Last year, liberal Seattle Senator Jeannie Kohl-Welles introduced legislation to bring back affirmative action in Washington State, but was stymied by Republicans, who controlled the senate. Now that Dems have retaken the upper house, Kohl-Welles' bill is back. But if it passes, conservatives say they are itching for an opportunity to slam Democrats as arrogant elitists bent on subverting the public will.

This week in Olympia, Dems are pushing bills that would essentially repeal I-200, the 1998 voter-approved initiative that prohibited public colleges and universities from considering race, national origin, color, or ethnicity in the admissions process and which passed easily, with 59-percent support.

Kohl-Welles (D-36), a University of Washington sociologist and women's studies professor, says the effort is needed to bring Washington State in line with the U.S. Supreme Court's June 2003 decisions regarding affirmative action at the University of Michigan. In those cases, the court rejected Michigan's undergraduate admissions policy, declaring it a disguised quota system. But the court also upheld the core principle of affirmative action, stating that the Michigan Law School had the right to use race as one of many factors in determining whom to admit.

"I've been very attentive to the U.S. Supreme Court decisions," Kohl-Welles explains. "Diversity is a compelling state interest."

Committee hearings on the proposal are slated for this Thursday and Friday in Olympia (a companion house bill is sponsored by Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez-Kenney, another Seattle Dem who chairs the house Higher Education Committee). Following the lead of the Supreme Court, the bill would not impose quotas, but would allow universities to take race into account when making admissions decisions.

The idea of revising I-200 has broad support from a diverse array of groups, including the NAACP, which held a press conference last week in support of the legislation. In 2003, the UW law school issued a statement that stated, "Washington law should be refined by adopting the Supreme Court guidelines regarding affirmative action." The King County Bar Association endorsed Kohl-Welles' bill last year.

But word that Dems are pushing to change the law has already galvanized conservatives. Initiative king Tim Eyman, who cut his political teeth by launching the I-200 petition drive, says he remains "passionate" about preserving I-200: "The voters overwhelmingly approved I-200. It is sleazy for the legislature to undermine that."

Eyman likens liberal Democratic supporters of affirmative action to alcoholics. "They were absolutely hooked on discriminating on the basis of race and gender. Then the voters in 1998 told them, 'You have to go cold turkey,'" he says. "Well now it's been a few years, and they've got the shakes."

And KVI talker and former Republican gubernatorial candidate John Carlson, who took over the I-200 campaign from Eyman, says Dems are practically begging for a backlash if they pass legislation undercutting the initiative. "If they do, Republicans should send them a thank-you note," he says, pointing out that past polling has shown that I-200 has overwhelming support from Republicans, strong support from independents, and that more than 40 percent of Democrats support the law.

Carlson adds that changing the law is unnecessary, since I-200 has not harmed campus diversity. "The UW freshman class is the most diverse in the university's history," he contends. If I-200 is modified, conservatives will launch another initiative campaign to restore race-blind admissions policies, he says.

Kohl-Welles, however, says a closer reading of statistics shows that professional schools have seen a dip in minority recruitment, and that the undergraduate numbers are misleading given that a disproportionate number of minority students are Asians, while groups like Hispanics remain underrepresented at UW.

Kohl-Welles concedes that there are real political risks in overturning I-200. "I do not want to overturn the voters' initiative. I take that very seriously. But there has been a Supreme Court decision since then." She adds that politics aside, "there's also a question of what's right."

That's true, but with any controversial legislation, political consequences are unavoidable. With conservatives gearing up to make an issue of the bill--painting Olympia Dems as (once again) subverting the voters' will--it may be difficult to get it through the senate. According to her office, the governor has taken no official stand on the bill, though Kohl-Welles says Gregoire privately expressed support in December.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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