Why after 20 years affirmative action is coming back to Washington

Former State Rep. Jesse Wineberry speaking in August 2018 on the importance of affirmative action and Initiative 1000 at a rally in Seattle. (Photo by Rahwa Hailemariam)

After 20 years, affirmative action is back in Washington state. Jesse Wineberry certainly worked hard for it.

He spent late nights working with Nat Jackson, who was in Gov. Dan Evans’ cabinet when affirmative action was first enacted decades ago. Jackson, who has had a colorful career as an activist and jump rope champion, recalled he would find Wineberry working into the wee hours of the morning to make his initiative campaign viable.

Wineberry also led a four-day, 60-mile trek from south Seattle to the Capitol to implore lawmakers to bring the practice back to the state, a march inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama on voting rights.

More than 20 years after voters knocked it down, Wineberry led a scrappy campaign to bring affirmative action in public employment and education back to Seattle with an initiative that, according to the secretary of state’s office, received more signatures than any other in Washington’s history.

“We believe that when you increase diversity in our colleges and universities, those people graduate and create a more diverse workforce,” said Wineberry, a former state lawmaker and chief architect of the measure, before Sunday’s legislative vote. “A more diverse workforce enables us to be more competitive with other states and enables America to be more competitive with other countries.”

But the fight may not be over yet. During the legislative session, there was opposition organized by a conservative Asian American political action committee.

And affirmative action once again could face a challenge in the ballot box, if opponents gather enough signatures.

Initiative 1000 was approved along party lines by lawmakers on the last day of the legislative session in April.

The initiative curtails the state’s 1998 ban on preferential treatment based on race or gender. More than 58 percent of voters approved Initiative 200, which banned the use of affirmative action in public employment, education and contracting.

While the use of quotas or preferential treatment for less-qualified candidates based solely on their race or sex would continue to be banned, the initiative would allow state agencies to consider “discrimination against, or underrepresentation of, disadvantaged groups,” including women, people of color and veterans of the military.

State Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, said after the votes were tallied he walked off the Senate floor and started crying.

“One of the reasons why we came here was to really show communities that have historically been left out of the process that, not only do we care about them, we’re going to prioritize them and stand up for them, as well,” Nguyen said. “It felt as if we were actually able to arrive” by doing what we came here to do.

Washington is one eight states to have banned affirmative action, while 28 states require such plans in public employment or apprenticeships.

The campaign for I-200 was led by activist Tim Eyman before he handed the reins over to conservative radio host John Carlson. Eyman said in mid-April he would be frustrated if the Legislature approved the new initiative without it going to voters.

“If they’ve seen for 20 years, the government treating everyone equally and they don’t like that anymore, then, OK, vote against it,” he said. “The sky didn’t fall after the initiative passed.”

Many proponents of affirmative action, however, disagree with this assessment, citing a sizable decrease in state contracts given to women or minority-owned businesses.

Washington’s Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises reported that in 2017, less than 3 percent of state agency and educational institution dollars were spent with women or minority-owned businesses, down from the high-water mark of 13.3 percent in 1998. Since the passage of I-200, 3.5 percent of state contract money has been spent with such businesses overall.

“I-1000 would significantly expand economic opportunities to historically marginalized communities,” said Louise Chernin, the President and CEO of the GSBA, which is Washington’s LGBTQ and allied chamber of commerce. Chernin spoke at a public hearing on the measure April 18.

“When businesses, the government and educational institutions more fully represent our population, they are more successful at their goals,” Chernin said.

If the Legislature didn’t approve the initiative, it would have been sent to voters, where supporters think it would have easily passed.

Washingtonians may still get to find out though. A referendum has been filed with the secretary of state’s office to put the affirmative action initiative on the ballot. The sponsors of the referendum have 90 days to gather nearly 130,000 signatures from registered voters.

The state House first passed I-1000 with just a few hours left in the legislative session that closed at midnight on the night of April 28 by a vote of 56-42. All but one Democrat voted for it and Republicans were consolidated in their opposition. Just minutes later, the state Senate did the same with just one Democrat standing against the initiative.

Meanwhile, opponents located in the gallery loudly excoriated legislators after the vote totals were displayed, forcing Lt. Gov Cyrus Habib, who presides over the chamber, to order them removed, according to the Associated Press. They then marched around the Capitol yelling “vote them out.”

“Initiative 1000 is allowing government to draw a race line again among its people and that’s divisive and we cannot follow that,” said Kan Qiu, who filed the referendum.

Qiu said he also plans to target Democrats that voted for the initiative as they campaign in 2020 and work to push them out of office.

However, there are politically active groups of Asian Americans who do support affirmative Action. Ben Henry, the executive director of Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment (APACE), said in an email that the passage of I-1000 is “a great step in the right direction.”

“It would be wonderful if hard work was really all you needed to prosper,” Henry said. “But the reality is that the field is stacked against our hard-working communities of color, who are being set up to fail.”

Before I-200 passed 20 years ago, Ward Connerly pushed Proposition 209, which is identical to Washington’s old ban, in 1996 in California, the first electoral test for affirmative action in America.

In response to his work to end affirmative action in California, Connerly, who is black, said his property was defaced with disparaging racially charged phrases, but he says he was never discouraged.

“I felt that it was marginalizing black people because you carry that stigma and as a brown skin guy, I can attest to that,” Connerly said in an interview. “For an enlightened state, such as Washington, to be going back to restoring race preferences is just unimaginable to me.”

Connerly thought that I-1000 would be rejected by an even wider margin than that which favored banning affirmative action in 1998.

That being said, the demographics of the state have shifted since the start of the century. Overall, the population grew to over 7.5 million people in 2018, up from less than 5.7 million in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That population has also diversified. In 2000, about 85 percent of Washingtonians identified as white (and not Hispanic or Latino). That number is under 69 percent in 2018. State voters also supported wide Democratic margins in both chambers of the Legislature.

Wineberry believes the 2019 bill was bolstered by a campaign amassing more 400,000 signatures, the most in state history. However, One WA Equality Campaign now owes more than $1.3 million to firms that gathered those signatures, according to records filed with the Public Disclosure Commission.

Wineberry says that shows how important it was to restore affirmative action.

“People have put their names on the line for diversity,” he said.

Civic leaders in August held signs in support of affirmative action during a 2018 event in Seattle that commemorated MLK’s March on Washington. (Photo by Rahwa Hailemariam)

Clarification: The Greater Seattle Business Association is now known as GSBA. This article has been amended to reflect that change.

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