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GOP Activist in the Minority in Affirmative Action Battle : Politics: Black Mission Viejo Republican bucks party leaders with initiative to uphold current hiring practices. Abolishing them, he says, would bring back ‘the good ol’ boy system.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County traditionally has been a breeding ground for conservative ideas, such as Proposition 187. So it is perhaps an odd place to find Roland Holmes, a guiding force behind an initiative for next November’s state ballot that would uphold affirmative action.

Holmes, an African American and a Republican, said that without affirmative action to help minorities, “we go back to the good ol’ boy system of jobs and contracts based on who you know. This is a human and not a partisan issue.”

If it sounds like the Mission Viejo resident is on a Quixotic quest--especially when it comes to searching for support in Orange County--that’s because he is.

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“I do have a bit of the dreamer in me,” he admitted.

The uphill fight pits him against the state’s powerful Republican machinery, which backs the rival “California civil rights initiative” that seeks to abolish affirmative action in government hiring and contracting.

Holmes, 60, is director of an organ donor program at Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital in Watts. The measure he co-authored, the California Economic and Educational Opportunity Initiative, needs to gather nearly 700,000 voter signatures by Feb. 24 to qualify the measure for the ballot.

So far, Holmes and his allies, who are mostly middle-class minorities and Democrats, have 225,000 signatures for this mostly volunteer statewide effort but have raised only $7,000 for the campaign, he said.

On the other side of the issue is Ward Connerly, a friend of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and an appointee to the University of California Board of Regents, who was recently named chairman of the drive to eliminate existing affirmative action policies.

Connerly and other supporters, including some high-ranking elected officials as well as mixed ethnic groups, argue that preferences are divisive, unfair and create tensions among minorities.

A Sacramento businessman, Connerly, who is also African American, helped vote down affirmative action policies at the University of California.

It is a volatile issue, reflected this year when four UCI students who demanded that regents reconsider their action staged a dramatic 15-day hunger strike on campus.

Initially, the drive against affirmative action had raised nearly $500,000 in donations but ran short of cash. Connerly said the cost of running a campaign was mismanaged in the early stages, but that finances are “now in good shape” and 350,000 signatures have been gathered of the nearly 700,000 needed.

In contrast, Holmes has not gotten any support from the Orange County Republican Party, which was to be expected, or elected state officials. In fact, no one had even heard of Holmes when inquiries were made to the party’s office in Costa Mesa and elected officials in South County.

Holmes readily acknowledged that he has been on the periphery of Orange County Republican politics.

David Ellis, a Newport Beach political consultant on many Republican races, said that despite Holmes’ enthusiasm, he has his work cut out for him.

“He’s done the easy part, drafting it and filing it,” Ellis said. “Now he has a big mountain to climb. Without a million bucks and 100,000 volunteers, he’s headed for a civics lesson.’

Holmes has spent time organizing the California Black Conservative Network, a 2-year-old statewide Republican group of about 150 middle-class African American Republicans, which he chairs.

His only attempt at politics was an unsuccessful try for Congress in San Diego in 1962. Ironically, he changed his political party from Republican to Democrat to run and was disqualified because he had to have been a Democrat at least 12 months.

Holmes does not find himself in conflict with his Republican brethren. Being both a Republican and pro-affirmative action was as natural for Holmes as citing Abraham Lincoln’s Republican creed that speaks of “equal rights, equal justice and equal opportunity for all,” he said.

“Not only is it Lincoln’s party, but Frederick Douglass’ too,” Holmes said.

For Holmes, the cause of defending affirmative action is a responsibility that all Americans should embrace, not just blacks or other minorities.

“When you apply for a job and they put your application in the trash can even before you leave the office, that’s discrimination,” he said. “When you can’t buy a home because of the color of your skin, that’s discrimination.”

In Orange County, signature gathering has been slow and accounts for only 2% of the 225,000 names collected so far, he said.

He recently was helped with signature gathering by the Orange County Coalition for Educational and Economic Opportunity, with the help of the county’s Democratic Party.

“We endorsed his initiative,” said Jeanne Costales, the county’s Democratic vice chairwoman, “because it addresses all the things in hiring, promoting, bidding and education. These are not quotas and it doesn’t mean you have to hire someone less qualified or anything like that.”

Already, top GOP officials have acknowledged that the anti-affirmative action measure is a key part of the 1996 presidential election as one way of bringing Republican voters to the polls, just as the anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187 did in 1994.

Yet in his heart, Holmes still feels himself to be a “true” Republican.

“I don’t need to be reminded of some of the dumb things done by fellow Republicans,” he said. “But the basic philosophy is still, help blacks.”

When collecting signatures, Holmes carries a copy of the Republican Creed by Lincoln, which states the martyred president’s belief in equal rights, equal justice and opportunity, which was faxed to Holmes by the Republican National Committee.

“I take it with me to prove to people on the street that I didn’t make this up,” Holmes said with a smile. “You know most people don’t sign [the petition], but I have taught them a few things about their own party here in Orange County.”

However, Connerly isn’t buying Holmes’ initiative.

He said that state affirmative action protections are unnecessary because they’re embedded in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that guarantees equal protection under the law.

But Holmes said the amendment isn’t enforced and to be protected a person must have enough money to hire an attorney.

“That isn’t true,” Connerly said. “As a regent, I can tell you that every week, there are lawsuits being brought by people against the university. Fact of the matter is, in our society you can get an attorney to handle the case on a contingency basis.

“I have to say that, with [the anti-affirmative action] initiative, nobody is going after anybody,” Connerly added. “We’re also saying let’s search our souls, and let’s get rid of [affirmative action]. A lot of people on the other side are creating these monsters and coming after us with great rhetoric.”

As for Holmes, he’s adamant his initiative has a chance.

“You have to understand,” Holmes said, “if Connerly’s anti-affirmative action campaign doesn’t get enough signatures or votes to succeed, they will do this all over again. But if we do this and win, we’ve slain the giant. We’ve dumped it on its head.”


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