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The Politics of Cynicism

<i> Bill Boyarsky is The Times' city editor and is writing a biography of the late political leader Jesse M. Unruh</i>

Even before the campaign for Proposition 209 began two years ago, it was a foregone conclusion that divisiveness would be the result of the electoral battle over the measure, which bans affirmative action in state programs. Now, as Proposition 209 is transforming everything from university enrollments to public works contracts, “The Color Bind” examines how this radical proposal became state law.

But it did not have to be so vicious, so destructive to a state where race relations are always teetering on the edge of confrontation, a place where many ethnic groups must live and work together. The campaign was nasty because nastiness suited the purposes of Democratic and Republican strategists. More interested in getting out the vote for 1996 presidential, congressional and legislative elections than they were in promoting racial peace in California, they pounded away with inflammatory commercials.

A description of this exercise in cynicism is one of the most interesting revelations in “The Color Bind,” a carefully reported and clearly written account of one of the state’s most important recent political campaigns. Lydia Chavez, a former Times reporter who teaches at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism, has produced a model of political reporting in a time when political campaigns, with their hype and phony commercials, have become increasingly difficult for journalists to follow.

She did it the old-fashioned way. Armed only with curiosity and a strong sense of fairness, Chavez asked the right questions, interviewed all the sources, read all the documents and memorandums and came up with an invaluable account of voter initiative politics as practiced in the ‘90s.

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Chavez, as she admits, is a beneficiary of affirmative action. “I continue to see the importance of affirmative action for all of the students I teach,” she says. “There are, however, many books that argue for or against affirmative action. This is not one of them. . . . Instead, in writing this book, I wanted to understand why a linchpin of the civil rights movement became unpopular and politically vulnerable.”

And she wanted to show the inner workings of the ballot measure campaign, a political tactic that now dominates California policymaking. Her book accomplishes this, revealing the feuds, the alliances, the courage, cowardice and heartbreak that make political campaigns incomparable dramas.

Proposition 209 was written by two obscure San Francisco Bay Area academics who believed that state affirmative actions discriminated against white males and were hurting their careers. Glynn Custerud and Thomas E. Wood resembled, as Chavez notes, “the kind of citizens California Gov. Hiram Johnson of the Progressive Party had in mind in 1911" when he gave the state the initiative. That section of the state constitution invests citizens with the power to enact laws by collecting enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot and persuading their fellow Californians to vote for it.

These two amateurs came up with a strategy that was crucial to Proposition 209’s victory. Wood studied polls and concluded that, although voters tended to support affirmative action, they strongly opposed quotas and preferences. The two men also studied an important case, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Weber decision, in which Justice William J. Brennan ruled that although the 1964 Civil Rights Act permitted affirmative action, it also bars the government from requiring employers to give preferential treatment.

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Preferential treatment, rather than affirmative action, was the target of Proposition 209, which its authors called the California Civil Rights Initiative. It said California state and local governments are forbidden from using “race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against or granting preferential treatment” in government operations. The words had the solid, positive ring of a law that would ban discrimination and sound sympathetic to the civil rights movement.

No matter how hard opponents of Proposition 209 tried, they were never able to overcome the positive tone of these words. Nor could they contend with the weight given 209 by the chairman, Ward Connerly, an African American. “Even if the great majority of African Americans opposed Proposition 209, Connerly’s black face blunted charges that the initiative was inspired and driven by white males,” writes Chavez. “He gave whites looking for solace the embrace of a successful black American.”

By fall 1996, Proposition 209 was, as expected, ahead in the polls. The opposition had little money and was torn by disagreements between various civil rights and feminist groups. Arnie Steinberg, 209’s chief strategist, knew from the beginning that the measure had broad bipartisan appeal. He had hoped former Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas would be a strong supporter and steer Republican votes and money to the campaign. “But Dole equivocated,” Chavez writes, “and Steinberg was no longer anxious to do business with his team.” Instead, Steinberg began a nonpartisan radio campaign for 209, aiming for the Republican, Democratic and independent votes he knew were within his grasp. In contrast to Steinberg’s bipartisan approach, the California Republican party saw 209 as a wedge issue that would help the GOP in congressional and legislative elections and even in the presidential race.

The state Republican organization launched its own advertising campaign with a commercial that used footage of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial to attempt to give the impression that the great civil rights leader would have backed 209. The commercial was a disaster, condemned even by Wood. Campaign chairman Connerly pleaded with the state GOP to pull the ad. “We have ads that are more powerful, that are nonpartisan and that accentuate the fact that this is about preferences,” Connerly said.

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The commercial also prompted a battle between Steinberg and Republican official Scott Taylor, who said Steinberg had mismanaged the 209 campaign. Steinberg replied that the King ad hurt the 209 effort by creating unnecessary controversy and driving away Democratic voters who couldn’t be fooled into believing King would have supported 209. Not content with replying to Taylor in the press, Steinberg filed a defamation suit against him. Taylor settled the suit and retracted his statements.

In the end, the state GOP strategy didn’t help Dole, who lost the state, nor did it assist legislative and congressional candidates.

The Democrats also saw 209 as a wedge issue, one that would bring out African American voters for congressional and legislative candidates and for President Clinton. The Democratic National Committee helped finance an ad that began and ended with burning crosses and featured David Duke, the Ku Klux Klanner who supported 209. “The primary targets for this commercial were minorities and white liberals who believe themselves racially tolerant,” writes Chavez. “Liberals, however, are least receptive to negative advertising, which may explain the almost universal condemnation this ad received.”

The push for cutting-edge commercials also came from Southern California and Washington feminists, who provided a substantial part of the anti-209 campaign’s limited funds. They split with allies who were impressed with President Clinton’s “mend-it-don’t-end-it” affirmative action speech. “The opposition’s polling data indicated Clinton was onto something,” writes Chavez. “Voters didn’t want to abolish affirmative action, they wanted to reform it.”

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“Mend it, don’t end it” was unacceptable to ideologues, extremists and political hired guns on both sides. But Chavez argues that the Democratic and Republican efforts to make 209 a wedge issue backfired, dividing Californians already deeply split by a successful campaign two years before for Proposition 187, the measure aimed at denying public education and medical care to illegal immigrants and their families.

In a revealing few words, Chavez tells how successful Steinberg’s nonpartisan approach had been. “When I asked an African American woman working for the opposition how she felt about the Duke ad, the woman said ‘I wished we had nicer ads,’ ” Chavez writes. “Theirs, you know, had that nice line at the end, ‘bring us together.’ ”

But in the heat of a campaign, desperate campaign managers don’t often think in terms of bringing people together. In today’s politics, especially with low-turnout elections, campaign professionals push ethnic and gender buttons to boost the votes for their causes and candidates. As Chavez documents, that is what happened with Proposition 209. As election day neared, Republicans, Democrats and leaders of ethnic and feminist groups fired away with their hard-edged appeals.

Now, as California implements 209, we must live not only with the results of the election but with the cynical nastiness of the campaign.

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