Capitol Alert

Affirmative action divided California Democrats. What changed in the governor’s race?

Treasurer John Chiang, a candidate for governor, speaks at a gubernatorial candidates forum, Tuesday, April 4, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif.
Treasurer John Chiang, a candidate for governor, speaks at a gubernatorial candidates forum, Tuesday, April 4, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. AP

Three years after an affirmative action bill split California Democrats, Latino and African-American lawmakers have compelled the leading candidates for governor to go on the record with their thoughts on the issue.

Democrats John Chiang, Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa all said they support affirmative action – long-running government policies favoring those who face discrimination – following the recent inquiry from the Latino Legislative Caucus and Legislative Black Caucus.

Issues of race and discrimination have not surfaced early in the governor’s race, but caucus members pointed to “perilous obstacles ahead” if the diverse state doesn’t address the under-representation of Latinos and African American students in its universities.

While it was unheard of just a few years ago for Democratic-led caucuses to publicly ask their leading statewide candidates to take a stance on a controversial issue, shifting demographics have made it virtually impossible for gubernatorial aspirants to avoid the topic. The Republican Party’s struggles also reduce the threat of political blowback.

Chiang, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, said it’s important to come to the issue of affirmative action “with a mindset that is about expanding opportunities for everyone and not about promoting divisiveness among different communities of color, or any community, for that matter.

“I support affirmative action to increase opportunities for qualified candidates and to reverse the negative effects caused by years of discrimination to ensure minorities are represented at schools and in the workforce,” the state treasurer wrote.

Before holding elected office, Chiang said he was a member of the Ethnic Coalition, a group of African American, Latinos and Asian Americans that worked together on social and economic justice issues. Still, he’s resisted speaking about affirmative action. In 2014, Asian American lawmakers helped kill a measure to restore affirmative action in California’s public colleges by withdrawing their support. Asked about the legislation, Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 at an event at the time, Chiang told KPCC he only comments on financial matters. “I comment on other issues selectively,” he added.

Villaraigosa, the former Los Angeles mayor who won admission to UCLA because of affirmative action, has long backed such policies and responded to the caucuses with a 2 1/2-page letter.

“We must bring back affirmative action in a manner that specifically addresses the lack of female, African American and Latino representation in our schools, universities and government while also focusing like a laser on economic disparity,” he said. “We have millions of families in California of all races and backgrounds doing everything right, but are still falling behind. That’s why we must act now so the California Dream stays alive.”

Newsom’s spokesman said he had yet to receive the questions, but stressed that the lieutenant governor believes in affirmative action policies to expand opportunity and ensure public institutions reflect the state’s diversity. “As a UC Regent and CSU Trustee, he’s been a leader in advocating for policies and reforms to attract, retain and graduate more California students from communities of color,” spokesman Dan Newman said.

As San Francisco mayor, Newsom joined with then-Supervisor Tom Ammiano on legislation to protect affirmative action for city contracts after a judge in 2004 ruled the city’s policy was illegal.

The letter to the gubernatorial candidates comes a month after the heads of six caucuses, including the Latino and black legislative groups, wrote to lobbying firms asking them to provide various demographic data – including race, ethnicity, gender and openly gay or lesbian orientation – on their employees. In their questions to the candidates, the caucuses also sought responses on the ramifications of Proposition 209, the 1996 measure that prohibits race, ethnicity or gender preferences in hiring, college admissions and related governmental actions.

Chiang said he opposes Proposition 209, the effects of which he believes were predominantly felt at the admissions level for higher education. A possible solution is urging UC schools to decrease and eliminate slots for non-California students so more states residents can attend, he wrote, offering the most specifics on the question.

Democrat Delaine Eastin has yet to provide a response to The Sacramento Bee. Republicans Travis Allen and John Cox either did not respond to an email, or directly to the issue. A spokesman for Cox urged the Latino caucus, which is entirely Democratic, to “take the first step towards greater diversity by allowing Republicans to join their closed caucuses.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago