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King Letter Late For I-200 Battle

Wed., March 11, 1998

It came a day too late, but Martin Luther King III urged Washington lawmakers Tuesday to give voters a chance to uphold affirmative action within limits.

But by the time his letter reached the 147 legislators, the Republican House had killed the Democrats’ efforts to place such a measure on the ballot alongside an initiative that largely rolls back government affirmative action for women and minorities.

Backers of Initiative 200, determined to give voters a straight shot at the ballot measure, rejected a move by Democrats to force a vote Monday on a more benign legislative version to accompany the initiative to the ballot as an either-or option.

Washington is the only state with a public vote planned for the year on the topic.

King, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded by his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said the vote could have “enormous ramifications not only for Washington, but for the rest of the nation.”

“I urge you to consider the critical role affirmative action has played in forging a just nation - and the profound injury dismantling it would have on all Americans who share the dream of equal opportunity.”

King said nearly 30 percent of those who voted for a similar California proposition said they were backers of affirmative action. A campaign of “confusion and deception … clouded the debate” and could happen here, too, he said.

But before having the letter in hand, House Democrats tried, and lost, a motion to bring the alternative to the House floor for an immediate vote late Monday. Their surprise move failed 56-40.

Instead, majority Republicans sent the bill off to committee, where it will die. There was no talk of resurrecting the measure after the King missive.

House Majority Leader Barb Lisk, R-Zillah, also indicated that lawmakers will send I-200 to the ballot without taking a vote in the House or the Senate.

The initiative would ban preferences for women and minority in government hiring, contracting and college admissions.

The alternative, introduced in both houses, would permit affirmative action to continue but would rule out quotas and make it illegal for unqualified people to be hired, given contracts or admitted to college.

That’s essentially a restatement of existing practice.

The alternative was backed by Democratic Gov. Gary Locke, nearly all Democratic legislators and a handful of Republican moderates.

Rep. Scott Smith, R-Graham, sponsor of the initiative, called the alternative misleading and said it was designed to confuse voters without changing current practice.

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