Split by Affirmative Action Bill, California Democrats Weigh Next Steps

Jeremy White, The Sacramento Bee, April 25, 2014

When Luis Alejo applied to college at the University of California, Berkeley, admissions counselors could consider his race; when he applied to law school, it had become invisible.

It was only after a string of rejections led him to beg for a face-to-face interview with an admissions officer, Alejo said, that he won a spot at the University of California, Davis, law school, launching a career that in 2010 elevated him to the state Assembly.

The year Alejo was preparing for law school, voters altered his prospects by passing Proposition 209, California’s ban on race-inclusive admissions policies. Alejo and others unsuccessfully fought the initiative, a losing battle that he described as a formative political experience.

“All our fears came true,” said Alejo, a Democrat from Watsonville. “Once it went into effect, we saw dramatic drops in the numbers of students of color being able to attend some of our most prestigious graduate and professional schools.”

Nearly two decades after California voters banned affirmative action, the debate has re-emerged in the Legislature with new players and different stakes. It has spotlighted the augmented presence of Latino and Asian American lawmakers, voted into office by a markedly more diverse electorate, and ignited anger and tension between the two groups.

“If it weren’t for affirmative action, I, Kevin de León, wouldn’t be here today,” Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, who will soon become the first Latino leader of the Senate, said in January.

The day de León gave that speech, Senate Democrats advanced SCA 5, a measure to put reversing California’s race-conscious admissions ban on the ballot. The ensuing backlash was swift and unexpected. Asian American lawmakers faced a groundswell of opposition from Asian American constituents concerned about losing out on university spots.

Leadership shelved the proposal, touching off racially tinged reprisals. A group of Latino and African American lawmakers informed Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, they were withdrawing their support for his congressional run. And African American and Latino lawmakers withheld their votes from an unrelated bill by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, allowing it to fail on the floor.

“I feel I was targeted because of my race,” Muratsuchi said.

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