Affirmative action initiative reaches Washington Legislature

OLYMPIA, Wash. — An initiative that would bring affirmative action back to Washington state arrived at the Legislature Thursday, where supporters and critics alike invoked American ideals including opportunity and equality during a lengthy public hearing.

The initiative, I-1000, would allow the state to use hiring and recruitment goals — but not quotas — to bring minority candidates into state jobs, education, and contracting, loosening restrictions enacted in a separate 1998 initiative that banned government discrimination or preferential treatment based on factors like race or gender.

Along with race and gender or sex, the measure would allow consideration of disability, ethnicity, national origin, and age, provided other qualifications were considered. Using any of the factors as the sole qualifying reason for an otherwise less-qualified applicant is defined as preferential treatment under the measure, and would be prohibited. A state commission including the lieutenant governor and state attorney general would oversee implementation of the rules.

But that exposed deep divides, with advocates characterizing the under-representation of minorities in jobs and schools as the ripple effect of historic discrimination, even as opponents charged that explicit inclusion goals for individual groups would amount to an unfair exclusion of others.

"There's a myth that hard work is all you need to get ahead," said Ben Henry, head of APACE, an advocacy group for Asian Pacific islanders. "That fails to take into account the legacy of generations of institutional racism that has happened in this country and in this state."

Three former governors also spoke at the hearing, all supporting the measure: Dan Evans, Gary Locke, and Chris Gregoire.

Evans, who served from 1965 to 1977, said the situation had improved since he left office, but called I-1000 a necessary step. "The door of opportunity is still just ajar, and not fully open," Evans said.

Nat Jackson, the sponsor of the initiative, also spoke at the hearing, and characterized the measure in terms of basic fairness, saying it would be step toward leveling a playing field tilted against minorities.

"I-1000 does not do favors," Jackson said. "What we want to do is be fair."

But critics broadly charged that despite its language favoring goals over quotas, it would nonetheless amount to a leg up for applicants from under-represented groups. They too pointed to basic fairness to justify their opposition.

"I-1000 would abolish the standard of equality for all regardless of race as required by I-200 and replace it with a system that uses different rules for people of different races," said John Carlson, referring to the 1998 measure.

A radio host and one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate, Carlson was one of the main backers of the 1998 measure.

Among the crowd watching the hearing were opponents of the measure wearing matching white shirts describing it as "systemic racism."

"This initiative will bring back differential treatment for certain groups of people," said Nora Chan, a Seattle resident. Chan and others, many of whom described themselves as Chinese or Asian immigrants, said the measure would unfairly exclude especially Asian students.

"Please do not limit us or create new barriers for us simply because we are hardworking and successful in some fields."

Tacoma Rep. Laurie Jinkins, a Democrat and chairwoman of one of the two legislative committees that held the hearing, said afterward she supported the measure.

Technically an initiative to the Legislature, lawmakers will have the option to approve or reject the measure. If they reject it outright or take no action it would automatically go on the fall ballot. If they reject it, they could also suggest an alternative to go on the ballot beside it.