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Backers of Affirmative Action Face Tough Task : Politics: As plans advance for ballot initiative to scuttle programs, opponents struggle to devise a strategy. Some advocate a competing measure.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

As organizers of the move to gut affirmative action in California take the initial step to place their proposal on the ballot, backers of race- and gender-based programs are struggling to assemble a unified strategy to defend their stance.

The California Civil Rights Initiative, as the organizers have dubbed it, will be submitted to the attorney general’s office for legal review today, the first formal gesture toward making the November, 1996, ballot. By Labor Day, Los Angeles-based organizers expect to begin gathering the more than 693,000 valid voter signatures needed to qualify the measure.

Assuming it makes the ballot--and even most of its opponents think it will--proponents of affirmative action face the daunting task of reversing overwhelming public opinion in favor of the initiative. How best to do that is the focus of ongoing strategy sessions by a host of minority and women’s rights groups, liberal organizations and the state Democratic Party.

Right now, there is a loose consensus to fight the proposed initiative outright by emphasizing the broad impact it would have on women in particular--and citing a moral obligation to help African Americans and others affected by lingering discrimination. But there are also moves afoot to place a competing initiative on the ballot to give voters a measure to vote for rather than against.

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“It’s not an easy campaign battle, but it’s winnable and we have to do it,” said Peg Yorkin, chairwoman of the Feminist Majority, an organization dedicated to expanding political power for women.

Yorkin, who favors an all-out assault on the initiative rather than campaigning for countermeasures, compared the upcoming struggle to the epic battles to secure and retain abortion rights.

“It’s going to be brutal. I don’t for one minute think that it isn’t,” she said. “It’s expensive and brutal but almost as important a fight as abortion was.”

But as they seek to develop a unified strategy to defeat the anti-affirmative action initiative, proponents of the programs are confronting numerous complicating hurdles.

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Even among Democrats, whose party is most closely tied to affirmative action, there are differing camps: those who wholeheartedly defend affirmative action, those who oppose it and those who favor fixing its excesses but keeping it largely intact. The schism suggests that proponents will have to argue their case even to their own political base.

As Yorkin noted, the campaign will also be expensive, from $12 million to $15 million by her count, and money for controversial and--at least at present--unpopular causes can be hard to come by.

There is no preeminent state figure around which to organize, as there might have been had the state elected a Democratic governor in 1994. Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who earlier this year was the most prominent defender of affirmative action, has stepped back from that role on the grounds that he could hurt the cause more than help it.

The state Democratic Party, although organizationally suited to taking a leadership role in the battle, has been criticized by some activists as lukewarm in its desire to defend affirmative action and concerned about the issue’s impact on its candidates.

Its chairman, Bill Press, favors mounting a counter-initiative--a stance that at this point is opposed by prominent leaders of minority and women’s groups.

Many Democrats worry that, win or lose, the fight over affirmative action could tear the already shredded party asunder in a presidential election year.

“We’re screwed either way,” said one high-ranking Democrat. “I think the party is just plain lost.”

Taken together, the problems do not mean that approval of the anti-affirmative action measure is guaranteed. Its supporters are facing their own growing pains.

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The measure’s organizers had long asserted that they would need about $1 million to mount a successful signature-gathering campaign, but they have raised less than a third of that.

Recently, cracks have surfaced in the conservative coalition backing the dismantling of affirmative action. Jack Kemp, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development who supports affirmative action, has warned that a campaign focused on “dividing the races” will backfire on Republicans. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has refused to move anti-affirmative action legislation until the GOP comes up with a program to replace it.

Nevertheless, the anti-affirmative action forces are seen as having the advantage because of broad support of the initiative by voters, particularly among whites, who comprise about 80% of dependable California voters.

And those voters will hear a steady drumbeat of anti-affirmative action rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates such as California Gov. Pete Wilson, who has endorsed the initiative and is counting on the issue to propel his late-starting campaign.

But affirmative action backers have been heartened by the release of several recent polls showing that support for the initiative may be broad but not deep.

One such survey was conducted by the Louis Harris organization for the Feminist Majority Foundation. It found that at first blush, California voters approve of the initiative, which says that the state “shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin,” by a whopping margin of 78% to 16%.

But when those who favored it were told that it would “outlaw all affirmative action programs for women and minorities,” support dropped to 31%. The Harris study showed voters believed they had been tricked by the proposed initiative, which does not contain the words “affirmative action.”

Constance Rice, western regional counsel for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the poll results do not guarantee victory.

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“But that tells you there is going to be a campaign,” she said.

Rice, who is expected to be one of the principals in whatever pro-affirmative action coalition eventually emerges, said that many organizations around the state--and around the nation--are keen for battle.

“People are serious about defeating this thing because it is the first domino--part of a much much bigger assault on women’s rights and minority rights and an assault on the move to inclusion,” she said. “It’s open raw racism and open raw sexism.”

The struggle, affirmative action proponents say, will be to encourage voters to sit still for a reasoned and measured debate over the issue, something that is difficult in the sound-bite and bumper-sticker world of American politics.

“One of the problems on this issue is that it’s a very easy issue to be politically irresponsible on and demagogue on,” said the state Democratic Party’s political director, Steve Smith.

To encourage voters to see the broad reach of affirmative action--and to limit the racial polarization of the issue--backers will emphasize the impact on women. Most studies on job growth have found that women have advanced faster than minorities in the three decades of the nation’s experiment with affirmative action.

Sponsors of the proposed initiative regularly describe affirmative action as an inappropriate benefit for minorities, rarely citing its impact on women.

“Essentially, it has to be a woman’s fight and it has to have a woman’s face on it,” said Yorkin.

The Harris poll done for her organization isolated what it called a “clear-cut coalition” of voters needed to repel the assault on affirmative action: Women, particularly white and working women, those under 49, moderates and liberals, the college-educated, blacks, Latinos and supporters of President Clinton and Texas billionaire Ross Perot. Those groups would largely be culled from Los Angeles County, the Bay Area and Northern California, the poll said.

But others--including supporters of affirmative action--insist that the women-oriented strategy will not work. They point to other public opinion surveys showing that, while white women do not oppose affirmative action as vociferously as white men, they are hardly embracing it.

“The standard liberal response to this . . . is women will rise to defeat this, that it’s not about race, it’s about gender,” said one politically active Democrat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s less than a joke. Working women and working-class women don’t see it that way. . . . I see this as a race issue.”

The disagreements over basic strategy underscore why it will be difficult for the pro-affirmative action forces to coalesce behind any of the counter-initiatives now making the rounds: It is far easier to get diverse groups to oppose the initiative than to agree to a single alternative.

Backing an alternative while at the same time opposing the initiative could also ratchet up the amount of campaign money needed for success, some say.

Democratic state party chief Press, however, argues that simply campaigning against the initiative ignores the lesson of the party’s unsuccessful campaign against Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative stripping illegal immigrants of state services.

“People would rather have something to vote for rather than be against,” said Press, whose party did not float a measure to compete against Proposition 187.

Press and some of the party’s union allies are considering a competing initiative that would follow the lines of Clinton’s position on affirmative action: to curb its wrongs, but leave most of it alone.

The initiative campaign’s director, Joe Gelman, said that regardless of what the opposition decides, his team will begin gathering signatures in about a month. Under state law, they have 150 days to collect enough to make the ballot. Besides the traditional method of canvassing voters, anti-affirmative action forces are mailing out signature cards to selected people and will use the Internet to attract more supporters.

“We’re definitely where we have to be,” he said.


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