Affirmative action will once again be allowed in Washington state after the Legislature passed an initiative in the final hours of the 2019 session.
The initiative, known as I-1000, was sent to the Legislature after receiving nearly 400,000 signatures earlier this year. It amends the 1998 voter-approved I-200, which effectively curtailed any form of affirmative action in the state, leading to dramatic declines in minority and woman-owned businesses receiving public contracts, securing jobs or being admitted to public universities. I-1000 was passed on April 28.
I-1000 passed both the state House and Senate but was quickly challenged by a referendum measure to put the initiative before voters on the November ballot. The opposition has 90 days to collect roughly 130,000 signatures.
The votes in the state Senate occurred nearly along party lines, with two Democrats, including Issaquah’s Mark Mullet voting against it, citing a “verbal promise” he made to vote against it. Others, including Bellevue’s Patty Kuderer who sponsored the bill, spoke in support.
“It’s startling — we heard from business leaders, from Vulcan and Amazon, Microsoft. We heard from three governors, from both parties. We heard from groups,” Kuderer said. “The veterans groups, we heard from business leaders, we heard from elected officials at all levels of government, we heard from minority groups. We heard from so many people telling us that I-200 poses barriers to women and minorities in terms of advancing.”
Before I-200 was passed, the state spent roughly 10 percent of its contracting dollars with minority and woman-owned businesses, Kuderer said. That dropped to below 3 percent within the following years and has never recovered.
While I-1000 reinstates affirmative action in Washington state, it does not allow for preferential treatment. Affirmative action allows public organizations to take a person’s race, gender, disability or veteran’s status into account when hiring, but that cannot be used as the only factor. Opponents of I-1000 have said it will allow unqualified people to be placed into jobs and universities ahead of other, more qualified applicants.
Kan Qiu is the president of the American Coalition for Equality, also known as WA Asians for Equality. Qiu filed a the referendum measure seeking to put I-1000 in front of voters in November.
“It is against people’s will. Initiative 200 was passed by people by more than 58 percent in 1998,” he said. “We think people deserve to vote.”
Qiu said he is concerned the initiative could hurt Asian American communities in the state.
Sen. Bob Hasegawa, a Democrat representing the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Seattle, said during statements in the Senate that wasn’t the point of I-1000.
“There is a misperception that I-1000 or affirmative action grants privilege to advance less qualified people over more qualified people — that’s absolutely wrong,” he said. “… You have to be qualified, but if there’s a proven disparity in either education, on a job, in contracting opportunities, then we have to make that right because that disparity leads to futility when it turns into institutionalized racism.”
Hasegawa additionally said that after the passage of I-200, the number of minority and woman-owned companies competing for bid dropped from about 4,900 to some 2,600.
The initiative was additionally supported by King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, who testified in front of the Legislature in support of I-1000. Gossett said in an interview he believes the initiative is a positive step toward achieving greater equality for people of color and women.
“I hope that university campuses, and amongst both public and private employers around the state, particularly in those areas where there is substantial evidence that people of color, women, have been excluded, discriminated against, are now able to move projects and programs forward,” Gossett said.
Gossett said contract opportunities even in King County have been severely dwindled for people of color and women since I-200 was passed in 1998. However, Gossett said he is expecting there to be a substantial push in the state to repeal I-1000.
“I’m excited first about both the House and the Senate, the Washington state Legislature passing it. I’m confident that the governor will sign it, but I, being a realist, believe that there’s a great possibility for people to mount an initiative drive to kill the implementation of I-1000,” Gossett said. “And that would be extremely dissatisfying and hurtful if that happens. But if indeed it does happen, then I’m sure that beneficiaries of these incremental changes and affirmative action, as well as every democratic loving person in the state will join hands, not to sign the initiative, but will join hands to prevent this initiative drive should it occur from being successful.”