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NEWS ANALYSIS : Wilson Suit Affects State but Targets Nation : Politics: Governor stages media event to announce latest assault on affirmative action. Legal experts say litigation could cost taxpayers millions.

August 11, 1995|CATHLEEN DECKER and MAURA DOLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It was billed as an official gubernatorial action--not a function of his presidential campaign. In a way, that was hard to argue because Pete Wilson, the governor of California, was in the somewhat extraordinary position of filing suit to declare unconstitutional his own state's affirmative action plans.

But the larger audience of prospective presidential voters was undeniably on Wilson's mind, as the careful staging of his Thursday announcement of a new assault on affirmative action made clear.

The lawsuit was filed at a state appeals court in Sacramento, but here was Wilson at a dressed-up construction site in Los Angeles County, where the governor comes when he needs to have his words transmitted via television into California's--and America's--living rooms.

He read his remarks off large index cards, and Wilson's staff spread the word that he would not answer questions--signaling the desire to control the day's message and limit any unscripted complications. (Though the governor did toss off a few over-the-shoulder gibes to shouting reporters as he left the scene.)

And when it was over, the construction workers gave the blue-suited, loafer-shod Wilson a carpenter's level--indicative, they said, of his efforts to "level" the playing field by gutting affirmative action preferences.

If this was a made-to-order campaign appearance, it is one with vast repercussions for California.

The attorney general's office Thursday pondered what it is supposed to do--represent the state, as Dan Lungren said he would in his oath of office, or represent the governor, also his client.

"We are in the unusual position of normally representing the plaintiff in this case and also normally representing the defendant," spokesman Steven Telliano said.

Legal experts called Wilson's actions unusual, at the least, and said the lawsuit could cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees.

"A governor takes an oath to uphold the laws so the governor is supposed to defend the laws," USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said. "Why is it necessary for the governor to do this? What seems so extraordinary here is that the governor feels the need to be the one to bring the challenge."

To skeptics who suggested that necessity was bred by Wilson's presidential campaign, the governor's aides insisted that his moves on affirmative action, including the filing of the lawsuit, were not prompted by his ambitions.

"I would just reject that out of hand," Wilson aide Leslie Goodman said.

The lawsuit, filed with the state Court of Appeal, took aim at what Wilson advisers called the "core" of the state's affirmative action programs. The programs under assault include requirements that state departments set goals of awarding 15% of their business to minority-owned firms and 5% to companies owned by women and plans that establish goals toward hiring women and minorities in state government and colleges.

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Such programs have been in effect for several years, but have yet to make a stunning impact on the state's hiring practices. Not until 1994 did the state's biggest contractor, the Department of General Services, meet those goals and deliver 14.6% of its business to minority firms and 8.8% to women-owned companies.

Nonetheless, Wilson declared that fairness dictated the end to affirmative action preferences.

"What's the purpose of preparing our children to compete and win in the marketplace if the marketplace itself is governed by laws that discriminate against the most qualified in favor of the less qualified?" asked Wilson, defining the most qualified as those companies with the lowest bids.

"These preferences which we are seeking to strike down teach our children the wrong lesson," said the governor, who was backed up at the Glendale construction site by a half-circle of construction workers. "It teaches our children that hard work and individual merit will go unrewarded, even punished. That is not the American way."

Critics of Wilson said he was playing presidential politics with an issue of tremendous importance and emotion in a state that has had more than its share of racial conflict lately.

"He is desperate to keep this issue before the national scene," said Democratic Assemblywoman Marguerite Archie-Hudson of Los Angeles. Archie-Hudson noted that Wilson has recently signed bills that contained affirmative action requirements.

"Clearly the governor either was not being truthful and not acting properly as chief executive then or he is now trying to get a real bump in the polls."

In choosing to file suit against the state he governs, Wilson was choosing the most dramatic way--but not the only way--to accomplish his goals. And he was underscoring, yet again, his clear change of heart on the issue of affirmative action, which he had championed.

As late as October, Wilson was asked by the San Jose Mercury-News whether women or minorities should receive preferences in state contracting.

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