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Racial Data Measure May Be a Wild Card in Election

Few candidates have weighed in on Prop. 54, though Davis has voiced opposition. Analysts are divided on how it will affect the recall vote.

August 15, 2003|Rebecca Trounson, Duke Helfand and Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writers

The same day that California voters choose whether to oust Gov. Gray Davis, they will also weigh a ballot measure to bar public agencies from collecting many types of racial data -- two highly combustible issues that are bound to interact with each other in significant ways before the Oct. 7 election.

Political analysts and campaign strategists working on the recall offer divergent views on whether the race data measure, Proposition 54, will help or hurt Davis' chances of keeping the governorship.

But on one point they agree: Proposition 54 figures to be a major wild card in the recall effort. Moreover, they say, the way recall candidates use Proposition 54 to galvanize voter support, or attempt to dodge it altogether, may affect the fate of the ballot measure.

"The initiative heightens the ideological and partisan tensions that are already implicit in the recall," said Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. "It just adds to the fact that this is a very, very polarized electorate."

The interplay between Proposition 54 and the recall was on display Thursday at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where the Democratic governor was joined by a parade of prominent African American politicians during a campaign-style visit.

He told the largely black audience that the measure would hinder collection of critical academic performance numbers by race, preventing educators from learning whether their curricula were really helping all students learn.

The measure has also proved to be a litmus test of sorts for the candidates looking to replace Davis on the recall ballot.

The Democrats' standard-bearer among recall contenders, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, has already come out strongly against Proposition 54. Bustamante opposed a similar 1996 measure barring racial preferences in admissions.

Independent candidate Arianna Huffington also has denounced the measure, telling National Public Radio, "I am completely against that."

But the Republican leading the early recall opinion polls, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, has so far declined to state a stance on the initiative.

Proposition 54 is the brainchild of Ward Connerly, a University of California regent and Sacramento businessman. Connerly gained national attention for his successful campaigns to stop the use of racial and gender preferences at the UC and -- in 1996 with Proposition 209 -- in public institutions statewide. A Republican, Connerly has remained neutral so far on the effort to recall Davis.

Bruce Cain, professor of political science at UC Berkeley, said Proposition 54 probably has a better chance in the recall election than it would have had in the March primary, when it was originally scheduled to be on the ballot. He said the recall vote is likely to energize Republican voters, who are considered more likely to support it.

But Cain said the initiative could also help mobilize liberal voters, particularly Latinos, to turn out to oppose it, especially now that Bustamante, the state's highest-ranked Latino elected official, is running to replace Davis if the recall succeeds.

Connerly dismisses many of the concerns over the proposal as baseless, or irrelevant. In one key area, he said, his intention is that it "not apply to anything related to health or medicine in any way." And, he said, other exemptions written into the measure would leave unchanged such efforts as federally required school testing, any data needed to prevent the loss of federal money and many law-enforcement functions.

Connerly, who is of mixed race, said Proposition 54 "is threatening to people because it challenges the whole concept of race and race consciousness. And there are an awful lot of people who are deeply invested in that."

He named the measure the "Racial Privacy Initiative," asserting that one's racial background should not be the government's business. Opponents call it the "information ban."

The measure would amend the California Constitution to prohibit the state and other public entities, including local governments and colleges and universities, from classifying individuals by race, ethnicity, color or national origin.

Backers say the measure would help propel the state toward a colorblind society and that many of the fears about its effects are unjustified. But it is triggering protests from those who argue that it would ban information vital to the well-being of millions of Californians.

The measure has brought together a broad coalition of opponents, including law enforcement agencies, civil rights leaders, teachers, the California Medical Assn. and public health researchers. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is against it, as is Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer. Connerly's fellow UC regents are on record opposing it, as is the board of the state's community college system.

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