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National NOW Times >> August 1995 >> Article

NOW Vows To Save Affirmative Action

by Sharon Hollon

Rainbow Coalition Board Chair Angela Jordan Davis addressed the Rally for Women's Lives in Columbus, Ohio, on the need for affirmative action. Photo By Beth Corbin

At July's National Conference, NOW members resolved to create a national action campaign, initially targeting California, to combat attempts to dismantle affirmative action. The campaign will focus on presidential candidates as well as state and federal initiatives on affirmative action. It will include a mass action in California in 1996.

NOW's national board passed a similar resolution in May. Following the May resolution, NOW President Patricia Ireland swept both coasts of the country, speaking out at affirmative action coalition kickoffs in New York, Pennsylvania and California.

"We are determined not to let cynical politicians slam the doors of equal opportunity in our faces," said Ireland. "We are organizing women's campaigns to support affirmative action as well as joining in coalition efforts with civil rights groups."

The week before NOW's conference got underway, a flurry of activity in Washington and California underscored the urgency of NOW's campaign, but also the commitment of President Clinton to play a leading role. In a long- awaited speech, the President gave a strong statement of support to affirmative action and reviewed the historic and current discrimination that demands it.

Ireland, who attended the president's speech, responded, "He may have moved more slowly and more carefully than some of us would have liked, but on issues of equal opportunity this president clearly gets it -- personally, philosophically and politically."

However, that good news was countered the next day when California Governor Pete Wilson succeeded in his drive to have that state's Board of Regents repeal affirmative action for women and people of color in admissions and hiring within the University of California system (coverage available). Earlier, Wilson had signed an executive order abolishing other state affirmative action programs. He is also expected to sign a letter backing a state ballot initiative dismantling all remaining affirmative action programs.

"Pete Wilson has sent the women of this country a clear message: he doesn't care about equal opportunities for women," said Ireland. "If Wilson thinks he can buy women's votes just by his dubious claim that he supports abortion rights, we need to let him know that our votes don't come that cheaply."

As part of the national action's focus on California, NOW members are taking part in a "Wilson Watch." Starting in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, members will follow Republican presidential candidate Pete Wilson in his campaigns across the country.

California activists stepped up their own campaign with new TV ads that debuted at the National Conference. The ads are available for placement in other TV markets, too. For information on these adds, contact NOW's communications department by calling 202-628-8669.

Like Gov. Wilson, Sens. Bob Dole, R.-Kan., and Phil Gramm, R.- Texas, are leading presidential candidates who once supported affirmative action, but have now turned their backs on these programs to promote equal opportunity. On the eve of NOW's conference, Gramm failed in his attempt to prohibit set asides in federal contracts when his amendment to an appropriations bill was defeated in the U.S. Senate by a vote of 61 to 36. Instead, the Senators voted 84 to 13 for an amendment by Sen. Patty Murray, D- Wash., that contracts would not go to "unqualified persons" and that the awarding of contracts would be consistent with the Supreme Court's decision in Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena.

The defeat of Gramm's proposal hinged more on questions of timing and tactics than substance. Dole plans to introduce "broad-based" legislation to eliminate federal programs rather than the "narrow" amendment offered by Dole. And Rep. Charles Canady, R.-Fla., has drafted legislation that would repeal all gender and race based affirmative action. Canady said he plans to introduce the bill despite hesitancy from Republican leadership.

After months of stirring up controversy by calling for affirmative action reviews, many Republican leaders now want to put the issue on the back burner for political reasons. Afraid of alienating middle class African-American voters, a Republican aide was quoted as saying, "Let the other side play their hand first." And Speaker of the House and rumored presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said, "I'm not confident that [the program review] will happen this year."

"Republicans think they can now bury this issue just as they buried abortion in the first 100 days of the Contract on America," said Ireland. "They are afraid to take on this politically hot issue until after the elections because they know that the majority of the people in this country are NOT against affirmative action."

Republicans are trying to use anti-affirmative action measures as a divide-and-conquer strategy, creating the illusion that affirmative action programs operate on preferences and quotas. However, the Harris poll commissioned by the Feminist Majority Foundation shows their ploy may backfire.

In fact, 82 percent of those polled nationwide agree that "after many years of not receiving opportunities it is only fair to set up programs to make sure that women and people of color are given every chance to have equal opportunities." The Harris poll also projects that the political net gain will go to pro-abortion rights, pro- affirmative action candidates.

Even members of the Republican party are not all of one mind on the value of affirmative action, as evidenced by the presidential candidacy of Arthur Fletcher. An African-American, Fletcher has declared himself the affirmative action Republican presidential candidate. While working for the Labor Department under Nixon, Fletcher implemented the Philadelphia Plan, the first program that used race and gender as factors in awarding federal contracts. Former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp has also warned his party not to run "a campaign that separates people by race and by gender."

The recent Adarand Supreme Court decision overturned a previous ruling and imposed strict new limits on affirmative action programs. In response, Ireland said, "President Clinton and Congress must not be guided by the reactionary activism of a Reagan-Bush Supreme Court, which has undone years of precedent supporting affirmative action."

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