California Repeals Affirmative Action,
Sets Stage for Copycat Attempts

a rally to defeat Proposition 209Photo: California NOW Membership Coordinator Jean Morrison spoke at a rally to defeat the state's anti-affirmative action ballot measure, Proposition 209.

by Elizabeth Toledo
California NOW President

California voters in November approved Proposition 209 and set the stage for copycat efforts to abolish affirmative action. The battle was hard-fought, and passage of Prop. 209 disappointed NOW chapters throughout the state. Although we lost at the ballot box, we are greatly encouraged by the gains we made as a movement.

This anti-civil rights, anti-women's rights initiative passed by eight points. The grassroots movements to stop Prop. 209 succeeded in narrowing the gap from 25 points -- no small feat considering that the "Yes on 209" campaign outspent our side by 3-1. Every county we had targeted to produce a "No on 209" vote did just that. How did we achieve this? Through strong grassroots coalitions, many led by NOW chapters and leaders.

Our campaign ranged in activity from protests at the Republican National Convention in San Diego to speakouts to marches and rallies. We organized campus speeches, and we worked in close coalition with labor. Our earned media effort was phenomenal, and every major newspaper in California, with the exception of Orange County, opposed Prop. 209. We raised money primarily from the grassroots and Hollywood communities; we played radio ads featuring Candice Bergen, Ellen DeGeneres, Bruce Springsteen, Alfre Woodard, Dolores Huerta and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The day following the election, a coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union -- which includes the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund -- filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Prop 209, and the trial judge has temporarily blocked implementation of the measure. On the same day, Gov. Pete Wilson issued an executive order calling for its immediate implementation. Legal experts predict that the courts will take some time sorting out the legal questions behind Prop. 209.

NOW President Patricia Ireland, Jackson and other affirmative action advocates met with White House officials after the election to discuss the administration's commitment to defending and practicing affirmative action and to enforcing vigorously existing equal opportunity laws. (See "New Year,New Congress...").

In the meantime, activists are keeping a high level of energy fighting for affirmative action and equal opportunity. Protests continue on California campuses. Activists are stepping up efforts to identify discriminatory practices. Coalitions that resulted in a serious collaboration among feminists, civil rights leaders, students, labor and more, remain intact.

Other states with the initiative process are expected to consider Prop. 209-type ballot measures, and Congress is moving forward with a copycat bill authored by Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla. The passage of Prop. 209, however, doesn't mean that it is a successful wedge issue on which conservatives can gain political strength.

The California Republican party paid to get the proposition on the ballot when other efforts fell through. Republicans in the state and nationally took up Prop. 209 and poured more than $3 million into television ads. Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Wilson met with business leaders and said Prop. 209 could help Republicans get elected to Congress and also help Republicans keep their ajority in the California Assembly. That Republican gamble didn't pay off.

The margin of victory for Prop. 209 was much narrower than Republicans had hoped. The three most right-wing Republican congressional incumbents in California were ousted by NOW/PAC-endorsed candidates. Republicans lost their majority in the California Assembly. Bob Dole used affirmative action as a centerpiece of his campaign and overwhelmingly lost California.

Passage of Prop. 209 serves as a bellwether for both supporters and opponents of affirmative action. Those of us determined to preserve affirmative action have also set the stage -- with invaluable coalitions, increased public awareness and proven strategies.

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