California's Other Big Question

  • Share
  • Read Later
Good news for California voters: in October 7th’s special election, once they say yes or no to dumping Gray Davis and weed through a list of 135 possible replacements, they’ll have additional ballot propositions to vote on. (Note to the secretary of state: Most voters won’t find the other propositions unless they come before the recall question.) The most contentious of the initiatives, Proposition 54, would ban the state from collecting data on race and ethnicity in everything from education to health care to state contracts. In any other election, that would be controversial enough to generate its own media frenzy, but in the recall chaos, it just throws one more wildcard into the deck.

Proposition 54 is the brainchild of Ward Connerly, who made his first impact on California politics seven years ago with a successful campaign for Proposition 209. That initiative banned affirmative action by the state government in schools, employment and contracts. The fight over 209 was ugly and it turned Connerly, a successful businessman and University of California regent, into a polarizing figure. He’s not backed down: in addition to 54, Connerly is currently pushing a Michigan referendum to outlaw affirmative action there, which would effectively overturn the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision backing limited affirmative action.

Proposition 54 is being called “Son of 209.” Connerly believes that if the state stops gathering data on race, ethnicity and ancestry, California will become a more color-blind society. He complains that the state is forcing people to check all “these little boxes” which narrowly define people by their race or ethnicity. Critics say Connerly is trying to cure a fever by throwing out the thermometer. They counterattack that collecting such data is the only way to determine if discrimination still exists. Furthermore, there are medical concerns that have nothing to do with racism; race and ethnicity play a factor in some health conditions. Data has shown that white women are most at-risk for breast cancer, while black infants have the highest mortality rate. Connerly’s initiative contains an exemption for medical data, but several hospitals and insurers have said it is too narrow.

As contentious as 54 is on its own, it’s just another bit of drama in the saga of the recall. Poll numbers from this month show the proposition winning by 11 points, but that’s down from a 21 point margin in July. But the polls also show that voters who support 54 overwhelmingly back the recall, while anti-54 voters oppose it, albeit by a smaller margin. That raises two scenarios: Republicans believe recall supporters are going to flock to the polls for the chance to boot Davis out of office and they’ll pass 54 in the process. Democrats argue that Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante can motivate black and Latino voters to go to the polls to defeat 54 and also defeat the recall — or elect Bustamante to replace his boss. When Davis ran for reelection in 2002, he lost among white voters but won a solid majority of blacks and Hispanics. Davis and Bustamante have both come out against 54; Arnold Schwarzenegger is avoiding the subject for now, telling radio host Sean Hannity on Wednesday, “We have not gotten into the affirmative action and also Proposition 54.”

Most of the candidates have come out in favor of another proposition on October’s ballot — Proposition 53, which guarantees a share of the state budget for improving state infrastructure, like highways. Amazing — all these people running for governor so they can fix the budget mess are backing yet another voter initiative that takes away the government’s ability to rearrange the budget during tough times. Just another bit of craziness in the recall mess.