Sunday, July 20, 2003

California, a pioneer in outlawing affirmative action, will now decide whether to be the first to bar government agencies from collecting race data on application forms and other records — a ban that could come sooner than many expected.

The Racial Privacy Initiative has qualified for a statewide vote and is set to appear on the next state election ballot. Because of the effort under way to recall Gov. Gray Davis, Democrat, that ballot may come this fall, not during the state’s Democratic Party primary next spring, as many had anticipated.

Organizers of the Davis recall say they are confident they have collected enough signatures to put the recall to a vote, which would come in October or November, barring legal challenges from the Democrat-led legislature.

Appearing alongside the recall would be the Racial Privacy Initiative, which would ban the classification of “any individual by race, ethnicity, color or national origin in the operation of public education, public contracting or public employment.”

Republicans and Democrats agree that a fall vote would attract a more conservative electorate than one in March, which will have Democrats picking the party’s presidential candidate.

“You have to believe that this starts as a huge favorite for passage,” Republican strategist Dan Schnur said. “A fall ballot makes RPI’s passage even more likely.”

According to an April survey by the nonpartisan Field Poll, the initiative enjoys support of 48 percent the state’s likely voters, with 33 percent opposed and 19 percent undecided.

Mr. Schnur said the Davis recall and RPI help each other by giving conservatives more incentive to head to the polls. Regardless of when the election is held, the two Republican-backed efforts have a greater chance of success if they appear together, he said.

California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres agreed the chances of defeating RPI in a fall election are less than in a spring vote but said he is still optimistic it can be beaten.

The state’s legislative analyst has begun to prepare an analysis of the financial implications of RPI, a signal that the nonpartisan office realizes RPI may soon face the voters.

When the initiative does go before California voters, it needs only majority support to be written into the state constitution.

Ward Connerly, the chief backer of the initiative, said he is firing up his campaign in expectation of a November election. Mr. Connerly is the man responsible for the passage of the state’s 1996 affirmative-action ban in college admissions, state hiring and promotions, and government contracting.

Mr. Connerly said he has raised only $20,000 of the $1.5 million he hopes to spend on the campaign. The Davis recall, while providing a more friendly electorate for RPI, may also overshadow the initiative in the media, presenting a challenge for Mr. Connerly’s cash-strapped campaign.

The April Field Poll found that familiarity with the initiative was low, with only 11 percent of polled voters expressing some awareness of it.

Mr. Schnur said RPI backers must make their initiative an issue among the candidates to replace Mr. Davis, which he says should be easy. But Mr. Connerly has lamented the tepid public support he has received from state Republican leaders to date.

Mr. Connerly, a member of the board of regents of the University of California, said he is pushing the initiative despite the opposition of his board colleagues because he believes the state should move from race consciousness to race blindness.

In addition, the race data do little to characterize individual citizens, particularly when races are being blurred by interracial marriages, he said. He cited the U.S. census as an example, noting that it now has 63 racial categories.

“The fact that the government is preoccupied with race allows this race consciousness to continue,” Mr. Connerly said. “All of this nonsense will only end when we say race no longer has any currency.”

The initiative is opposed by the state Democratic Party and the American Civil Liberties Union. Opponents object to restrictions on the collection of information, which they say can be particularly harmful in the area of health care.

Mr. Connerly said the initiative makes exceptions for health-related research.

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