Worried White Men May Be The Gop's Ace In The Hole

For more than a year, affirmative action has been in the crosshairs of conservative activists in California. But now the state's Mar. 26 Presidential primary is shifting the controversy to the national battlefield.

The Golden State will hold a referendum in November on whether to end state-run race and gender preference programs, and the issue is sure to spark debate among White House hopefuls. With polls showing 2-to-1 support for repeal, the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.), backs the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative. That could give him a potent weapon against President Clinton as they vie for California's 54 electoral votes. Even more is at stake, since this grassroots campaign may spread across the country--and put Big Business, a longtime backer of affirmative action, on the spot.

ANGST. For now, Clinton leads in California. But Dole will remind voters that Clinton is against the CCRI. And Pat Buchanan--more opposed to preferences than Dole--is rallying around the CCRI, declaring it "would end all state favoritism towards Hispanics, blacks, women, and Asians." Meanwhile, the President reads the polls, too, so he's playing down his defense of affirmative action during trips to the state.

Opposition to preferences has risen in this time of economic angst, as white males worry about losing jobs and business to women and minorities. Consider Donald C. Ware, president of Fontana Steel Inc. in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. He blames racial preferences for cutting his government construction contracts in half since 1979. "It's sick," he gripes. "Everybody is tired of someone getting a job because of color."

Republicans are exploiting such frustration, charge CCRI opponents. Says Kathy Spillar, national coordinator for the Feminist Majority: "The GOP wants to use it as a racial wedge issue like Willie Horton." Spillar hopes the ploy backfires by alienating women. But Republicans, citing polls showing opposition to preferences, claim the winning hand.

Caught in the middle, Corporate America is soft-pedaling its support of affirmative action. In a rare alliance with Democrats, big U.S. companies have long favored the policy. And the California Business Roundtable, including BankAmerica, Chevron, and Southern California Edison Co., endorsed affirmative action last August. But lately, business is refraining from taking sides on the CCRI. "Companies are afraid to offend strategically placed politicians," admits Ronald Knox, vice-president for diversity at Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc. in Oakland.

Instead, many corporations in the state will soon circulate pro-affirmative-action statements to customers, suppliers, and employees, arguing that the U.S. market and labor pool is increasingly diverse--so a company's workforce must reflect that diversity to succeed.

That message isn't getting through. Conservatives in eight other states, including Florida and Illinois, are mounting similar ballot measures. And bills to gut affirmative action are pending in 38 states. In Congress, Dole introduced a bill in 1995 to end federal affirmative action, but the legislation has since languished.

Clinton says he's fixing affirmative action without ending it. To comply with last June's Supreme Court decision that curbs federal preference programs, the White House will soon unveil a plan requiring agencies to prove discrimination before giving special contracts to minorities and women.

That's hardly enough to stem the populist tide against affirmative action. So long as Clinton and his corporate allies seem unwilling to wage a full-scale fight, Dole has a winning issue to run with--in California, and possibly far beyond.

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