Assemblywoman Shirley Weber speaks at a press conference announcing a constitutional amendment to repeal Prop. 209. / Photo courtesy of Assemblywoman Shirley Weber

California is one of the only states in the nation that doesn’t allow the consideration of race or gender when making decisions about hiring employees, awarding contracts or admitting students to its public universities.

That’s because of Prop. 209, an initiative passed by voters in 1996. It was championed at the time by San Diego’s Pete Wilson, then the governor, in hopes of kickstarting a presidential campaign. Assemblywoman Shirley Weber wants voters to undo Prop. 209 by overturning it in November.

The first step will be a heavy lift: Weber’s measure, ACA 5, must be approved by two-thirds of lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature. Then it would require a simple majority from voters.

Weber said Prop. 209 has harmed California and San Diego in myriad ways – from fewer contracts being awarded to women- and minority-owned businesses, to police and teacher workforces that don’t reflect the communities they serve.

Weber said on top of the thorny issue of affirmative action and misconceptions about Prop. 209, the coronavirus pandemic has added additional challenges.

She found great success in winning over colleagues on AB 931, last year’s contentious effort to change the standards guiding police use of deadly force, by lobbying lawmakers one on one. Now, that’s much harder.

“This pandemic has made it difficult to lobby my colleagues. My specialty is basically meeting with them one on one. … I can’t get in their face and whisper in their ear, ‘You know you need to help me.’”

Instead, she’s been plodding through phone calls with colleagues. She’s already won over one Republican from the San Diego delegation, Assemblyman Randy Voepel. He surprised Weber by voting in favor of the bill when it came up for a vote in the Assembly Public Employment and Retirement Committee, and was even the first committee member to speak in favor of it.

“I have worked very closely with the author and we’ve spent a lot of time educating each other. But I think I was educated more,” Voepel said during the hearing.

He said he’s analyzed this issue from political, moral and economic levels. He recognizes that Prop. 209 was passed a generation ago.

“It was a different California then with a different demographic mix. … Now we’ve got COVID-19 and basically our economic bus has broken down and everybody got off the bus. Now when we get going again, who’s gonna get on the bus?”

Voepel noted that some of the people who spoke against the bill during public comments belong to his “base” and that he plans to speak to stakeholders in his community before he votes on the bill again, should it make it to the Assembly floor.

Vincent Pan, co-executive director for Chinese for Affirmative Action, said Prop. 209 has harmed the state in ways far beyond simple hiring or college admissions decisions.

“A good example is that the ability of the state to, for example, fund a science camp for girls – under [Prop.] 209, that’s considered a preference for women” that isn’t allowed, Pan said.

Weber said that her longtime efforts to close the achievement gap between white students and black and brown students have run into hurdles as a result of Prop. 209, because the measure prevents the creation of programs that are targeted specifically to minorities.

“So even when we’ve identified a critical problem in California – that is, educating black and brown kids – we can’t structure programs that directly address that specific issue,” Weber said. “We have to address it in a roundabout way. And as a result, we miss a lot of the kids who need it.”

No organized opposition has mobilized yet, though individual Republican lawmakers have voted against the measure in two committee hearings. More groups are certain to seize on it should it make it to the November ballot.

Fight Over Seawall Bill Is Just Getting Started

Surfing advocates and California’s Coastal Commission rained ire this week on a bill that would allow San Diego and Orange county homeowners to build seawalls by right, sidestepping commission oversight.

Seawalls are highly controversial in California, viewed as a property defense against sea-level rise and the crumbling of coastal cliffs. At the same time, seawalls prevent the natural replenishment of beach sand from cliff faces and land runoff.

Republican Sen. Pat Bates, who represents portions of San Diego and Orange counties, brought SB 1090 before the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee allowing testimony from pre-selected speakers.

The father of an Encinitas family that lost three members when a cliff collapsed on top of their weekend picnic last year gave emotional testified on behalf of the bill.

“There is no plan for sand replenishment or any other bluff changes to increase safety on this very popular stretch of beach where my accident occurred,” said J. Patrick Davis, a pediatric dentist.

Seawalls, or “hard armoring” as Surfrider Foundation’s scientist Jennifer Savage called the structures, do not make beaches safer, she said. “They destroy the beach by speeding-up erosion,” Savage said.

The Coastal Commission representative argued the Encinitas incident was a tragic accident, not due to a lack of action by the commission to approve or deny a seawall in the area.

“The bill is designed to make it faster, easier and cheaper to build seawalls primarily to protect private residential development,” Sarah Christie, the commission’s legislative director, testified. “For every seawall that is built, the public loses a beach.”

There was no committee vote, however. Sen. Henry Stern, the committee chair, and Bates agreed ahead of time to hear the bill without the vote, said Josh Kirmsse, Stern’s communications director.

Senators will do more work on the legislation at the committee level.

MacKenzie Elmer

Golden State News

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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