Republican Effort Backfires: Resounding Defeat for Affirmative Action Foes in Georgia

Republican Effort Backfires: Resounding Defeat for Affirmative Action Foes in Georgia

By Ellen Spears and Sarah Torian

Vol. 20, No. 1, 1998 pp. 20-21

Opponents of affirmative action suffered a resounding defeat in the Georgia legislature during the 1998 session, when amendments banning affirmative action in the state were killed. A broad coalition of pro-equity advocates succeeded in retaining affirmative action programs by working effectively within the shifting dynamics of election year politics. Republican sponsors who had hoped to split Democratic constituencies found their party divided instead.

Cobb County Republican Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) led the attempt to outlaw the few modest programs that promote inclusion in public higher education, contracting, and hiring. His effort was defeated February 18 by a Democratic-sponsored substitute in a 98 to 53 vote in the Georgia House. The Senate killed a similar amendment March 5 by a margin of 32 to 21. And, the “local legislation” Ehrhart succeeded in passing through the House repealing affirmative action in his home county, Cobb County, was later blocked by Republican state senators from the Cobb delegation.

High Stakes Partisan Political Battle

“It was one of the few instances where the Democratic leadership and the Legislative Black Caucus were able to also secure some Republican allies,” said Rep. Bob Holmes (D-Atlanta). In the House vote, eleven Republicans voted for the Democratic alternative and nine “took a walk,” avoiding the vote. “Still, when push came to shove on March 5, when Senate Republicans introduced Ehrhart’s [anti-affirmative action] amendment,” says Dan Levitas of the Georgia Rural Urban Summit, “they demanded party discipline and got it.” Only one Republican senator voted no.

Republicans tried to “manipulate the controversy for partisan purposes,” says Laughlin McDonald, Southeast Regional Office Director of the ACLU. As the 1998 legislature took its seat, Republicans were just twelve votes short of overcoming decades of Democratic dominance in the Georgia House and seven shy in the Senate. Neither Democratic Governor Zell Miller nor Lt. Governor Pierre Howard is running again in 1998, leaving open seats at the top of the ticket and all the state’s elected officials facing re-election.

“The Republicans had what they thought was a wedge issue which will divide the black and white Democrats, and allow them to take over the legislature,” says McDonald. But, in fact, says Holmes, “some of the internecine GOP battles have accrued to the benefit of Democrats during the session.”

Opponents’ coordinated strategy

The assault on affirmative action for political ends in Georgia is not an isolated or independent effort. “As in California and Texas,” says equal opportunity specialist and attorney Rodney Strong, “a network of right-wing organizations has made it a top priority to roll back affirmative action.” Ehrhart himself testified in the Georgia House Judiciary Committee meeting February 2 that he had met “over the weekend” to revise the language in his bill with Clint Bolick of the Washington-based Institute for Justice, and John Carvin, who defended Proposition 209.

The strength of affirmative action opponents comes from “access to media, sophistication of message, and money,” says Levitas. “It does not derive from a widespread sentiment at the grassroots level for abolishing affirmative action as all the polling data clearly indicates.”

Ironically, “there isn’t very much at all in the way of affirmative action in this state,” says McDonald. A House

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Study Committee on Minority Business Enterprise Participation in State Contracts and the Advisory Committee, chaired by William S. Cannon, estimated in January, 1992: “that minority contractors are awarded no more than one percent of the contracts issued each year by the studied agencies.” Cannon’s assessment in 1998 is that not much has changed since his earlier report.

Still, if Ehrhart’s bill had passed, important equal opportunity programs that have aided thousands of Georgians in overcoming discrimination would end. And a repeal could have been costly in federal dollars. For example, Robert Bradley, Equal Opportunity administrator from the Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) testified at the House Judiciary Committee hearing October 29, 1997, that the department would lose $600 million in federal funds if it does not comply with federal affirmative action regulations. And, more than $400 million in federal dollars for Georgia’s thirty-four public colleges and universities could be endangered. (See “Legal Assault,” page 16).

Broad Alliance Critical

The multi-sided attack on the modest programs in Georgia was met with coordinated action by an unprecedented coalition of civil rights organizations, women’s groups, minority business leaders, legal experts, labor unions, equal employment opportunity officers, and representatives of local jurisdictions seeking to maintain voluntary programs.

Many of the organizations participate in the Georgia Rural Urban Summit, a coalition that has made defeating the anti-affirmative action measure their main policy priority for the past year. The Summit convened meetings with legislators and provided a stream of faxes and e-mail that kept supporters informed of developments at the General Assembly.

Different views emerged among affirmative action supporters over the Democrats’ plan to offer substitute language, which would be introduced to counter Ehrhart’s bill. But potential differences in strategy over alternative language became an asset. The debate over language bought valuable time, for organizing phone calls, a letter writing campaign, and protests.

Maintaining an alliance between black and white Democrats was crucial to defeating the anti-affirmative action bill, explained Legislative Black Caucus member Rep. Holmes. But the Democrats’ early versions made concessions to white Democrats that also would have harmed existing affirmative action programs and endangered that alliance.

Faced with the prospect that Democrats who control the legislature would pass a damaging bill, leading civil rights attorneys drafted alternative language that aimed to “do no harm.” But Democrats altered the language before it was introduced, leaving local programs potentially vulnerable in court. “It’s an unguided missile that we don’t know where it’s going to land,” said Sen. Edward Boshears, (R-Brunswick) about the bill during Senate debate.

Civil rights organizations spoke out against any language that fell short of extending opportunity, raising instead the need for comprehensive civil rights measures. “We had respect for the lobbyists, the legal minds, the advocates, and the legislators,” said Concerned Black Clergy President Rev. Tim McDonald, “My strategy was to take it to the streets, to use the media to educate the public.”

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference focused its annual King Birthday march on the affirmative action fight, leading a diverse group into the Georgia capitol rotunda to protest ending affirmative action programs. The National Youth Connection, led by Morehouse College student Rev. Markel Hutchins, spearheaded a Stand for Affirmative Action rally January 22 of nearly a thousand students and allies supporting affirmative action from Centennial Park to Atlanta City Hall, in pouring rain. Concerned Black Clergy and other groups rallied in Ehrhart’s home district in Cobb County on February 2.

Major business leaders, who were crucial in the victory on the Houston affirmative action initiative, were largely absent from the Georgia fight. But women were outspoken in support, including businesswoman Carolyn Stradley, owner of C S Paving, who spoke out powerfully at a Trust Georgia’s Women press conference. “I don’t think that before affirmative action, a paving company run by a non-married woman would be considered for many contracts,” insisted Stradley.

The effort succeeded in part, said Elizabeth Appley, who lobbied on behalf of the Women’s Policy Group and the Atlanta Board of Education, “because we were able to focus the attention of legislators and the public on the reality that all of our lives-crossing socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and geographic lines-are improved by supporting diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity.”

With this legislative battle behind them, Georgia advocates are preparing for the next challenge. The Atlanta Public School system is under fire for its efforts to be inclusive in contracts and purchasing. A suit filed by Prior Tire Company is likely to come to trial the week of April 15 in Atlanta before Judge Julie Carnes at the Richard Russell Federal Building.

The fight has also awakened demand for a comprehensive civil rights bill, which would allow for victims of discrimination to recover costs of successful claims in state court and establish a state enforcement agency.

To get involved or seek out strategies, see the resource list on page 26.

Sarah Torian is an editorial assistant at SRC and recently received her masters degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi.