Washington's Anti-Affirmative Action Vote Thrust Into Spotlight

A massive conference/job fair coordinated by the National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Asian Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association ended Sunday, but not before the Evergreen State's move to join California in killing affirmative action generated sparks.

Most swirled around Texas Gov. George W. Bush on Thursday after the Republican presidential front-runner made a last-minute decision to amble through Unity '99, as the journalistic gathering was called.

Bush, who has alliances with Ward Connerly -- a black California political activist spearheading a nationwide anti-affirmative action movement -- declined a May invitation to attend Unity '99. But after getting wind of a Los Angeles Times article critical of his stance, Bush revised his schedule and took a 15-minute stroll through the convention that attendees derided as a face-saving "drive-by" campaign stop.

When asked about Washington's Initiative 200, which bans preferences based on race, ethnicity and gender to make up for past discrimination, Bush said he was "against quotas, and I'm against special treatment.

"I'm for breaking down barriers, as we did in Texas," he told reporters.

The impact of Initiative 200 has been immediate: The University of Washington's 1999 freshman class will have 40 percent fewer blacks and 30 percent fewer Hispanics than the previous freshman class. And Washington has seen business drop dramatically for firms owned by minorities and women that previously qualified for set-asides.

Hours after Bush's appearance, former U.S. senator Bill Bradley stopped by Unity '99. The Democratic presidential hopeful wasted little time lambasting Washington for passing Initiative 200 and California for signing off on Proposition 209.

The third presidential hopeful of the day, Republican Sen. John McCain cautiously backed affirmative action as a means of leveling the playing field in the United States. "We do not have sufficient opportunities," said McCain, who took pains not to praise or condemn Initiative 200.

Unity '99 participants weren't of one mind regarding the decision to come to Seattle despite Initiative 200. Some Hispanic and Native American journalists wanted to remain in Seattle regardless. A number of African-American journalists lobbied to boycott the site. Philadelphia Daily News reporter Al Hunter, who is black, stayed home.

"It just seemed to me that by attending a convention in a state that did away with affirmative action, that we would be slapping the faces of those who paved the way for us to get into the newsroom," Hunter said.

On the other hand, Vice President Al Gore, who spoke to the conferees on Friday, was eager to get to Unity '99. Gore was introduced by Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the first Asian Pacific American governor of a state in the continental United States and an Initiative 200 opponent.

Gore attacked I-200 as a "phony ballot proposition" in his remarks, drawing a challenge from black Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson.

"Instead of . . . calling I-200 phony, which is easy to do, would you do something that (President) Clinton did not do, which is fight for affirmative action in the white communities and the white boardrooms of America?" Jackson said.

Gore responded by defending Clinton, saying: "My recollection is he did speak out."

During a conference session titled "Balance or Bias: Affirmative Action and the News Media," Dallas Morning News executive editor and vice president Gilbert Bailon predicted that legislation similar to Initiative 200 will make headlines in Texas.

Bailon is a former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Looking elsewhere, anti-affirmative action sentiment appears to be growing in Florida, where a Connerly backed committee known as the Florida Civil Rights Initiative is chipping away at the policy. Meanwhile, foes of the program are targeting Michigan, Nebraska, Colorado and Oregon as their next battlegrounds.