• Affirmative action initiative passes Washington Legislature

    By: TOM JAMES The Associated Press

    Updated:

    OLYMPIA, Wash. - An initiative to bring back a form of affirmative action in Washington has cleared final votes in the state House and Senate and is set to become law.

    Initiative 1000 will allow recruitment goals for minority candidates in state jobs, education and contracting, significantly loosening existing restrictions on targeted outreach and other forms of affirmative action. The measure passed the Senate on a 26-22 vote Sunday night after the House passed it 56-42.

    Affirmative action has been illegal in Washington since a 1998 initiative overturned an earlier version of the policy.

    The measure will allow consideration of factors like race, sex, ethnicity, and disability — but not as the sole qualifier for an otherwise less-qualified applicant.

    The measure exposed deep divides, with advocates characterizing the under-representation of minorities in schools and state jobs as the ripple effect of historic discrimination, even as opponents charged that explicit inclusion goals for individual groups would amount to unfair exclusion of others.

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    Freshman Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat from White Center who noted he was the son of refugees, said the bill leveled the playing field for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    "We want to be able to be successful, just like anybody else," Nguyen said. His own position as a state legislator, Nguyen added, wasn't only a factor of his own effort.

    "It didn't just take hard work, it took opportunity as well," he said.

    Critics of the measure, however, challenged the distinction between a hiring or recruitment goal and a quota. They said it would be impossible for such efforts to avoid privileging some groups over others.

    "This initiative divides us," said Rep. Brandon Vick, a Vancouver Republican who spoke against the measure ahead of the House vote. "With this change, we're saying that race matters more than merit. This is diversity through discrimination, plain and simple."

    Debate also spilled over into vocal protest, with opponents — dressed in matching white shirts that had become ubiquitous around the state Capitol — chanting loudly outside the state Senate chambers as the final vote was held.

    Immediately after the vote total was displayed, opponents seated in the adjacent gallery also broke into shouts and jeers, loudly condemning legislators and leading Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, who presides over the Senate, to order them removed by Senate security. The group then marched around the rotunda chanting "vote them out!" before gathering outside the main Senate doors shouting "shame on you!"

    Along with race, sex, ethnicity and disability, the measure would allow consideration of national origin, age and honorably discharged veteran status, provided other qualifications were considered. A commission including the state attorney general and lieutenant governor would oversee implementation of the rules.

    While the measure returns a form of affirmative action to the state, it stops short of the affirmative action policies that were repealed by I-200, which passed in 1998.

    Earlier policies included a "plus three" system, which directed state agencies to first select the seven top scoring candidates for a job, then at least three applicants from a minority group who wouldn't have otherwise scored high enough to make it into the finalist pool. Agencies were then allowed to choose freely from the ten candidates.

    As an initiative to the Legislature, lawmakers had the option to send I-1000 to a popular vote. With approval in both chambers, however, it now heads directly to the Secretary of State to be entered into law, unless opponents can gather enough signatures within 90 days to force it to a popular vote via the state's referendum process.

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