OLYMPIA — In 1998, Washington voters decisively banned affirmative-action programs intended to help women and minorities gain access to public colleges, contracting and employment.

That year’s Initiative 200 campaign was a grassroots effort, heavily outspent by backers of affirmative action. It came in an election year when Democrats in Washington picked up two U.S. House seats and regained control of the state Senate.

And yet, even as voters approved ballot measures for medical marijuana and raising the minimum wage, 58% of voters decided to end affirmative action after a bitter and divisive campaign.

The victory rocked the state’s political class — and made Washington the second state to ban such programs at the ballot box.

Now, with Referendum 88, Washingtonians will revisit a charged conversation about race, gender, equality and the scope of government — and it remains to be seen whether a span of 20 years has changed residents’ views on the issue.

Voters on Nov. 5 are tasked with choosing whether to keep a measure approved this spring by the Legislature that reinstates affirmative action. Gov. Jay Inslee signed that measure, known as Initiative 1000, into law.

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A “yes” vote on Referendum 88 approves I-1000, the new affirmative action law; a “no” vote rejects it.

The debate over affirmative action itself remains much the same as 20 years ago.

Opponents see it as polarizing and say it ultimately rewards people based on their gender, race or ethnicity, rather than merit.

Supporters say it’s needed to help correct decades of discrimination that left women and minorities lagging in opportunities and access to education, income and employment.

“It’s always been divisive,” said Deirdre Bowen, an associate professor at Seattle University’s School of Law who has studied affirmative action. “This has never been an issue where people have been in a place of acceptance.”

But Referendum 88 comes in a year with crucial differences.

Conflicts and debate over race, gender and equality are blazing across America, from the White House, down to the southern border and west to the entertainment industry in Hollywood.

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Communities across Washington and the nation have protested police shootings of minorities. Women’s marches have drawn thousands of participants, including more than 100,000 in Seattle in 2017 — the biggest demonstration in the city’s history.

Meanwhile, Harvard University faces a discrimination lawsuit alleging that it set quotas for Asian-American students, and essentially held those applicants to a higher threshold than people of other races applying to the school.

In that respect, the Referendum 88 movement serves as sort of an echo of the Harvard lawsuit. This year’s campaign against affirmative action has been led by members of the Chinese immigrant community.

That community began organizing in 2018 after Democratic lawmakers unsuccessfully sponsored a bill to restore affirmative action. This spring, opponents vigorously organized and appeared in Olympia to protest I-1000 before it passed the Legislature.

The Let People Vote referendum campaign quickly raised enough money to collect signatures and put the referendum on the ballot.

Kan Qiu, a Chinese immigrant who came to America after participating in the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests, said the government shouldn’t be passing over people who earn a place at school or a contract on merit.

“Are you going to punish the people who work harder?” said Qiu, who helped spearhead the initial opposition campaign and now the referendum. “That’s not what I came to America for.”

No community thinks or votes as a monolith. But the opposition by Qiu and others has highlighted a rift among various Asian-American communities over affirmative action.

“Research shows that Asian American and Pacific Islander communities strongly support policies to address racial inequities, including affirmative action,” wrote Joseph Shoji Lachman of the Seattle-based Asian Counseling and Referral Service, which supported I-1000, in an email.

Campaigns prepare

The coming campaign will reveal whether the fall campaign blossoms into well-funded duels of TV ads and election mailers.

After raising nearly $1 million to gather signatures to put the referendum on the ballot, Let People Vote has only about $100,000 on hand, according to campaign-finance reports.

A coalition urging voters to support the new law is just getting off the ground. Called the Washington Fairness Coalition, it includes the Washington State Labor Council. That group has reported raising only $51,000 in cash as of Saturday, including $20,000 from Microsoft.

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Supporters of affirmative action say it is needed to overcome longstanding discrimination against women, African Americans and other minorities.

With the new law, “I think we’ll see more opportunity and more economic justice for minority and women-only businesses,” said campaign co-chair April Sims.

But the coalition comes after lingering acrimony over the original affirmative-action petition drive that sent the measure to the Legislature this year in the first place.

The campaign, which submitted nearly 400,000 signatures to get I-1000 to the Legislature, went deeply into debt to get its petitions and is now being sued for not paying its signature-gatherers.

Disagreements

The 1998 measure, I-200 banned the state from discriminating against — or giving preferential treatment to — any individual or group based on color, ethnicity, race, national origin or sex in public contracting, public employment or public education.

Other types of what could be considered affirmative action in university admissions — such as for athletes and legacy families — were not banned, according to Bowen. And the measure kept in place affirmative-action law that benefits veterans.

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After I-200, the number of minority students at public colleges in Washington temporarily dipped, according to a 2006 study.

University of Washington officials earlier this year described how I-200 hampered efforts to diversify both the student body and faculty, because universities in other states — and private schools in Washington — aren’t bound by the law.

In state contracting, in the 2018 fiscal year only 3.6% of the almost $5 billion spent by the state went to small businesses certified as owned by women, veterans or minorities, according to the state Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises.

I-1000, allows the state to implement affirmative action in public employment, education and contracting, as long as neither quotas nor preferential treatment are used.

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

It also creates a commission on diversity, equity and inclusion that would set diversity goals and a timetable to achieve those goals, and make sure state agencies comply with the law.

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Opponents say those pieces will effectively add up to racial and gender quotas.

One argument emerging from the Let People Vote campaign is that the new law would hurt existing affirmative action for veterans.

John Tymczyszyn, legislative director for the Washington State Veterans Bar Association, agrees with that assessment. Tymczyszyn said he believes I-1000 guts the existing preference in state statute for those who have served in the military.

That has led the association to come out against I-1000.

“We’ve been pretty slow to get involved with this, because of the perception it’s a racial issue,” said Tymczyszyn. But, “I think the proponents of this measure have said some misleading stuff.”

But an assessment by a University of Washington School of Law professor who is an expert on constitutional law concluded that I-1000 will not stop the existing veterans preference.

That’s because the existing affirmative action for veterans — which allows for extra points to be added for applicants for a government job, for example — is only one of several factors involved in a promotion or new hire.

In his memo, Hugh Spitzer wrote that “I-1000 poses no conflicts whatsoever” with the existing veterans preference.

 

A previous version of this story misstated the last name of the Washington State Veterans Bar Association’s legislative director. His name is John Tymczyszyn.