Arthur Fletcher implemented the nation's first federal affirmative-action program, which required federal contractors to meet specified goals in minority hiring.

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A year in which three black candidates ran for governor of a U.S. state may be the perfect time to tell a little-known story of how Washington state’s most respected Republicans, including then-Gov. Dan Evans, hatched a plan a half century ago to get the first black governor since Reconstruction elected here in Washington state. The effort was unsuccessful, but it boosted the career of the man who would become the father of affirmative action.

As Evans turns 93 this month and moves toward completion of his memoirs, he takes special satisfaction in recalling the failed effort in 1968 to get a little-known Eastern Washington official named Arthur Fletcher elected as lieutenant governor. It was a failure that became one of Evans’ most important contributions because of the career path Fletcher later took in national politics.

Evans and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, then the GOP candidate for state attorney general, and Secretary of State A. Ludlow Kramer picked Fletcher to be the Republican candidate for the state’s second highest office, a position from which he might then run for governor when Evans moved on from the governor’s role.

Fletcher was included in all the 1968 campaign’s election material, walking side by side with Kramer, Evans and Gorton. Both Evans and Gorton would eventually become U.S. Senators.

Fletcher was a member of the Pasco City Council in 1967, a self-help advocate representing the largely minority community of East Pasco, where he had founded the Self-Help Cooperative to keep local anti-poverty efforts alive.

Evans and Gorton saw Fletcher as the type of political leader who could bridge racial differences at a time of local and national racial tensions.

Fletcher, a football star at little Washburn University in Kansas who joined the original Baltimore Colts in 1950 as the franchise’s first black player, had already built a reputation in other parts of the country for his activities as a political anomaly, a Republican civil-rights activist.

Young people attracted to a state GOP-spawned group called Action for Washington distributed flyers and yard signs featuring, as did newspaper ads and television commercials, the foursome of Evans, Gorton, Fletcher and Kramer, all in their early 40s, striding side by side with clean-cut confidence.

At the 1968 Republican National Convention, for which Evans was the keynote speaker, the stage was set for Fletcher with a role promoting his self-help philosophy to an audience eager to attract black voters. Among those drawn to Fletcher’s convention message was Richard Nixon.

Fletcher returned to Washington after the convention to win the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor, but he lost the November general election to longtime incumbent John Cherberg, despite the support of the other three Republicans, who all won their statewide races.

After Nixon’s election, he appointed Fletcher Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment Standards. With responsibility for the wage and hour regulations for the nation’s workforce and supervision of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, Fletcher now had the power to revoke federal contracts and keep contractors from bidding on future work.

On June 27, 1969, Fletcher implemented the nation’s first federal affirmative-action program, which required federal contractors to meet specified goals in minority hiring for skilled jobs in the notoriously segregated construction industry.

But after two years, Fletcher’s affirmative-action programs had earned him so much enmity among the leaders of the skilled construction unions that he was forced to resign.

President Nixon gave him a brief assignment on the United Nations delegation under Ambassador George H.W. Bush that created a lifelong friendship.

“Art played an important role nationally after losing the election for lieutenant governor,” Evans noted, “a role that may have been more important than if he had won the lieutenant governor race. However, he would have been a highly successful incumbent and could have risen to higher elective office,” meaning the governorship of Washington.

“At that time it could have had a huge impact on race relations, and who knows how history could have changed,” Evans said.

“Those were remarkable achievements, but how I wish Washington could have been the first state in the union since Reconstruction to elect an African-American governor. That would have been a proud boast.”