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President Spells Out Opposition to Prop. 209

Politics: Campaigning in Oakland, Clinton says growing up in segregated South taught him need for 'right kind' of affirmative action programs. He also repeats rejection of quotas.

November 01, 1996|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — Responding to pleas from opponents of California's Proposition 209, President Clinton on Thursday night underscored his opposition to the controversial ballot measure, saying his experiences growing up in the segregated South drove home for him the need for the "right kind" of affirmative action programs.

Clinton has been on record opposing Prop. 209, which would abolish state affirmative action programs, but he previously avoided bringing up the issue during numerous campaign appearances in California this year.

In recent weeks, with polls showing the race over the initiative tightening, the measure's foes have urged Clinton to take a more active role in the debate.

Clinton did so as he ended a long campaign day with a speech to an enthusiastic crowd of 13,000 who crowded Oakland's Jack London Square for a nighttime rally.

The president broached the issue somewhat casually, telling his listeners, "My problem with this 209--I know it's maybe popular and maybe not, but let me tell you what I know."

He then talked about growing up in Arkansas in the 1950s, during a time when segregation was officially sanctioned by state laws throughout the South.

"I'm old enough to remember, in my home state, when I could go into county courthouses, and look at the square and the restrooms were divided between white and colored," he said. "I'm old enough to remember when people had to buy a poll tax to vote."

Clinton said such boyhood experiences taught him the need for programs that would help overcome the affects of racial prejudice.

While reiterating that he has "never been for quotas" that would require government or businesses to hire a set number of minorities, he said, "I am for giving people a chance to prove that they are qualified."

He added, "That's what I believe, and I hope you do too."

He singled out programs used by the military to increase the number of minority officers as "the right kind of affirmative action."

Through such programs, he said, "somebody made an extra effort to give [minorities] a chance to prove they were qualified. I admire that."

Clinton also invoked the name of retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, a Republican who broke with his party leaders to declare his opposition to efforts to dismantle affirmative action programs. Clinton praised Powell for "taking on" his own party on the issue.

Leaders of the fight against Prop. 209 on Thursday night predicted that Clinton's remarks would provide a clear boost to their efforts to overcome the lead the measure has enjoyed in the polls. Those pushing the initiative discounted the significance of the president's comments.

Kathy Spillar, Southern California coordinator for Stop Prop. 209, said, "We feel the more often Clinton repeats his opposition to 209, the better it will be for us. People should know who is on their side."

But Arnold Steinberg, chief strategist for the Prop. 209 campaign, said Clinton's comments "were irrelevant."

"At this point, it doesn't matter what Clinton says on the issue," Steinberg said. "I don't think people will make up their minds based on what Clinton says. . . . If his position had been new, it would be different. It would have had significant impact. But people know where he stands on this issue. . . ."

Even as Clinton interjected himself more vigorously into the Prop. 209 debate, he hewed to his overall reelection strategy of never straying too far from the political center. He made a point of noting that as president he has taken steps to rid the federal government of a few affirmative action programs and "raised standards for others."

The president's comments came on the heels of a major speech supporting Prop. 209 that his Republican challenger, Bob Dole, gave in San Diego on Monday. Like Clinton, Dole previously had been reluctant to wade into the debate himself, despite advice from state GOP leaders who believe that the issue could help him in his uphill bid to carry California.

Dole--a former supporter of affirmative action programs, said in San Diego he now opposes them because he believes they did not work and that the nation "cannot fight the evil of discrimination with more discrimination."

Clinton's arrival in Oakland marked the start of his 29th trip to California as president. The crowd he addressed was enlivened by some supporters dressed in Halloween costumes, and Clinton quickly picked up on that theme.

"Since we're talking about masks, I'm going to take off a mask or two myself," Clinton said. Then he criticized Dole for saying the economy is at a 20-year low. "I've got news for him," Clinton said. "The worse economy that California had in 20 years was when I got elected president. It's better now."

Clinton began his campaigning Thursday by pressing his relentless bid for reelection with a trip to the Republican stronghold of Arizona, proclaiming progress on a broad spectrum of family concerns while imploring people to come to the polls on election day.

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