Backlash over affirmative-action bill surfaces in Legislature, election

Weeks after some Asian American lawmakers killed a measure to restore affirmative action in California’s public colleges by withdrawing their support, backlash from Democrats who supported the effort is surfacing in the Capitol and on the campaign trail.

Repercussions of the Legislature’s decision last month to shelve Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 appear to be pitting some African American and Latino Democrats against their Asian American colleagues. Asian American Democrats were the subject of an advocacy campaign by opponents of affirmative action earlier this year, and their decision not to support the measure caused it to fail last month in the Legislature.

On Monday, several members of the Legislature’s black and Latino caucuses withheld their votes on a non-controversial bill, killing a measure by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi. Last week, six black and Latino Democrats sent Sen. Ted Lieu a letter withdrawing their endorsement in his race for Congress. Muratsuchi and Lieu are both Asian Americans and Democrats from Torrance.

Muratsuchi’s Assembly Bill 2013, a measure to expand the number of electric vehicles entitled to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes, had sailed through two committees with little opposition before falling 11 votes short when it reached the Assembly floor Monday. As anurgency measure that would have taken effect immediately, it required two-thirds approval.

Six lawmakers who had supported the bill in committee reversed and withheld their votes Monday, helping to doom the bill. Three are members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus and three are part of the California Legislative Black Caucus, two blocs that issued a joint statement vowing to push ahead with an effort to overturn the state’s affirmative action ban.

In total, 15 members of the black or Latino caucuses abstained from voting – more than enough to push the legislation over the finish line.

Muratsuchi declined to talk to reporters after the vote.

Sen. Holly Mitchell, the Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s black caucus, said she was not surprised to hear that so many lawmakers had withheld their votes on Muratsuchi’s bill. She was asked whether she expects black and Latino Democrats to continue withholding votes from colleagues they feel do not support a return to affirmative action.

“Perhaps,” Mitchell said, adding that lawmakers who believe in restoring affirmative action are concerned that some Democrats are showing “a lack of commitment to a core Democratic Party priority.”

She said the caucus’s goal is to reverse the educational portion of Proposition 209, a 1996 initiative that barred race and gender preferences in California public education, hiring and contracting.

“So we’ll be coming together strategically to figure out what our next steps are to accomplish that,” Mitchell said.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he plans to convene a public forum in the coming weeks where supporters of affirmative action – including several Asian American groups – will talk about how to bring race-conscious decision-making back to California colleges.

The discussion, so far, he said, has been too harsh.

“The way that this debate and discussion has been had so far shows the danger in deliberately trying to divide people along racial and ethnic lines,” Steinberg said. “That’s not the way we should be having a very important discussion.”

The effort to restore the ability of California’s public colleges to use race as a factor in judging admissions went through the Senate in January on a party-line vote. Republicans objected, but Democrats were united in their support and used their supermajority to pass the measure.

Then, as it hit the Assembly, SCA 5 ran into an opposition campaign promoted largely by activists who said the measure would hurt Asian American children’s chances of getting into the most competitive colleges. They threatened to campaign against Asian American politicians who voted in favor of the measure and urged Asian American voters to register as Republicans.

Facing pressure, three Asian American senators who had previously supported the measure reversed course, sending a letter to Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, asking him to halt progress on the bill.

“As lifelong advocates for the Asian American and other communities, we would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children,” Sens. Ted Lieu, Carol Liu and since-suspended Leland Yee wrote in a letter to Pérez, who decided to send the bill back to the Senate rather than bring it to a vote on the Assembly floor.

Since then, the Senate has lost its Democratic supermajority as three senators facing criminal charges were suspended. In the Assembly, anger over the defeat of SCA 5 has surfaced at closed-door Democratic caucus meetings, two lawmakers who asked not to be identified told The Bee, with some legislators fuming at what they see as backtracking on an important minority rights issue.

In the campaign arena, the legislators withdrawing their endorsements of Lieu included the leaders of the Legislature’s black and Latino caucuses, along with four other lawmakers. They wrote Lieu a letter that didn’t explicitly mention SCA 5 but said “as lifelong Democrats, we support the core democratic values of inclusion and diversity and we expect the candidates we support will share those values.”

“At this point,” the letter read, “we cannot in good conscience endorse a candidate who does not share that perspective.”

Lieu issued a statement in response to losing the endorsements, saying he has “fought my whole political life to ensure that inclusion and opportunity for all communities remains paramount in all decisions we make.”

“To distort my position into anything other than that is fundamentally unfair,” Lieu wrote.

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