Democrats Commit to Affirmative Action

By Annie Shuppy and Christina Preiss
Iowa Presidential

Affirmative action remains a controversial topic for many conservatives in this country, but all the Democratic presidential candidates continue to commit to it - and to use the issue to distance themselves from President Bush.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision last summer upheld the University of Michigan’s law school admissions practices but overturned the university’s undergraduate policies.

Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., expressed disappointment with the court's undergraduate ruling but said its upholding of the law school case “makes clear that race continues to be a legitimate factor to consider in providing opportunity to all students.”

Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun also has praised the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the Michigan law school to maintain its affirmative action efforts.

“The survival of affirmative action creates hope that opportunity exists for those who have not yet had a chance to lead and that performance and talent will be rewarded,” Moseley Braun said. “That hope keeps our society on a path toward progress and the fulfillment of the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

In January 2003, President Bush issued a statement arguing that the University of Michigan admissions “quota” was unconstitutional and discriminatory against whites — comments that have since met a backlash from Democrats and civil rights groups.

“ At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students, based solely on their race,” Bush said. “The motivation for such an admissions policy may be very good, but its result is discrimination, and that discrimination is wrong.”

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean alleged Nov. 15 at the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner in Des Moines that some of Bush’s attacks on affirmative action are “deliberately designed to make people fear they will lose their job to a member of color in the community.”

Some Democratic candidates have participated in joint legal actions supporting the university’s policies. Along with 110 other members of the U.S. House, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, filed a brief supporting the University of Michigan's use of race and ethnicity as an admissions factor, vowing to support diversity and civil rights.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark was in a group of retired military officers who also filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Michigan’s admission policy. He has said that such policies are necessary to facilitate diversity and add to the legitimacy of the nation’s leaders.

" I saw what could be accomplished when doors of opportunity for all opened as we did through a strong affirmative action program in the U.S. military,” Clark said in a statement submitted by his campaign. “As president, I'd do everything I can to make sure that the rest of our nation -- the government, the business sector, education, health care -- met the same standard of fair and equal treatment.”

The appointment of Supreme Court and federal court justices who will uphold affirmative action policies is a central concern to many Democrats, including Sens. John Edwards, D-N.C., and John Kerry, D-Mass. As lifetime appointees, judicial nominees will shape fundamental issues such as civil rights, religious freedom, privacy rights and freedom of speech for decades to come.

A common thread in the Democrats’ affirmative action policy is the contention that it is a natural extension of civil rights laws that emerged out of activism in the 1960s and that the diversity these policies yield is necessary in order to accurately represent America in colleges and in the job market.

During an Oct. 7 stump speech in Cedar Rapids, Edwards avowed his support for affirmative action, calling it a civil rights issue.

“I grew up with segregation all around me, but at the same time I saw incredible strength,” Edwards said of his Southern upbringing. “The civil rights movement is not over in this country. We need to have judges who enforce our civil rights laws.”

Kerry has said he believes that individuals appointed to all of our federal courts “must be committed to interpreting the law and preserving constitutional and civil rights.”

Kerry voted for every major piece of civil rights legislation to come before Congress since 1985, including the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to a statement from Kerry’s Iowa campaign. He also voted for the Equal Rights Amendment and supports the Employment Nondiscrimination Act.

“John Kerry believes in an America where we take common sense steps to ensure that our schools and workplaces reflect the full face of America,” the statement said. “He has consistently opposed efforts in the Senate to undermine or eliminate affirmative action programs and supports programs that seek to enhance diversity, for example, by fostering the growth of minority small businesses.”

Kucinich also counts affirmative action as a civil rights issue, contending that “affirmative action is right, it is necessary, and it must be preserved.

“America's diversity is a strength, not a weakness, and it is absolutely critical that we nurture programs that enhance opportunities for those who have been historically left behind,” Kucinich said in a statement released on the day the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the University of Michigan affirmative action case. “To do nothing, to abolish affirmative action, is to use means to fall back into the de facto segregation of the past, which made a mockery of democracy, equality, liberty and justice -- the very values on which this nation was founded.”

Some conservatives such as Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit public policy research organization in Washington, D.C., argue that affirmative action is distinguishable from civil rights issues, and that the policies that have emerged as a result are ultimately more detrimental to minorities than most Americans realize.

Dean has blasted conservatives for taking this stance on affirmative action.

“There is a study in the Wall Street Journal that says you have a better chance getting a job if you’re white and have a criminal record than if you’re black and you don’t. We still have a long way to go for equity and justice,” Dean said at an agriculture forum in Des Moines on Nov. 15. “We need to stop allowing the Republicans to divide us by race. I will never apologize for talking about race.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., has inclinations similar to Dean’s on the affirmative action issue. According to a statement from his campaign, he instituted an aggressive affirmative action policy that resulted in more than half of his office's full-time workforce consisting of women and minorities as state attorney general.

As a U.S. senator, Lieberman has voted against GOP efforts to end affirmative action, supported President Clinton's "mend, not end" approach, and backed the University of Michigan in defending its affirmative action program, the statement said.

"Lieberman supported Clinton's affirmative action plan and still plans to support it,” said Kevin McCarthy, an Iowa representative for the Lieberman campaign. “He will defend affirmative action against all criticism."

Quotes from the candidates

E-mail Annie Shuppy at [email protected] and Christina Preiss at [email protected]

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