramento Bee.
"The TV guys wake up in the morning, see the paper and say, 'Wow, Wilson's doing this. We'd better get up there,"' said a Wilson strategist. "This is not rocket science. Any intern could basically figure it out."
It was not the politically sensitive promotion of their initiative that backers had planned. But they didn't complain. In the end, they counted the governor's high-profile pronouncement as a net plus.
Democratic leaders probably will get riled and become more suspicious, Steinberg thought. But they also may be jolted, become more realistic and move toward accommodation. Also, after Wilson finishes vacuuming the wallets of contributors to pay off a $1 million-plus 1994 campaign debt, his endorsement probably will loosen up GOP money for the initiative.
Democrats basically are frustrated and confused, undecided whether to switch or fight. There is talk of sponsoring an alternative ballot measure that would reaffirm the party's commitment to equal opportunity and civil rights. But that sounds an awful lot like the CCRI.
The key Democratic player in the Legislature now is Senate leader Bill Lockyer. It is possible he will consent to placing the CCRI on the March ballot. In the other house, however, Speaker Willie Brown has moved from a posture of pragmatism to calling the initiative racist.
Wilson politicized the issue. But Democrats still have the power to de-politicize it.