SACRAMENTO — California Democrats voted unanimous opposition Sunday to any repeal of state affirmative action programs, thus formally joining a battle that many expect will dominate the 1996 California elections, including President Clinton's prospects for a second term.
State Chairman Bill Press told the 2,158 voting delegates to the Democratic State Convention, "We are going to have to work our ass off to defeat that initiative."
It will take much more than branding supporters of the proposed 1996 state ballot measure as racist; that tactic failed to defeat Proposition 187 last year, Press said at the concluding session of the three-day convention.
California voters overwhelmingly approved the measure to cut off most government services to illegal immigrants. The constitutionality of Proposition 187 now is being tested in the courts.
In a Saturday address to the convention, President Clinton admonished delegates to approach the affirmative action issue coolly and rationally.
"Let me speak," he implored, cutting off a potential protest by delegates who began to shout their wholehearted support for affirmative action as it exists. "Don't scream. Let's talk. They (Republicans) win the screaming matches. We win the conversations."
Press appeared to have Clinton in mind Sunday when he said, "We will not win by labeling anybody who is trying to come to grips with this problem (as) some kind of a sellout and some kind of a compromiser."
Clinton sought to weave a careful course through the tangled political issue by expressing sympathy for economically displaced white males while affirming the value of programs "that have done great things for the American people, and haven't hurt other people."
The President has launched a review of federal affirmative action programs and their necessity in the 1990s, but he took no position on the California initiative.
Clinton spoke out strongly against Proposition 187 while campaigning for gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Brown and other candidates in the 1994 California election.
At the state level, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson announced a plan last week to abolish most advisory commissions on affirmative action. Wilson has made opposition to affirmative action the centerpiece of his own campaign for the White House, much as he used Proposition 187 in winning reelection as governor last year.
The Democratic convention approved its resolution, an amalgam of many that were submitted, with little discussion. In the measure, the party "reaffirms its longstanding and unwavering support of civil rights laws and affirmative action." And it called for a task force to develop a strategy to oppose the initiative "and other misguided attempts to repeal affirmative action progress in the nation."
An attempt to sanction Democrats who fail to join the battle, by denying them official party support and campaign funds, was rejected on the grounds that it conflicted with state party bylaws. An expected fight over that provision never developed.
Moderate Democrats, fearful of the potency of the affirmative action issue, have urged a more cautious approach than outright opposition to the ballot campaign.
They still are smarting from the heavy election losses last year when Proposition 187 was an emotional and overriding issue. And they are aware that recent opinion polls have indicated broad support among all California voters for the proposed initiative on affirmative action.
But the official party body represented at the weekend convention, the Democratic State Central Committee, is dominated by more liberal party activists, women, minorities and public labor union members.
The affirmative action resolution was presented on the floor of the convention by Inola Henry of Los Angeles, a teacher and co-chair of the Resolutions Committee.
She defended such programs by declaring that they are based on equity and do not impose quotas or arbitrary treatment for or against groups of people. And while Clinton talked about the insecurity of white males Saturday, Henry said, "Everybody is insecure. It's not just white men. It's everybody."
The presidential race and the affirmative action initiative are expected to be the dominant contests in 1996, when there is no election either for U.S. senator or for governor in California.
Political experts consider California, with its mammoth bloc of 54 electoral votes, the key to Clinton's reelection. Press said there is no way Clinton can win reelection without carrying the state again.
Polls now indicate that the President has to shore up his support among both his core constituency on the one hand and moderates and independents on the other. The core group includes women, minorities and liberal activists--the sort of voters represented by delegates to the convention.
They will fervently oppose the affirmative action ballot measure. Moderates and independents will be more inclined to vote for such an initiative, the polls suggest.
So too will Democratic men. The Los Angeles Times Poll found in March that one-fourth of Democratic men disapprove of the job that Clinton is doing. He ranks somewhat better with Democratic women.