Facing the loss of millions of dollars in state contracts for women- and minority-owned businesses, many business associations have lined up behind efforts to defeat the California Civil Rights Initiative in November.
Sixteen business groups, including the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. of Women Business Owners, the Black Business Assn. and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, have signed on as co-sponsors of the "No on CCRI" campaign.
Recently created political action groups, such as the Asian Pacific Americans for Affirmative Action and the South Los Angeles Affirmative Action Project, include business owners working to inform minority communities and other business owners about the measure and help get out the vote to defeat it.
Meanwhile, a number of individual business owners statewide have been logging 12-hour days giving speeches, testifying before the U.S. Senate and organizing their communities against the CCRI.
"I easily spend 40 hours a week on this," said Lisa Campbell, an environmental contractor in Pomona. "And that doesn't count the people in my office and my children who lick stamps and stuff envelopes at big pizza parties."
The CCRI is a two-pronged measure to eliminate what its supporters call "preferences and quotas." One section proposes banning "preferential treatment" based on race, ethnicity or gender in public employment, education and contracting. That means state and local governments would be prohibited from using current affirmative action programs and outreach to minorities and women.
Another section would allow gender-based decisions on employment, contracting and education if it could be shown such action is "reasonably necessary" for continued operation of a program or activity. Opponents say that means the measure could allow women to be banned from firefighting, police or construction jobs under the claim they aren't physically suited to the work. Girls' athletic programs could be cut at schools under the claim that such programs impose a financial hardship, they say.
But proponents say the gender-based clause is actually intended to protect women in cases where gender is an obvious criteria for a job, such as handing out towels in a women's gymnasium or strip-searching female prisoners.
The initiative is supported by Gov. Pete Wilson and the Republican party, which donated nearly $435,000 toward the more than $925,000 spent to qualify the measure for the ballot.
However, business groups have shied away from endorsing the measure. Even the conservative National Federation of Independent Business has not taken a position because it recognizes that in California, where a large number of its members are women and minorities, opinion is split down the middle, an NFIB spokeswoman said.
Jennifer Nelson, of the CCRI campaign, said it's understandable that business groups have not signed on to support the measure because so many women- and minority-owned businesses have a financial interest in maintaining affirmative action programs.
"This is the constituency that wants to see the programs continue as they are," Nelson said.
Of course, said Patricia Ewing, campaign director for the "No on CCRI" effort, many women and minorities understand that the measure would close doors to opportunities and endanger their livelihoods.
"Their bread and butter are at stake," Ewing said. "Their very companies are at stake."
Campbell, whose 7-year-old company has received affirmative action contracts in the past, said she is working hard against the CCRI because she wants her two daughters to have the same business opportunities she received. Campbell is on the statewide "No on CCRI" steering committee, is helping to plan a country and western fund-raiser on a San Bernardino horse ranch and is organizing political groups in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
Martha Diaz Aszkenazy, co-owner of Pueblo Contracting Service and a Republican who credits affirmative action with her business growth, said she is organizing anti-CCRI efforts in the San Fernando Valley and appears on a 10-minute Spanish/English campaign videotape.
Audrey Rice Oliver, owner of Integrated Business Solutions Inc. in San Ramon in Northern California and a frequent speaker against the CCRI, testified before the U.S. Senate on the CCRI the same day Wilson did.
"The days run one into the other," said Los Angeles attorney Joseph Avila, another activist. "My wife has to remind me when it's Saturday and when it's Sunday. But this is a battle that we can't go to sleep on."