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Opponents of Prop. 209 Target Women Voters

Election: Affirmative action ban would mean less opportunity, foes say. Backers call the strategy patronizing.

August 20, 1996|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kathy Stewart paused politely on the Venice boardwalk as the campaign worker plied her with rapid-fire warnings about Proposition 209, urging her to vote against the fall ballot measure.

Although not especially impressed--"I kind of thought it was just a line," she said--Stewart represents a pivotal front in the contest over the initiative, which would ban government affirmative action programs tailored to women and minorities.

At a time when polls have consistently shown that a majority of California voters support Proposition 209, opponents are turning to women to derail the victory train. They are doing all they can to grab women's attention and widen an emerging gender gap into a canyon that cannot be spanned.

As one of the larger slices of the electorate pie, women also are being courted by initiative supporters, albeit less directly.

"I think our message is probably going to be universal and is largely going to succeed because it is universal," said Proposition 209 political strategist Arnold Steinberg, dismissing opponents' tactics as a patronizing and ultimately doomed bid for women's loyalties.

"When all is said and done, I don't think there will be a significant gender gap," he said.

The anti-Proposition 209 focus on women stems from a variety of factors.

Not only do women usually make up slightly more than half the Californians who vote, they have been among the major beneficiaries of affirmative action policies and are more inclined to support them than men.

Opponents' strategy further rests on the delicate but pragmatic recognition that the politics of gender are less volatile than the politics of race--and thus potentially more successful.

Recent statewide polling by The Times suggests that the approach may already be having some effect. The margin by which women voters favor the initiative has slipped nine points, to 55%, since March of last year, driving an overall softening of support for the measure. By contrast, 65% of male voters favor 209.

"If enough [women] feel this is going to hurt them in any way, then I think they would come out to vote against it," said Susan Pinkus, acting director of The Times Poll.

Initiative backers say it is too early in the campaign to read much into the changing poll figures. And they believe that their primary message--that government-sponsored racial or gender preferences are unfair and morally wrong--will continue to resonate strongly with women as well as men.

"There is virtually no gender gap on the issue of preferences," Steinberg said, adding that the Proposition 209 campaign will "keep the focus on preferences" and emphasize "that most women . . . do believe in merit."

Fearful that the initiative will generate a wave of copycat proposals across the country, national women's groups such as the Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women have another message.

"We're going to have to make sure that women voters and any men who depend on a woman's income [know] that . . . this initiative is deceptive and trickery and takes away the programs and laws that have opened the doors and allowed women to work and be paid a decent wage," said Katherine Spillar, the Los Angeles-based national coordinator of the Feminist Majority.

The Nov. 5 ballot measure would amend the California Constitution with language prohibiting state discrimination or preferential treatment based on race, gender, ethnicity or national origin in the public sector--including employment, education and contracting.

Its effect would be to end public affirmative action programs geared to a particular group, such as math mentoring programs restricted to girls, or guidelines that a certain percentage of state contract work be awarded to companies owned by minorities or women.

Also included in the initiative is a bitterly disputed three-line paragraph, known as "Clause C," that is at the heart of opponents' campaign with women.

"Nothing in this section," states the clause, "shall be interpreted as prohibiting bona fide qualifications based on sex which are reasonably necessary to the normal operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting."

Foes of the ballot measure contend that the paragraph will amend the state Constitution to allow gender discrimination if it is "reasonably necessary"--a far lower legal standard than the current one, which says women cannot be discriminated against unless there is a "compelling need."

Initiative proponents vehemently dispute that interpretation, dismissing it as a blatant attempt to scare women into voting against Proposition 209. The clause applies only to the initiative language itself and will not weaken other constitutional protections, backers say. The paragraph was included, they add, to ensure that Proposition 209 does not unintentionally open the door to such things as strip searches of female prison inmates by male guards.

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