California lawmakers shelve effort to bring back affirmative action

California voters will not be asked this year to decide whether to roll back California’s ban on racial preferences in college admissions, a decision the Legislature reached Monday after weeks of intense advocacy from Asian Americans who argued that a repeal would hurt their children’s prospects for getting into the most competitive public campuses.

In email blasts to voters, news releases in Asian-language media and town-hall meetings up and down the state, the 80-20 National Asian American PAC mounted a campaign that targeted Asian American legislators and urged Asian American Democrats to re-register as Republicans in an effort to halt the measure known as Senate Constitutional Amendment 5.

The measure, by Democrat Sen. Ed Hernandez of West Covina, would have asked voters to allow California’s public colleges and universities to use race and ethnicity as a factor in judging students for admission, overturning part of Proposition 209.

“Given the scare tactics and misinformation used by certain groups opposed to SCA 5, we felt it is necessary to have a discussion based on facts and take the time to hear from experts on the challenges our public universities and colleges face with regard to diversity,” Hernandez said Monday after the measure had been shelved.

The racial makeup of California’s most prestigious university campuses has been a political flashpoint for decades. When voters approved Proposition 209 in 1996, African Americans made up 7.1 percent of students admitted to UC Berkeley, and Asian Americans were 32.1 percent, UC statistics show. By last year, African Americans had dropped to 4 percent of Berkeley’s admissions, while Asian Americans had increased to 42.3 percent.

S.B. Woo, the former lieutenant governor of Delaware who is president of the 80-20 PAC, praised the Legislature’s decision to shelve SCA 5, saying “it is good for students of all races who apply to the top-tier California universities.”

“Asian Americans have always been picked out to be stepped on in race-conscious college admissions,” Woo said in a phone interview from his winter home in Florida. “We have exerted our influence through our huge email list.”

Democrats in the state Senate used their two-thirds supermajority to pass SCA 5 in January, with Sen. Kevin de León one of several Latino legislators who praised the measure as a means to create more diversity at California’s public colleges. De León, the Los Angeles Democrat in line to become the next president pro tem of the state Senate, said that without affirmative action when he went to college, he “wouldn’t be here today.”

Republicans argued against it that day, saying the way to make college attainable for more students of color is to improve the K-12 schools in their communities. After a brief debate, the measure passed on a party-line vote and moved to the Assembly for consideration.

Then opponents launched a loud fight, arguing that a re-introduction of affirmative action would help some ethnic groups at the expense of others. Part of their effort involved threatening to remove Asian American lawmakers who supported the measure.

“The days when (Asian American) politicians can take the money and the votes from their community, and then do whatever that suit(s) their personal ambitions, are over. We will see to it that such politicians be defeated in the next election cycle,” said a sample letter the 80-20 PAC urged its followers to send to eight members of the Assembly with Asian heritage.

Opponents held town-hall meetings in Sacramento and Los Angeles this month. A weekend meeting in Cupertino featured Ward Connerly, a former University of California regent and author of Proposition 209.

California Republicans used SCA 5 as a rallying point during their weekend convention in Burlingame, holding a news conference to promote Peter Kuo, an Asian American candidate who opposes it.

Last week, three Asian American Democrats who had voted for the measure in the Senate this year asked Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez to halt progress on the measure.

“Prior to the vote on SCA 5 in the Senate, we heard no opposition to the bill. However, in the past few weeks, we have heard from thousands of people throughout California voicing their concerns about the potential impacts,” Sens. Ted Lieu of Torrance, Carol Liu of La Cañada Flintridge and Leland Yee of San Francisco wrote to Pérez on March 11.

“Given that many in the (Asian Pacific Islander) and other communities throughout the state feel that this legislation would prevent their children from attending the college of their choice, we have asked Senator Ed Hernandez to hold SCA 5 until he has an opportunity to meet with affected communities and attempt to build a consensus.”

On Monday, Pérez announced that at Hernandez’s request, he is sending the measure back to the Senate without taking any action in the lower house. He acknowledged that it didn’t have the necessary support to pass and said his decision was “driven most by my interest in making sure we come out with the best policy outcomes.”

Since Proposition 209 went into effect, Pérez said, “We’ve seen that there’s been a decrease in diversity on a variety of campuses.”

“We’ve also seen a reduction in the tools that certain campuses have in recruiting students. And as a result, we have students who are UC- and CSU-eligible who are going out of state to get their education. And once they’ve got the education and the skills that come with it, they have less likelihood of coming back and bringing those skills to California.”

Pérez said he and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg will form a task force to discuss whether California should change the way it admits students to public universities. The group will include representatives from the University of California, California State University and the community colleges, he said.

Steinberg issued a statement calling for a “calm and intelligent discussion” about affirmative action.

“Affirmative action is not quotas,” Steinberg’s statement said. “I am deeply concerned anytime one ethnic group turns on another.”

Senate Republican leader Bob Huff issued a statement saying Republicans would continue to oppose efforts to bring back affirmative action.

“The people pushing SCA 5 repeatedly try to change the discussion with misinformation, saying that people don’t understand the issue. The opposite is true. There has been an outcry across the state, because people do understand the issue,” Huff’s statement said.

In interviews Monday afternoon, Democrats Lieu and Yee both said they support affirmative action in higher education and would like to see a repeal of Proposition 209.

“My position on 209 hasn’t changed. But the solution to 209 has changed. And I believe SCA 5 was the wrong solution,” Lieu said.

“The concerns we heard were from all over. It was Vietnamese Americans, it was Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Jewish Americans.”

Yee said he wanted to slow the process to address critics’ concerns.

“I felt that it was important that we keep the Asian American community understanding the importance of this particular bill,” Yee said. “That’s why we did not oppose the bill. We did not ask that this thing be torpedoed. We just simply said take the time to sit down with the constituents that are out there and work it out.”

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