Debate of Merit : Two Assembly Members Take Sides on Affirmative Action

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a debate that involved as much personal histories as civic lessons, state Assembly Speaker Emeritus Willie Brown and Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico) argued the merits of the proposed California Civil Rights Initiative on Wednesday evening in Encino.

Brown, an ardent opponent of the initiative that would wipe out many affirmative action programs, said that the measure is "an effort to return us to the time when Jim Crow was the business of the day--when the good old boys club determined who got the job."

Richter countered that affirmative programs do far more harm than good.

"We must do away with preferential policies that are destroying us and making this country more divisive and destructive," he said, adding that affirmative action often promotes people who are less qualified than competitors for the same post.

"There are people all over this state who are being hired and promoted because of race, gender and national origin, and others are being denied those opportunities simply because they belong to the wrong race or ethic group."

Except for a few exchanges dripping in sarcasm, the debate between the Assembly colleagues before an audience of about 70 at Valley Beth Shalom temple was polite. The event was co-sponsored by The Times Valley Edition and the Valley Anti-Defamation League.

The audience, primarily made up of senior citizens, seemed almost evenly split in its support of the debaters.

The initiative, which many political observers believe will qualify for the 1996 ballot, would prohibit race, gender and ethnicity from playing any role in hiring, college admissions and government contracts.

The initiative is generally viewed as a backlash against affirmative action policies.

During the debate, Brown and Richter both talked about how they had battled discrimination in their professional and private lives.

Because of their tight schedules--both were returning to Sacramento on the same flight--there was time for only four questions from the audience.

One supporter of the initiative asked if affirmative action should be applied to professional sports, divvying up teams according to ethnic groups.

Brown shot down the notion as "ludicrous."

But Richter agreed with the questioner, saying that preferential policies protected "members of elites and not the poor."

Brown and Richter were asked what the result will be if the initiative passes.

"It will shut the door on opportunities for lots of people who otherwise would not be able to gain a toehold in the work force," Brown said.

"If we take a step backward, I shudder to see the new group of scapegoats. If it becomes affirmative action next, they will run out of victims, and I shudder to think that next they will create them."

Richter used the opportunity to give one last pitch for the initiative.

"We must once and for all ban quotas and preferential policies, eradicate race and gender preferences. We must bring all people together.

"That's the goal of this initiative, that's what we seek to do and that's what we'll succeed in doing."

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