A debate about affirmative action has emerged in the campaign for governor, threatening to inject a potentially volatile racial element into the 2018 contest after the issue divided California Democrats along ethnic lines three years ago.
The question of whether race should be considered in admissions to California's colleges and universities was raised in recent weeks when the state's Latino and black legislative caucuses sent a letter to the top six gubernatorial candidates.
Legislators polled the politicians about their views on affirmative action and track records on diversity efforts, and asked them to detail proposals to diversify colleges and state government that they would pursue if elected governor. The candidates were also asked about efforts they would undertake to help diversify leadership in the private sector, where they have no official control.
For California political observers, the questionnaire recalls a 2014 move by Latino and black lawmakers to repeal Proposition 209, which voters approved in 1996 to ban affirmative action in university admissions.
The effort met unexpected resistance. After the measure to lift the ban quietly won Senate approval, it caught the attention of Asian American activists who said their children would be harmed if affirmative action was reinstated. On social media networks, some argued that their children had to perform better than students of other races to be admitted at elite universities, a situation that would be aggravated if the ban was rescinded.
In response to the concerns, Asian American state senators who supported the measure expressed new reservations, and others in the state Assembly vowed to oppose it, leading then-Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez to shelve it.
But tensions lingered. Several Latino and black lawmakers withdrew their endorsements of then-state Sen. Ted Lieu to succeed retiring Rep. Henry Waxman when the Torrance Democrat backed off his support for the measure after initially voting for it.
"We really got caught off guard in the debate," state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) said of the bill's failure and its aftermath. Lara, who is a member of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, said the issue is personal to him as a beneficiary of affirmative action. "We weren't prepared for that."
The discussion about affirmative action in the California governor's race comes at a time when the issue is also reemerging at the federal, state and local levels. President Trump's Justice Department just launched an investigation into "race-based discrimination" in college admissions. And some Asian American activists, concerned about the disclosure of ethnicity in the college admissions process, are protesting the collection of race-based data at statehouses and school districts across the nation, including in Irvine and Cerritos.
"We think California has become post-racial. This election will test that," Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate dean at the UC Riverside School of Public Policy, said of the governor's race. "Political ambition has a way of bringing out some of these dynamics … in ways that could end up causing racial tension in the state."
Three years after the effort to repeal Proposition 209, Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), chairman of the California Legislative Black Caucus, said legislators asked the gubernatorial candidates about affirmative action not to create a "gotcha" moment, but to find out their views on an issue that will be revisited in the future.
The Democrats in the race — former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin and state Treasurer John Chiang — all expressed strong support for affirmative action, while the top two Republicans in the race, Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach and businessman John Cox, did not respond to the letter.
"At some point, one of them will be the next governor. There will more than likely be a bill that will end up on their desk, and we want to have a sense of what they'll do with that bill," Holden said.
But he acknowledged that restarting the discussion was not without risks.
"Sometimes it's very uncomfortable and not always convenient to have a conversation about race," he said.
Not all ethnic groups were represented when affirmative action was raised last month to the 2018 candidates. The letter was signed by the chairs of the black and Latino caucuses. The California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, organizers acknowledged, was not asked to join.
Bill Wong, a Democratic strategist, said that for Asian American politicians, the affirmative action debate is like dealing with "an awkward family member."
"When you talk to the individual [Democratic Asian Pacific Islander] caucus members, they all support affirmative action," said Wong, who supports Chiang for governor. "They also understand there are parts of their communities and constituencies that don't understand the entire history of affirmative action."
Lara said legislators learned lessons from their failed effort in 2014. Their views, he said, have since been shaped by polling that found many Californians didn't know what constitutes affirmative action.
Legislators including Lara as well as outside interest groups are trying to shift the debate over affirmative action in hopes of making it less politically toxic. Rather than discussions of quotas or competition over a limited number of admission slots, they argue the debate should be centered on access to higher education, such as tuition costs and K-12 preparedness.
"We wanted to shift the paradigm," said Betty Hung, policy director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, a civil rights group. "Rather than looking at this as a zero-sum issue, we want to expand the pie of higher educational opportunity for everyone."
Republicans have tried in the past to use the issue of affirmative action to cudgel Democrats in districts with high numbers of Asian Americans, the fastest growing voting bloc in the state. In 2014, the party's efforts contributed to victories for Republican legislative candidates Janet Nguyen of Garden Grove, Ling-Ling Chang of Diamond Bar and Young Kim of Fullerton.
The issue could be a hurdle in the governor's race. Newsom, who is the front-runner in polling and fundraising, has staked out the most liberal positions among the Democratic candidates. But if Villaraigosa or Chiang make it to the general election and there is no GOP candidate standing, their paths to victory run through more conservative regions such as the Inland Empire and the Central Valley, where voters might be less likely to support affirmative action.
Chiang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, may find himself in a predicament when it comes to discussing his stance on affirmative action. He has considerable support from Asian American donors and voters. And while he called for the repeal of the affirmative-action ban in response to the recent letter, he has not always been so vocal.
When Chiang was state controller, he was asked in 2014 about the effort to overturn the ban. He demurred, saying he only speaks out about financial issues.
"I comment on other issues selectively," he told a National Public Radio affiliate in Southern California.
But it's inevitable that the ongoing conversation about affirmative action will take on new relevance in the governor's race, noted state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego).
"This is the first time in California history we have a legitimate shot of having a person of color as governor," she said.