When Gary Locke rose to speak at a dinner in support of Washington’s new affirmative-action law, the audience rose with him to snap pictures. At least one person even turned away to snatch a selfie with the former two-term governor and ambassador to China in the background.

But Locke — who held the state’s top job in 1998, when Washington voters banned affirmative action — knows it isn’t a popularity contest he must win, but a debate tournament.

Speaking last week at Seattle’s China Harbor restaurant before a predominantly Asian American audience of about 250 — some of whom asked skeptical questions — Locke said the new law restoring affirmative action would boost the chances for minority- and women-owned small businesses to get public contracts.

And Locke sought to assuage fears that the law — now on the Nov. 5 ballot as Referendum 88 — could hurt Asian Americans’ chances of getting into the University of Washington.

Skeptics “think that any increase in the ethnic makeup profile at colleges and universities must be at the expense of Asian Americans,” Locke, the first Chinese American governor in U.S. history, told reporters after the dinner.

Equity in public contracting and university admissions represents two of the main issues in the debate over the new law, Initiative 1000.

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I-1000 will appear on the ballot as Referendum 88. A vote in favor of Referendum 88 approves the new law; a vote against it brings back the affirmative-action ban.

Approved this spring by Washington’s Democratic-controlled Legislature, the law aims to increase diversity in public employment, education and contracting, as long as neither quotas nor preferential treatment are used. It would allow Washington’s public universities to again use race and ethnicity as one factor in admissions.

The new law defines preferential treatment as choosing a less-qualified candidate based solely on one characteristic, such as gender or race.

As Washington has grown more diverse, some research shows the affirmative-action ban has limited the representation of some people of color at the UW. Other data shows a loss of public contracts for certified women- and minority-owned businesses under the ban.

The most vocal and visible opposition to I-1000 has come from a segment of the Chinese American community, which is helping to lead the campaign Let People Vote.

Kan Qiu, sponsor of the referendum that will allow voters to decide the matter, argues that I-1000 would shut out qualified Chinese American students at UW to make room for students whose applications aren’t as strong.

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“We don’t want to be painted as against affirmative action,” said Qiu, who immigrated from China roughly three decades ago. “In fact, we’re not. We’re against the racial preferences.”

This latest debate takes place as growing economic inequality nationwide collides with anxieties over getting into college.

In previous eras, when the American economy contained a broad base of middle-class jobs that didn’t require a university degree, there was less competition to get into college, according to Deirdre Bowen, a professor at Seattle University’s School of Law.

“But now, because everybody perceives that they have to go to college, getting to those top schools is perceived as necessary for an edge,” said Bowen, an expert on affirmative action. “There’s a scarcity of resources going on.”

Meanwhile, in debates over affirmative action, “white people feel as though they’re being punished for discrimination they never engaged in,” said Bowen.

Affirmative action is geared to make up for decades of discrimination against women and people of color in education, housing and employment, Andre Perry of the Brookings Institution said.

“We’re in a moment where the research is clearer than ever, that historical racism has robbed black people of the opportunities to gain wealth,” said Perry, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

University admissions

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld affirmative action for college admissions, but over the years the justices have issued several opinions restricting its use.

The use of quotas, such as setting aside spots for certain groups, was struck down in 1978. Among other decisions, the court ruled that universities can consider race among many factors but can’t use a system that gives extra points to underrepresented groups.

The UW takes the spotlight in this debate, because affirmative action typically plays a greater role at selective schools, where a larger number of applicants compete for limited spots.

A research paper released this year found that at the UW and other flagship public universities around the nation, Native Americans, African Americans and members of the Hispanic/Latinx community generally lost ground in enrollment under affirmative-action bans.

In the late 1990s, students in those groups comprised about 9.5% of Washington’s high-school graduates, according to the research co-authored by Mark Long, a professor at UW who studies affirmative action. Now, that figure is closer to 21.5%.

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So, “right off the bat, over 21 years, you would expect a rough doubling of the (university) class” in the groups of underrepresented minorities, Long said in an interview.

Long’s research shows that the UW lost some ground in the years since the ban in drawing applications from those potential students. The school lost more ground in terms of admitting students from those underrepresented communities, and in terms of those who ultimately enrolled.

Since the 1998 ban, data shows the UW’s share of enrolled Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanic/Latinx students compared to the state’s broader population is “slowly getting worse over time,” Long said.

Because the affirmative-action ban forbids universities from using race or ethnicity as a factor, UW President Ana Mari Cauce wrote in a 2018 letter to lawmakers that it “hampers our ability to attract and enroll the strongest students from underrepresented backgrounds, who are so highly sought after by other universities because having a diverse student body creates a richer learning environment for all students.”

But Qiu, of Let People Vote, argues the new law’s creation of a commission to set diversity goals and timetables — and make sure state agencies comply — adds up to a quota.

“The quotas can be achieved without specifically saying ‘quotas,'” Qiu said.

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Public contracting

Analysis by the state Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises shows certified small businesses owned by women and people of color lost ground in contracting after Washington’s 1998 affirmative-action ban.

Between 1994 and 1998, state agencies spent approximately 10% annually on eligible contracts, goods and services with certified women- and minority-owned small businesses, according to the analysis.

In fiscal 2018, those businesses earned about 3.6% of state-procured goods, services and contracts.

If the annual average had continued at 10%, those businesses would have earned an additional $3.5 billion, according to the analysis.

Affirmative-action opponents dismiss that, saying people of color and women had less reason to become certified after the ban. Thus, their contracts might not be counted in those numbers.

The office this year also released a disparity report concluding that white women and people of color “do not enjoy equal access to all aspects of State contracting opportunities.”

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After the 1998 ban, the state government stopped setting diversity goals for contracts, according to the report, which included accounts of longtime contractors describing how they then lost business.

Before I-200, “Literally people were knocking on my door, my phone was blowing up, ‘Can you be on our team?'” one contractor wrote. “Our business expanded quite well under that.”

“Ever since I-200 … and all the goals went away, our State participation and local agency participation has gone down,” added that contractor.

Wrote another: “The opportunities dried up, virtually overnight.”

That report also discussed obstacles for women and minority business owners unrelated to race, like disadvantages that smaller firms face in securing government contracts.

Locke at last week’s dinner said that I-1000 would help with contracting by “giving you the opportunity.” But, “We’re not guaranteeing that you get the government contract.”

And he reminded the audience of the discrimination that played out in Washington, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and the forced internment of Japanese immigrants and citizens here during World War II.

“We know that the history of the United States is one of discrimination,” Locke said, to applause.