- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Steve Montenegro was not quite 4 when he and his family emigrated from El Salvador. He grew up speaking English and Spanish, earned a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and was elected to the Arizona Legislature last year at age 27.

Not surprisingly, he’s a big believer in the American dream. What he doesn’t believe in are government-sponsored racial and gender preferences, also known as affirmative action.

“It sends out a message that Hispanics or other minorities aren’t good enough to compete at the same level,” said Mr. Montenegro, a Republican from Litchfield Park, about 15 miles west of Phoenix. “Personally, I’m offended by the government telling me, ‘You’re not good enough.’”

Arizona voters will soon have an opportunity to decide whether they agree. The Arizona Legislature recently voted to place an anti-affirmative-action measure sponsored by Mr. Montenegro on the November 2010 ballot.

Known as the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative, the proposed constitutional amendment would ban discrimination based on race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin in government hiring, contracting and education.

Four states have passed similar ballot measures, most recently Nebraska last year. What makes Arizona’s unique is that it qualified for the ballot by a vote of the Legislature instead of a signature-gathering campaign.

The Senate approved the proposal 17-11 on June 22, a week after House passage. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans, and both approved the measure in straight party-line votes, with Republicans unanimously in favor and Democrats uniformly opposed.

Lending support to the Arizona effort is Ward Connerly, chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute in Sacramento, who has been on a quest to dismantle government-sponsored preference programs since his days as a regent for the University of California system.

In 1996, he sponsored California’s Proposition 209 after witnessing race-based admissions policies that resulted in higher-achieving students being rejected in favor of students with lower grades and test scores. The initiative passed with 54 percent of the vote.

Since then, Washington and Michigan voters have approved their own Proposition 209 clones.

Last year, a Colorado measure failed by less than 1 percentage point; a Nebraska initiative passed by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent.

Arizona state Rep. Cloves Campbell Jr., who voted against placing the measure on the ballot, said Arizona isn’t ready to join those states. He said examples of institutional discrimination are still prevalent and cited several examples, including a recent case of housing discrimination against a biracial couple.

He also pointed to the state school superintendent’s endorsement of a bill that would eliminate ethnic studies courses in public secondary schools.

“I still don’t think it’s time for affirmative action, preferential-treatment programs to be removed,” said Mr. Cloves, a Democrat from south Phoenix. “Especially in Arizona, we’ve still got a lot of things going on.”

For Mr. Connerly, the third time was the charm in Arizona. Last year, the House defeated an identical proposal. Proponents then launched an eleventh-hour effort to qualify the measure for the ballot via petition-gathering, but 40 percent of their signatures were ruled invalid.

An opposition group, Protect Arizona’s Freedom, filed a lawsuit claiming signature-gathering fraud. Organizers ultimately abandoned the effort after deciding there wasn’t enough time to review the petitions before the deadline.

“I do think we had enough signatures, but we just didn’t have the time to prove their validity,” said Max McPhail, executive director of the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative.

What changed since last year’s vote was the composition of the House. Two Republican legislators who had voted against placing the affirmative-action measure on the ballot retired and were succeeded by lawmakers who favored the initiative, said Democratic state Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.

Ms. Sinema, who represents a central Phoenix district and led Protect Arizona’s Freedom, called the vote “disappointing.”

“It’s like a get-out-of-jail free card. Everyone else is doing the hard work and gathering the signatures, and instead Ward Connerly just goes to the Legislature,” she said.

A Quinnipiac University Poll released June 3 shows that Americans favor abolishing affirmative action by a margin of 55 percent to 36 percent, but Ms. Sinema said the Colorado outcome gives her hope. “It was defeated in Colorado, and I think it could be defeated in Arizona,” she said.

Mr. Connerly isn’t apologizing for bypassing the signature-gathering process. He accused labor unions and liberal activist groups such as ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) of trying to shut down the process because they knew they lacked popular support.

“It’s nice that we don’t have to deal with the [Service Employees International Union], ACORN and By Any Means Necessary, who harassed our petition-gatherers and accused us of fraud,” he said.

He said his organization is considering making a new push in Colorado in 2010. A proposal to place the anti-affirmative measure on the 2010 Missouri ballot is making its way through the secretary of state’s office in Jefferson City.

In Arizona, Mr. Montenegro said he’s optimistic about the measure’s chances.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Our country has come such a long way on the area of race. We can’t have government discriminating on the basis of a person’s skin color.”

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