Affirmative Action Foes Push Measure for Next Ballot : Legislature: Initiative advocates are lobbying Sacramento to put issue before voters in March. Opponents give it little chance for passage in state Assembly.


Advocates of a proposed ballot initiative to scrap most affirmative action policies in California have started a campaign to get the Legislature to place it on the ballot next March. But Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) says the effort will fail.

Brown, the Legislature's leading supporter of affirmative action for women and minorities, says he doubts the plan would attract even a simple majority in the Assembly, not to mention the two-thirds majority required to place it before voters.

Despite such barriers, one proponent, political strategist Arnold Steinberg of Los Angeles, was by no means pessimistic.

"I'd say the chances are 50-50 for putting it on the ballot next March," said Steinberg, a veteran campaign consultant who is managing the fledgling California Civil Rights Initiative. 'We feel this is a necessary prelude toward our signature gathering efforts."

Steinberg said he has discussed the issue with about three dozen legislators of both parties, including Brown and Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward).

If the Legislature turns down the initiative, or produces a weakened version, Steinberg said proponents are convinced they can raise enough signatures to place the proposal before the voters next year at the November presidential election, and that it will pass. Recent polls show strong support for the initiative. Gov. Pete Wilson has endorsed it.

Under pressure of a ballot initiative last year, the Legislature reversed itself and enacted a "three strikes" law for repeat criminals. In November, the voters overwhelmingly passed the "three strikes" initiative, Proposition 184.

The latest proposed amendment to the state Constitution would outlaw the use of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a basis for "either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group in the operation" in state and local governments.

It would gut state and local affirmative action in public hiring, admission to colleges and the awarding of government contracts.

If the Legislature approved the proposed amendment for the March ballot, it would be the "best of all possible worlds for us," said Thomas Wood, co-author of the eight-sentence initiative.

"It would save us a lot of money, (reflect) a bipartisan coalition that we've always wanted and face fewer crosscurrents in a primary election than the general election" for President next year, Wood said.

Steinberg estimates it would cost between $500,000 and $1 million to collect the 693,000 valid signatures needed to qualify it for the ballot as an initiative.

Virtual carbon-copies of the initiative have been introduced by Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico) and state Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco).

Steinberg, a strategist for Richard Reardon's successful mayoral campaign, estimated that the Kopp measure stands a "decent chance" of winning two-thirds approval of the Senate, but noted its future is far less certain in the Assembly.

"In the Assembly, it hinges on Speaker Brown," Steinberg said. "The ball is in his court. The question is, will he allow them to vote for it or not? He has the choice of putting it on the ballot in March or whining about it being on the November ballot."

Brown has denounced repeal of affirmative-action policies as racist, but subsequently seemed to soften his stance, saying they should be "reviewed" to determine their effectiveness.

Many Democrats believe that such a potentially divisive issue on the presidential ballot in November, 1996, could hurt the election prospects of President Clinton and other Democrats.

"I think there is a tremendous advantage for Republicans for it to be on the November ballot," said Assembly GOP leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga.

Brulte said he believed that pragmatic Democrats may decide to endorse the plan for the March ballot and put the issue behind them, rather than wrestle with the matter as a citizens' initiative in November.

The proposal requires 54 votes in the 80-member Assembly. The chamber is split among 39 Democrats, 39 Republicans, one independent and one vacancy. White males of both parties dominate the house.

In the closely divided 40-seat Senate, where approval would require 27 votes, Lockyer has promised proponents of the plan a "fair and thorough review," but declined to say how he intends to vote or to forecast the outcome.

Senate Democrats recently invited Wood and Steinberg to meet with them privately to discuss the issue. Lockyer said he told Wood that "we both have our jobs to do," but that "I am not interested in demonizing you or your initiative."

Circulation of the proposed initiative for voter signatures has not begun. However, a statewide public opinion sampling by the Field Poll indicates that voters are already aware of it and a clear majority would vote for it.

Wood has said he would oppose any legislative changes that would dilute the initiative, a position that has drawn fire from critics as inflexible.

Steinberg said, however, that sponsors would accept amendments to eliminate a provision making the payment of attorney fees a remedy for violating the act.

Critics have said this feature would guarantee long and costly lawsuits.

Steinberg said backers of the plan do not want to "participate in a (protracted) dialogue" with the Legislature that would eventually sink it.

"If we did triple somersaults, we couldn't get some people anyway," he said.

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