'It's a one-time shot.' Is it now or never for affirmative action in California?

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California Assemblywoman Shirley Weber on February 22, 2019. - Howard Lipin/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

When California Democrats first started working last year on a proposal to reinstate affirmative action — an effort that requires approval by ballot measure on Nov. 3 — it was months before a spring of coronavirus lockdowns and summer of racial reckoning in America.

Before 2020, those supporting what would become Proposition 16 thought they had almost no chance of convincing voters they should repeal the 25-year-old law banning the consideration of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in university admissions, public employment and contracting.

For years, polls have shown that the majority of the American electorate believes merit, not demographics like race or ethnicity should reward an applicant.

But that was long before COVID-19 swept through Black and brown communities, drove women from the job market and economically devastated low-income workers. The debate preceded a summer of national protests over police brutality and a divisive election cycle that kicked off with a crowd of diverse Democratic presidential candidates and ended with two senior white men leading the ticket.

Proponents of Proposition 16 saw in 2020 a perfect storm of systemic failures that could help get affirmative action back on the books in California.

“We have a unique opportunity,” Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said in June during a floor speech to send the proposal to the ballot.

But with less than five months until Election Day and no time to spare, the real work had just begun.

The Yes on Proposition 16 campaign soon ran into problems.

By September, a Public Policy Institute of California poll revealed only 31% of likely voters would approve Proposition 16. That pool only mildly improved by 6% in the latest survey, with 50% of likely voters against the measure and another 12% undecided.

Arnold Steinberg, a strategist on the campaign to defeat Proposition 16, said he isn’t surprised by the numbers. Steinberg created the campaign for the law the initiative would repeal, Proposition 209. Since then, he’s helped intervene whenever a challenge to the statute pops up.

Steinberg said he was sure opponents could keep Proposition 16 off the ballot this year.

“That all went out the window when you had the George Floyd situation,” Steinberg said, referencing the death of a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May that prompted protests for months in every major American city.

With support from organizations like Black Lives Matter — which Steinberg called a “revolutionary Marxist organization” and a “turnoff” for moderate Democrats — Proposition 16 landed on the ballot.

Yet Steinberg argues none of that will give the “yes” side a victory.

“There is no groundswell of people sitting around everyday saying, ‘I wish we could go have a constitutional amendment bringing back racial preferences,’” he said. “People are thinking about unemployment, about COVID.”

It’s true those economic and public health factors are top of mind for many voters concerned about losing their paychecks or falling sick with the coronavirus.

But those issues are also driving voters to the ballot boxes, swelling the state’s Democratic electorate.

Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a former chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus who helped push the legislation to reinstall affirmative action, said voters are more engaged than ever in the voting process.

And as they vote, they’re reflecting on the intersection of race, socioeconomic status and who’s been hardest hit by the pandemic and recession.

“This is the greatest year to get (Proposition 16) through,” Gonzalez said.

Despite that optimism, the Yes on Proposition 16 campaign has had to compete for voter attention.

The United States is embroiled in a consequential presidential election. In California, voters also have to consider a dozen ballot measures. That makes it harder to cut through the noise, Gonzalez said, especially with a topic like affirmative action.

“Proposition 16 is a complex issue,” she added. “I’m worried too many people will skip over and vote no.”

An argument the campaign has made in recent weeks, however, is that voters who initially reject the idea of race playing a factor in the application process need only a few minutes to be convinced that Proposition 16 would hand California “the tools to fight discrimination.”

“Our task, and we’re up to it, is to let California voters know what this is about,” said Eva Paterson, co-chair of the campaign, during a recent debate on the ballot measure. “Once they know, they come to our side.”

The opposition, meanwhile, makes the case that Proposition 16 would harm the very populations it intends to protect.

Gail Heriot, who co-chairs the No on 16 campaign, said the initiative would enhance discrimination by allowing race-based preferential treatment.

“Voters are against racial preferences,” Heriot said, dismissing the argument that Proposition 16 is trailing because voters are confused.

“They do know what it means,” she said, “and that’s why Proposition 16 is struggling.”

If Proposition 16 has anything on its side, it’s money.

The “yes” campaign says it has raised just under $17 million, a giant sum compared to the “no” side’s nearly $1.5 million.

The millions are helping to finance an advertising blitz in the final days of the campaign to catch votes. The campaign is also making “hundreds of thousands of (voter) phone calls,” campaign strategist Nicole Derse said.

“We’ve been running an aggressive communications campaign for the last couple of months,” Derse said. “But the frequency has increased. The intensity has increased.”

With only days until deadline, proponents said they hope voters remember their claim that Proposition 16 will help California recover from a chaotic year.

“It’s a one-time shot,” Gonzalez said. “I just hope we don’t run out of time.”

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©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)