Kathy Stewart paused politely on the Venice boardwalk as the campaign worker plied her with rapid-fire warnings about Proposition 209, urging her to vote against the fall ballot measure.
Although not especially impressed--"I kind of thought it was just a line," she said--Stewart represents a pivotal front in the contest over the initiative, which would ban government affirmative action programs tailored to women and minorities.
At a time when polls have consistently shown that a majority of California voters support Proposition 209, opponents are turning to women to derail the victory train. They are doing all they can to grab women's attention and widen an emerging gender gap into a canyon that cannot be spanned.
As one of the larger slices of the electorate pie, women also are being courted by initiative supporters, albeit less directly.
"I think our message is probably going to be universal and is largely going to succeed because it is universal," said Proposition 209 political strategist Arnold Steinberg, dismissing opponents' tactics as a patronizing and ultimately doomed bid for women's loyalties.
"When all is said and done, I don't think there will be a significant gender gap," he said.
The anti-Proposition 209 focus on women stems from a variety of factors.
Not only do women usually make up slightly more than half the Californians who vote, they have been among the major beneficiaries of affirmative action policies and are more inclined to support them than men.
Opponents' strategy further rests on the delicate but pragmatic recognition that the politics of gender are less volatile than the politics of race--and thus potentially more successful.
Recent statewide polling by The Times suggests that the approach may already be having some effect. The margin by which women voters favor the initiative has slipped nine points, to 55%, since March of last year, driving an overall softening of support for the measure. By contrast, 65% of male voters favor 209.
"If enough [women] feel this is going to hurt them in any way, then I think they would come out to vote against it," said Susan Pinkus, acting director of The Times Poll.
Initiative backers say it is too early in the campaign to read much into the changing poll figures. And they believe that their primary message--that government-sponsored racial or gender preferences are unfair and morally wrong--will continue to resonate strongly with women as well as men.
"There is virtually no gender gap on the issue of preferences," Steinberg said, adding that the Proposition 209 campaign will "keep the focus on preferences" and emphasize "that most women . . . do believe in merit."
Fearful that the initiative will generate a wave of copycat proposals across the country, national women's groups such as the Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women have another message.
"We're going to have to make sure that women voters and any men who depend on a woman's income [know] that . . . this initiative is deceptive and trickery and takes away the programs and laws that have opened the doors and allowed women to work and be paid a decent wage," said Katherine Spillar, the Los Angeles-based national coordinator of the Feminist Majority.
The Nov. 5 ballot measure would amend the California Constitution with language prohibiting state discrimination or preferential treatment based on race, gender, ethnicity or national origin in the public sector--including employment, education and contracting.
Its effect would be to end public affirmative action programs geared to a particular group, such as math mentoring programs restricted to girls, or guidelines that a certain percentage of state contract work be awarded to companies owned by minorities or women.
Also included in the initiative is a bitterly disputed three-line paragraph, known as "Clause C," that is at the heart of opponents' campaign with women.
"Nothing in this section," states the clause, "shall be interpreted as prohibiting bona fide qualifications based on sex which are reasonably necessary to the normal operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting."
Foes of the ballot measure contend that the paragraph will amend the state Constitution to allow gender discrimination if it is "reasonably necessary"--a far lower legal standard than the current one, which says women cannot be discriminated against unless there is a "compelling need."
Initiative proponents vehemently dispute that interpretation, dismissing it as a blatant attempt to scare women into voting against Proposition 209. The clause applies only to the initiative language itself and will not weaken other constitutional protections, backers say. The paragraph was included, they add, to ensure that Proposition 209 does not unintentionally open the door to such things as strip searches of female prison inmates by male guards.
Both sides have enlisted legal scholars. Proposition 209 supporters are circulating a letter, signed by 26 law professors from across the country, that declares that the initiative will not dilute sex discrimination protections.
Opponents are countering with a statement, signed by 75 California law professors, that the measure "constitutionally authorizes discrimination against women and girls in a manner that is much broader than any current law."
On a sunbaked Saturday in Venice earlier this summer, that theme was repeated over and over by a small group of anti-Proposition 209 campaign volunteers.
Wearing shocking pink Feminist Majority T-shirts, the young campaigners were among those who have joined "Freedom Summer 1996," an unpaid network of hundreds of mostly female college students recruited from across the country by groups opposing Proposition 209. Housed by members of the sponsoring organizations, they are devoting the summer to spreading the word against the initiative.
Not that people on the packed boardwalk were particularly interested. Most walked by as if they were deaf, more intent in gawking at the nearby fake shark mouth than in listening to a political spiel.
Those who stopped revealed the tangled web of emotions evoked by affirmative action. Some nodded eagerly in agreement, promising to pull the no lever on Proposition 209 this fall. Others were unconvinced, suggesting that while women may generally look more favorably on affirmative action than men, they are hardly instant converts to the no side.
Take Stewart, a commercial real estate agent from Playa del Rey.
"I'm for women's rights, but I'm not really for affirmative action," she said. It has helped minorities more than women, she thinks, and her experience with affirmative action left her with a bitter taste.
"I couldn't get into the college I wanted to--although I had the grades--because I wasn't the right color, didn't have the right ethnic background," said Stewart, who is white. Instead of going to UCLA, her first choice, she spent a lot more money to attend USC.
Nor was she persuaded by the sex-discrimination argument, which she tended to regard as so much campaign rhetoric: "I have not come across sex discrimination in my work," Stewart said. Oh sure, she'd run into some good ole boy networks, but it was "nothing I couldn't overcome."
She is no doubt the kind of woman Republican political consultant Sal Russo has in mind when he questions the effectiveness of the anti-Proposition 209 women's strategy.
"I don't think that trying to make this issue about gender rather than race is the silver bullet that opponents profess it to be," Russo said.
"The progress with women is so demonstrably better that it's almost offensive for someone to elevate the situation women face with the situation minorities face," he said.
Moreover, although job statistics indicate that affirmative action has helped women move up the job ladder in the past three decades, they don't necessarily identify with such programs.
Only 9% of the women questioned in a 1995 statewide Times poll said they had received a job or educational opportunity as part of an affirmative action program. A greater number, 17%, felt that they had been the victim of reverse discrimination--that is, denied an opportunity because of a program preference for a member of another group.
Those figures were personified by a public library employee approached by anti-Proposition 209 workers on another day in downtown Los Angeles. She was not sure if women had benefited from affirmative action. But she was quite sure that as a white, she had suffered because of it.
She was torn by the anti-Proposition 209 arguments. If the initiative did indeed weaken sex discrimination laws, she said she would vote against it. On the other hand, she would be inclined to favor the measure if it eliminated affirmative action, which she said she was "60-40" against.
There is no such wobbling on the topic of preference. Pollsters say neither men nor women like the idea. "The public is very unified in that view," said Mark DiCamillo, director of a well-known California poll conducted by Mervin Field.
Thus, while Proposition 209 foes emphasize the initiative's effect on affirmative action programs, supporters barely mention it. Instead, they focus on 209's elimination of government-sponsored preferences, moving the debate in another direction.
"The most effective way we reach women is by having a very positive, future-oriented message that things have changed in society," said 209 strategist Steinberg. "We need to communicate that there are many women at this particular juncture who find it patronizing [to hear] that the only way they can succeed is in a preferential system."
And what of the notion that it is repugnant for opponents to dwell so much on the women's angle?
"We don't want to send the message that this is mainly a women's issue," said Constance Rice, western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The effort to defeat the ballot measure must be aimed at getting minorities to the polls as well as women, she said.
But in a state where voters remain largely white (81% in the 1994 election), Rice said that the reality of the ballot box is that women make up a much greater proportion of voters than minorities, so they are crucial.
At this point, perhaps the greatest challenge for both sides is to get voters' attention. More than two-thirds of those polled by The Times in July were unaware of Proposition 209.
Both camps have been doing grass-roots organizing and addressing groups. But neither side has yet mounted a paid media effort. And it remains to be seen if the combatants will have the money to do the kind of intensive television advertising that is critical to statewide campaigns in California.
"This does resonate," Spillar said. "The question is, can the money be raised to go on TV."