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Weeks after some Asian-American lawmakers killed a measure to restore affirmative action in California's public colleges by withdrawing their support, backlash from Democrats who supported the effort is surfacing in the Capitol and on the campaign trail.

Repercussions of the Legislature's decision last month to shelve Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 appear to be pitting some African American and Latino Democrats against their Asian American colleagues. Asian American Democrats were the subject of an intense advocacy campaign by opponents of affirmative action, and their decision not to support the measure caused it to fail last month.

Today, several members of the Legislature's black and Latino caucuses withheld their votes on a non-controversial bill, killing the measure by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi. Last week, six black and Latino Democrats sent Sen. Ted Lieu a letter withdrawing their endorsement in his race for Congress. Muratsuchi and Lieu are both Asian Americans and Democrats from Torrance.

Muratsuchi's Assembly bill 2013, a measure to expand the number of electric vehicles entitled to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes, had sailed through two committees with little opposition before falling eleven votes short when it reached the Assembly floor on Monday. As an immediately effective, urgency measure, it required two-thirds approval.

Six lawmakers who had supported the bill in committee reversed and withheld votes, effectively helping to doom the bill. Three are members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus and three are part of the California Legislative Black Caucus, two blocs that issued a joint statement vowing to push ahead with a recently shelved bill that would allow voters to weigh in on the state's affirmative action ban.

In total, 15 members of the black or Latino caucuses abstained from voting - more than enough to push the legislation over the finish line.

Muratsuchi declined to talk to reporters after the vote.

Sen. Holly Mitchell, the Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the Legislature's black caucus, said she was not surprised to hear that so many lawmakers withheld their votes on Muratsuchi's bill. Does she expect black and Latino Democrats to continue withholding votes from colleagues they feel do not support a return to affirmative action?

"Perhaps," Mitchell said, adding that lawmakers who believe in restoring affirmative action are concerned "that there is a lack of commitment to a core Democratic party priority."

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said the public debate over restoring affirmative action has grown too harsh.

"The way that this debate and discussion has been had so far shows the danger in deliberately trying to divide people along racial and ethnic lines," Steinberg said.

"That's not the way we should be having a very important discussion."

He said he plans to convene a public forum in the coming weeks where supporters of affirmative action - including from several Asian American groups - will talk about how to revive a new effort to bring race-conscious decision-making back to California colleges.

PHOTO: A University of California Davis student, listens in the crowd as professors, students, and others speak in defense of affirmative action practices during a rally at UC Davis on October 21, 1998. The Sacramento Bee/Dick Schmidt.



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