Washington residents with long voting records and equally long political memories will recall 1998, when the electorate approved Initiative 200, which prohibited the state from giving preferential treatment based on gender, ethnicity, color, race or national origin. Two decades later, the issue is back in the form of Referendum 88. As the title indicates, it is a referendum on Initiative 1000, which the Legislature approved in the final days of this year’s session. Initiative 1000 seeks to overturn Initiative 200.
The process is a touch convoluted, with the Legislature seeking to overturn a ballot measure, and then a ballot measure seeking to overturn a legislative decision. But the electoral choice is simple: A yes vote on Referendum 88 is a yes vote on affirmative action.
The Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board met with supporters and opponents of the initiative and engaged in spirited back-and-forth discussions that are being aired on TVW, Washington state’s C-SPAN equivalent. After considering all the arguments, the editorial board urges a yes vote on Referendum 88.
Initiative 1000 would allow the state and local governments to consider factors such as race and gender in state hiring, contracting and education, but it would not allow quotas or preferential treatment. It does not apply to private businesses and universities. The measure also would create a new governor’s commission on diversity, gender and inclusion, which supporters say would be advisory-only. Initiative 1000 won approval on a party-line vote in the Democratic-controlled Legislature with no Republican support.
Among those supporting the move is former Gov. Gary Locke, who argues that I-1000 allows universities and public agencies to conduct outreach and recruitment of women and minorities, rather than establishing quotas and giving preference to unqualified candidates. According to the measure’s language, preferential treatment can’t be used as the sole factor to select a lesser-qualified candidate over a more-qualified one.
In a twist on the usual affirmative action narrative, visible opposition comes from a group called WA Asians 4 Equality, a westside organization whose members fear the measure would penalize Asian students in the state’s universities and job sites. However, other Asian-American groups support it, citing barriers in education, hiring and criminal justice.
Speaking in favor before the editorial board were Carlos Olivares, CEO of the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, and Martha Choe, whose past civic involvement includes two terms on the Seattle City Council, an executive position with the Gates Foundation and director of what is now the state Department of Commerce. Speaking against it were 14th District state Sen. Curtis King of Yakima and Brenda Milewski of Puyallup, an African-American woman who grew up in a low-income family in Boston and now counsels people going through mental stress and who served in the military.
During the interview, opponents voiced a consistent concern that the measure would erode preferences that state statutes already have in place for military veterans. Supporters say veterans would remain protected, and our reading of the relevant language about veterans doesn’t raise any red flags.
Opponents also said they fear that the appointed commission could distend into an unelected political body that runs amok with punitive powers. Supporters responded that the board is designed to track progress or regress, and that its recommendations would take an advisory form only.
We understand opponents’ concerns regarding the commission on both counts. Should the initiative pass, the board must take extra steps to assure that the initiative doesn’t reduce opportunities for those who served our nation in the military — which, by the way, is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse elements of American society.
The board could prove quite useful in monitoring contracting for state projects. Government entities with affirmative action, such as other states and the federal government, have encountered abuses of the system, in which contractors set up minority front companies to win contracts. The commission would need to maintain constant vigilance in that area.
And which states have affirmative action programs? Forty-two of them, actually, including 10 of the 11 states in the old Confederacy — a point that supporters are quick to make. As one of only eight states to ban the practice, Washington is decidedly an outlier.
This state has made many strides forward in the past 20 years, but Latinos, Native Americans and African Americans still lag in educational and economic attainment. The state’s touted tech sector sees many gender inequalities. Supporters made a strong case that ethnic and gender diversity in the education and business fields inspires younger generations to believe that they can succeed, too.
Opponents argued, correctly, that a culture change in low-income families can help them and their children overcome poverty. But it isn’t clear how instituting — reinstituting, actually — affirmative action would inhibit that cultural change.
Granted, the University of Washington has seen an increase in minority students while the percentage of Caucasian students continues to drop, but the same can’t be said in all areas of public enrollments and hiring. And even at UW, officials say they have lost sought-after job candidates to universities in other states and to private universities because of the current law. In citing progress of Latino and Native American students, opponents frequently invoked Toppenish’s Heritage University — a private institution not subject to the affirmative action ban.
Twenty years ago, a different iteration of the editorial board urged a no vote on Initiative 200. The editorial board especially had issues with the measure’s wording — a common problem with citizen initiatives — but also noted that the playing field was not level in so many areas of business and education. It still isn’t, as 42 states have recognized. With no quotas or preferences resulting from this measure, Referendum 88 warrants a yes vote.