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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

All three living former WA governors want affirmative action back

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Former Washington Governors Chris Gregoire, Dan Evans and Gary Locke testify in favor of I-1000.

Washington’s three living former governors testified Thursday in favor of an initiative to once again allow affirmative action policies in public employment, education and contracting.

At a joint House-Senate hearing in Olympia, the three governors – Republican Dan Evans and Democrats Gary Locke and Chris Gregoire – called on state lawmakers to pass I-1000, an initiative to the Legislature that seeks to replace I-200, a voter-approved ban on affirmative action passed in 1998.

“I believe that Initiative 1000 is a responsible measure that will help us throw the doors of opportunity wide open,” Evans told the committee.

Current Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has also endorsed I-1000.

Opponents brought their own special guest: Ward Connerly, a former University of California regent who led anti-affirmative efforts in several states, including Washington, beginning in the 1990s. At the hearing Connerly, who is black, urged lawmakers to reject I-1000.

“Race has no place in American life or law and certainly not in Washington,” Connerly said.

Also testifying against I-1000 was KVI radio host and former Republican gubernatorial candidate John Carlson, who chaired the I-200 campaign in 1998.

I-1000 would allow the state to once again use affirmative action policies to address discrimination or underrepresentation, so long as those policies did not rely on quotas or constitute preferential treatment under the law. Preferential treatment is defined as using characteristics such as race or gender as the sole criteria for selecting a less-qualified candidate.

Besides race and gender, I-1000 would allow affirmative action policies to promote the advancement of people based on sexual orientation, disability and veteran status.

The initiative would also create a Governor’s Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion responsible for monitoring and enforcing state compliance with I-1000.

Backers of the initiative, led by former state lawmaker Jesse Wineberry, submitted a record 395,000 signatures in January to qualify I-1000 as an initiative to the Legislature. The campaign, however, has struggled to raise money to pay its signature gatherers and is $1.3 million in debt, according to filings with the Public Disclosure Commission. Supporters are planning an Easter weekend march-a-thon from Seattle to Olympia to raise money to pay off the debt.

In March, the group Asians for Equality, which opposes I-1000, filed a lawsuit alleging irregularities with some of the petitions and challenging the Secretary of State’s process for validating signatures. A Thurston County judge dismissed the lawsuit, but the group is now appealing to the Washington Supreme Court.

Credit Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Opponents of I-1000 in white t-shirts packed a hearing room in Olympia.

At the hearing, opponents wearing white t-shirts that said “NO SYSTEMIC RACISM! NO I-1000!” packed the room. In testimony, many described coming to the United States as immigrants and their belief that I-1000 would unfairly target Asian Americans, especially in areas like college admission.

“I-1000 would legalize racial discrimination and penalize hard working Asians by our skin color,” said Linda Yang of Asians for Equality. “At its core it would allow less-qualified applicants to be selected based on race.”

Supporters of the initiative pushed back forcefully on that narrative. Saniah Simpson, the president of the Black Student Union at St. Martin’s University, noted that African Americans make up roughly 3 percent of Washington’s four-year college enrollment, but represent 18 percent of the prison population.

“How many more students are we going to tell that we would rather see them behind bars than have a diploma in their hand?” Simpson asked the panel.

Other supporters pointed to a sharp decline in the percentage of state dollars spent with minority-owned firms since the passage of I-200. Representatives of Amazon, Microsoft and Vulcan also testified in favor of the initiative. 

Majority Democrats in the Washington Legislature waited to hear I-1000 until the last two weeks of the 105-day legislative session. Because it’s an initiative to the Legislature, the measure wasn’t subject to the normal cut-offs and deadlines.

It remains to be seen if majority Democrats in the Legislature have the votes to advance the initiative. If they do, opponents have vowed to run a referendum to overturn the measure this fall. It lawmakers don’t act, the measure will appear on the November ballot.

Washington is one of eight states that have adopted a ban on race or gender-based preferential treatment.

*Correction, 4/18/19, 2:11 p.m.: The original version of this post misquoted Linda Yang.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."