Program supporters outnumbered 2-to-1


Next year, voters will be asked to choose a new senator and possibly make a decision about the future of affirmative action in this state. A Times poll shows likely voters favoring a Democrat for the Senate seat and an end to the controversial programs.



� St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 1999


Well before the fight heats up over affirmative action's fate in Florida, most voters have made up their minds about government programs aimed at creating more opportunities for women and minorities.

They want them to end.

Supporters of a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar government from treating people differently based on race or gender in government contracting, hiring and university admissions outnumber opponents by more than 2-to-1, a St. Petersburg Times-Miami Herald poll shows.

Among likely voters, 60 percent say they would vote for the amendment backed by California businessman Ward Connerly, 26 percent say they oppose the initiative and 14 percent are undecided.

In Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, 68 percent say they would vote for the amendment, 19 percent are opposed and 13 percent are undecided.

Results from other poll questions aimed at testing voters' attitudes about race, gender and affirmative action are even more striking.

Voters were asked to select which statement comes closest to reflecting their opinion.

This statement was chosen by 19 percent: "I support affirmative action because I believe it ensures fairness and equality for all Floridians, and because race and gender should be considered in government hiring and college admissions in order to help eliminate discrimination against racial minorities and women."

This statement was chosen by 75 percent: "I oppose affirmative action because I believe that government hiring and college admissions should not be influenced by a person's race or gender. A person's ability is the only issue that should matter."

Just 6 percent declined to answer.

The responses indicate it would be difficult for affirmative action supporters to keep the proposed amendment from passing if it appears on the November 2000 ballot, said Rob Schroth, a Washington-based pollster who conducted the poll for the newspapers.

"Looking at this poll, it is difficult for me to conjure up a political strategy" that would defeat the amendment, he said. "It seems to me what they are saying is that the best way to truly level the playing field is to simply make a person's ability the only issue that should matter."

The poll numbers are about the same in Florida as they were in California at roughly the same point before voters there approved a similar 1996 referendum also backed by Connerly. Washington state voters approved a similar initiative in 1998.

The debate over affirmative action here is about to intensify.

This week, Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to announce his recommendations for overhauling the way state government tries to ensure opportunities for women and minorities in contracting and hiring and in university admissions. The Republican has called Connerly's referendum effort "divisive," and state GOP officials have advised their fundraisers to steer clear of the movement.

Connerly's group, the Florida Civil Rights Initiative, has gathered enough voter signatures to trigger a review of the ballot language by the Florida Supreme Court. He said the organization is gearing up to resume gathering signatures this month.

More than 60 percent of male voters and more than half of female voters said they would vote for the amendment. Black voters were more likely to oppose the amendment than Hispanics.

Black voters were divided, with 42 percent supporting the amendment to end affirmative action and 46 percent opposing it.

"I'm for anything that treats everybody fairly," said Lee Ward, a 49-year-old African-American restaurant worker in Tallahassee, who leans toward supporting the amendment. "A person's ability is what should matter."

But Trumaine Smith, a 19-year-old African-American student at Pinellas Technical Education Center and St. Petersburg resident, said affirmative action still is needed to ensure black residents are treated fairly.

"Otherwise," he said, "they wouldn't have any help."

Among Hispanic voters, 50 percent said they would vote for the amendment, 39 percent were against and 11 percent were undecided.

"Because of their tremendous financial and political success in South Florida, and because they are conservative on most big government programs, it is no surprise that many of them reject the need for affirmative action," Schroth said.

Florida NAACP president Leon Russell, leader of an advocacy group for affirmative action called FREE, said he is not surprised by the poll results.

"It says what we already know; there has to be a lot of education," he said. "We think we know where our work is. It is among white moderate voters. It's explaining what affirmative action is and what affirmative action is not."

But the poll indicates that any description of affirmative action as programs that consider race or gender have little support, particularly among white voters.

"Everybody should be treated just about equally," said Maurice Burger, a 62-year-old Hillsborough County Democrat.

Russell and other supporters of affirmative action say voters will always say they are for equal opportunity. The key, they say, is explaining to them what it takes to ensure those opportunities exist.

"It's not language that gets people to vote for this," Connerly said, "it's attitude, it's that the time has passed to try to compensate blacks for past history."

-- Times staff writer Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.