PASADENA, Calif. -- For two hours here the other night, a racially mixed audience listened intently as two lawyers debated the issue on the November ballot that has the potential to tear California apart -- the proposed ban on affirmative action in public programs.
Manuel Klausner, chairman of the Libertarian Law Council, argued for Proposition 209, also called the California Civil Rights Initiative, which would prohibit "discrimination against, or granting preferential treatment to" anyone in public employment, education or contracting.
Speaking against was Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor at the University of Southern California Law School, who charged that the initiative not only would kill affirmative action but would scuttle many outreach, mentoring and special training programs for minorities and women.
The debate went forward in an academic atmosphere without a single reference to the larger November contest it is supposed to affect -- the presidential race. So far, the issue unexpectedly has taken a back seat in that contest.
In a question-and-answer period, a few in the audience sided with Mr. Klausner in his contention that the government should be "color-blind" in the allocation of government jobs, schooling and contract work. But most, both whites and racial minorities, backed Mr. Chemerinsky in pleading against tearing down the whole structure of affirmative action in the state.
Contrary to the reaction during this debate, polls indicate a clear preference for the ban, but with the lead diminishing as the vote approaches.
A Los Angeles Times poll in July had 59 percent of California adults surveyed favoring it to only 29 percent against, but that was a drop from 66 percent for and an increase from 22 percent against four months earlier. And the poll revealed considerable confusion among voters about the proposition's intent.
Mr. Chemerinsky argued that calling it the California Civil Rights Initiative was itself deceptive because it would take rights away from minorities and whites, and the use of the words "preferential treatment" rather than "affirmative action" was misleading.
The poll found that when supporters of Prop 209 were informed that it would end affirmative action in state programs, only 43 percent said they would still back it, to 40 who said they would oppose it. Mr. Chemerinsky, urging a stronger educational effort about what the initiative would do, said: "If people go to the polls ignorant [of its objective], CCRI will pass. If people go to the polls informed, it will fail."
An effort by opponents of Prop 209 to have the words "affirmative action" included in the initiative's language was first approved by a lower court but later rejected by a federal appeals court. So the defenders of affirmative action are faced with the task between now and November 5 of getting voters to understand what is at stake, in the belief that if they know they will reject the proposition.
A quiet campaign
Compared to many earlier ballot initiatives, this one has not so far generated the kind of heavy corporate support financially on either side that often has made them multimillion-dollar competitions. The proponents have aired only two radio commercials and the opponents have not yet started any ads.
Pat Ewing, manager of the No on Prop 209 campaign, says that local news outlets have been giving considerable coverage to the contest. The recent invitation from students of California State University at Northridge to former Ku Klux Klanner David Duke to speak against affirmative action later this month has generated some of it -- and incensed the pro-Prop 209 forces. They clearly don't want Mr. Duke making their case for them.
Although Senator Dole supports Prop 209 and President Clinton opposes it, it does not appear to be something voters will weigh seriously in their presidential vote here, with the state doing well economically as unemployment is low and growth high. Whether or not the initiative is approved the voters, it is not likely to be a life preserver for Mr. Dole.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 9/13/96