OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee announced Friday a new executive order to boost diversity in Washington’s government, and said he will roll back a long-standing directive that restricts affirmative action in state hiring, contracting and education.

The announcement, made after Inslee met Friday with Black community leaders, comes as he and state officials try to diversify government after voters in 2019 upheld a 20-year-old ban on affirmative action.

The move immediately drew applause from organizations that have pushed for greater representation and changes to address systemic racism.

But the move — which was slammed by affirmative action opponents who have won two statewide votes — could reignite a fierce and charged debate over the role of government in such matters.

Washington’s struggles over affirmative action have simmered for more than two decades. In 1998, state voters decisively supported a grassroots effort led by Tim Eyman to end affirmative action based on race or gender with Initiative 200. The results came even as voters that year supported progressive ballot measures legalizing medical marijuana and hiking the minimum wage.

In light of that vote, then-Gov. Gary Locke issued an executive directive instructing state agencies to not use affirmative action.

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But a 2017 opinion by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson stated that the ban “does not prohibit all race- and sex-conscious measures.”

In a statement Friday, the governor’s office said Inslee will rescind Locke’s Directive 98-01, calling it “overly restrictive.”

“Within the next 10 days, the governor will issue a replacement executive order that will instruct agencies on how to move forward with achieving equity while still complying” with the ban, according to the statement.

In prepared remarks, Inslee called diversity “our greatest strength, and it is only by leveling the playing field that it becomes possible for all Washingtonians to thrive and live healthy and successful lives.

“Today’s announcements are systemic changes that are designed to break down barriers that have kept too many Washingtonians on the sidelines for too long,” he added.

Meanwhile, the executive order signed Friday is aimed at increasing the number of certified women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses in the state’s master contracts.

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As part of that, the state Department of Enterprise Services — which oversees some state contracts — and the Department of Transportation will review whether current requirements for bonding, insurance and experience are creating unnecessary obstacles to businesses’ efforts to get state contracts.

Karen Johnson, director of the state Office of Equity, praised the announcement.

“Gov. Inslee said that he believes that Washington is an anti-racist state and will take action to hold our state government to that commitment,” Johnson said in prepared remarks. “We are grateful for this bold action and look forward to working in solidarity with others to embed equity and justice into every state contacting action.”

In 2018, Jesse Wineberry, a former state representative, helped lead the push for a new initiative to roll back the ban on affirmative action. That initiative to the Legislature qualified in 2019, and lawmakers that spring voted to lift the ban.

But opponents — led by a group of Chinese immigrants and supported by conservatives — gathered signatures to put the question to voters in a referendum. That fall, voters upheld the ban by a slim margin.

Opponents of affirmative action that year contended that such measures are polarizing and ultimately reward people based on their race, ethnicity or gender, rather than merit.

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Linda Yang, a spokesperson for that anti-Referendum 88 campaign, said Friday voters have been clear in their rejection of affirmative action policies in passing I-200 and rejecting R-88.

“I think he [Inslee] should respect voters’ will. If they want to change the law, maybe do another initiative. I am pretty sure we could beat them again,” Yang said.

Inslee’s announcement drew criticism from John Carlson, the conservative radio talk-show host who helped lead the I-200 campaign in 1998.

“A governor cannot strike down a state law passed by the Legislature and passed into law by a previous governor or passed by the people, with an executive order,” Carlson said. “If he wants to take a run at Initiative 200 and replace color blind equality with a system of different rules for different races, let’s have it out.

“I can’t think of a better place to do it than in the November midterms,” Carlson said.

Carlson contrasted Inslee’s actions with those of Locke, who as governor strongly opposed I-200 but still signed the directive that aligned state policies with measure after it was approved by 58% of voters.

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While Inslee’s statement said his order for state agencies seeks equity while still complying with the affirmative action ban, Carlson said “no one believes him.”

Locke on Friday praised Inslee’s decision to rescind his old executive order as appropriate, given the updated guidance from the attorney general’s office, which is different than the more restrictive advice he received in 1998.

“Now that the attorney general’s office has modified its opinion, it is absolutely appropriate and long overdue to modify or repeal that executive order,” Locke said.

Inslee’s discussion with Black leaders in King County June touched on police accountability and criminal justice reform, Black-centered patient care and building Black wealth, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee wrote in an email.

“During that conversation there was an interest in discussing issues of disparities in contracting and 98-01 in addition to other issues raised,” she wrote.

Advocates and elected officials had urged Inslee to rescind the directive. The Metropolitan King County Council, Seattle City Council and Association of Washington Cities joined the call last year. 

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Wineberry said late last month that he has been pushing the governor to roll back the earlier directive.

“Why don’t you have your Abraham Lincoln moment and free communities of color and everybody … why don’t you free them?” Wineberry said in an interview.

It remains to be seen what exactly Inslee’s order will do. But the 2017 opinion from the state AG’s office noted the ban still allows state government leeway to pursue some policies aimed at increasing diversity in contracting and employment.

“The measure allows the use of measures that take race or gender into account in state contracting without elevating a less qualified contractor over a more qualified contractor,” according to the opinion. “In narrow circumstances, an agency may be allowed to use a narrowly tailored preference based on race or sex when no other means is available to remedy demonstrated discrimination in state contracting.

“State agencies may also employ race- or sex-based preferences when necessary to do so in order to avoid losing eligibility for programs providing federal funds,” it continued.

An analysis by the state Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises has shown that certified small businesses owned by people of color lost ground in contracting after the 1998 affirmative action ban.

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Between 1994 and 1998, Washington agencies spent roughly 10% per year on eligible contracts, services and goods with certified women- and minority-owned small businesses.

By contrast, those businesses in fiscal year 2018 earned about 3.6% of state-procured contracts, goods and services.

Opponents of affirmative action have dismissed that analysis, saying women and people of color had less of a reason to become certified after the ban and thus contracts might not be included in those figures.

Advocates for businesses owned by women and people of color welcomed the news Friday. 

“We have been waiting for quite some time for this to happen and we are glad to hear that he’s announcing this,” said Vicky Schiantarelli, secretary of the Washington chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors. 

The change will allow state agencies to consider contractors’ “inclusion plans” in which they lay out plans to hire and support small firms, including those owned by women and people of color, Schiantarelli said.

“What this will allow us to do is look at the big picture in making sure folks are being inclusive in what they’re submitting,” Schiantarelli said. 

The change “will benefit us to now be back in the loop for economic opportunities we’ve been deprived of since the governor’s directive,” said Lynn French, a former budget analyst for the state Senate who owns a consulting firm and was among those urging Inslee to rescind the order.