'This is a civil rights moment': Behind the Legislature's decision to reverse WA's affirmative action ban

A new class of lawmakers in Olympia made I-1000 a priority. Bluffing, brinkmanship and good timing helped get it passed.

A volunteer holds a sticker showing support for Initiative 1000 outside a joint Washington state House and Senate committee, Thursday, April 18, 2019, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

State Sen. Joe Nguyen’s voice trembled with emotion as he spoke on the Senate floor on Sunday. “Only in this country would my story even be reality, coming from parents who were refugees, growing up on social services,” said Nguyen, whose parents came from Vietnam. “If not for folks in my life that gave me an opportunity to succeed, to give me a helping hand, I would not be here today.”

Nguyen, D-Seattle, was speaking in support of Initiative 1000, a citizen-submitted plan to reverse the state's 20-year ban on affirmative action. Yet the debate over the initiative was one that, as recently as an hour earlier, Nguyen had given up on having at all.

The freshman legislator had pressed hard and maneuvered to bring the measure to the Senate floor. Still, even he was surprised when Democratic leaders in the House and Senate decided to bring I-1000 up for a vote the last day of the 105-day session, only hours before a midnight deadline to adjourn.

During the debate that ensued, opponents of I-1000 chanted from the Capitol rotunda, their voices carrying into the Senate chamber with cries of, "Vote them out."

Then, at 8:43 p.m., the chamber voted 26-22 to pass the initiative into law, and lift the ban on considering race and gender as factors in government hiring, contracting and public-university admissions.

Nguyen stepped off the floor of the Senate and cried.

Nguyen wasn't the only one stunned by the Legislature’s approval of I-1000, given how often state lawmakers decline to act on initiatives submitted by citizen groups. Legislators could have easily sidestepped the issue, an inaction that would have resulted in I-1000 being sent to the November ballot, leaving the decision in the hands of Washington voters.

The initiative’s passage was all the more unexpected given the amount of work the Legislature still had to complete Sunday when the vote took place. As I-1000 was being debated Sunday evening, Washington lawmakers had yet to pass a new two-year budget — a requirement of the session — or reach a deal on a complex plan to ease limits on local school-district property tax levies. They looked as if they were headed into overtime.

But even as budgetary issues occupied most of lawmakers' attention last week, supporters and opponents of I-1000 had been coming to the Capitol daily to voice their opinions on the initiative.

Meanwhile, among lawmakers, intense talks had been going on behind the scenes.  

State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, was one of the key negotiators who pushed to bring I-1000 up for a vote. She said the state’s affirmative-action ban has limited the opportunities available to people of color, in part by failing to acknowledge the systemic barriers they face.

“This is a civil rights moment — we should all be a part of it,” Saldaña said Monday, describing her pitch to other lawmakers throughout the session.

Impassioned appeals were one part of an effort that also involved bluffing, brinkmanship and a bit of lucky timing. But Saldaña said the seeds of the repeal were planted during the last two years of elections, which have brought more women and people of color to Olympia. 

As recently as four years ago, now-Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal was the only woman of color in the Washington state Senate. Now, the Senate has four women of color, two of whom — Saldaña and Manka Dhingra of Redmond — serve as deputy majority leaders.

The election of three new Democratic senators of color last fall has brought the total number to eight. That's made them a sizable force within Senate Democrats’ 28-seat majority, and one that Saldaña said added significant pressure for legislative leaders to act on I-1000.

“There’s moments where we have a voting bloc that cannot be ignored,” Saldaña said.

After last fall’s election, people of color similarly make up nearly one-third of the House Democratic caucus.

‘“Now there aren’t just advocates outside the door — there are advocates inside the door, working very hard on these things as well,” said state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, the Senate majority floor leader. The passage of I-1000 is an outcome he would not have predicted in January, he added.

Several of the lawmakers who spoke in support of the initiative throughout the session said it would help correct some of the negative results of I-200, including a declining percentage of state contracts going toward firms owned by women or people of color. When I-200 was passed in 1998, 13.31 percent of expenditures by state agencies and educational institutions went toward certified minority and women-owned businesses, according to state data. In 2017, that percentage had declined to 2.88 percent.

“I am someone who believes very strongly in righting wrongs, particularly with taxpayer dollars,” said Nat Jackson, a leader of the I-1000 campaign. "There are no favors in I-1000 — but there is indeed fairness, there is equity, and there is inclusion."

I-1000 amends I-200 to allow race, sex, ethnicity, disability, age, veteran status and national origin to be considered during government hiring and contracting processes, as well as in public-education programs. It does not allow any of those characteristics to be used as the sole factor in decision-making, or allow the use of quotas.

Supporters gathered about 400,000 signatures in support of the measure last fall, the most of any initiative sent to the Legislature in state history.

Democratic Sen. Joe Nguyen speaks in support of an initiative to the Legislature that would allow the state to use hiring and recruitment goals, but not quotas, to bring minority candidates into state jobs and education, on April 28, 2019, in Olympia. The measure loosens restrictions enacted in a 1998 initiative that banned government discrimination or preferential treatment based on factors such as race or gender. (Photo by Rachel La Corte/AP)
Democratic Sen. Joe Nguyen speaks in support of I-1000 on April 28, 2019, in Olympia. (Photo by Rachel La Corte/AP)

Some opponents of the initiative, however, have criticized I-1000 as degrading to minorities, suggesting that they are less capable — something they say is discriminatory in its own right.

“The idea of a certain race has to be helped, has to be held to a different, lower standard than other group of people? ...There’s nothing more condescending than that type of view,” said Kan Qiu, one of several I-1000 opponents who rallied at the Capitol on Sunday. He and other members of the group WA Asians For Equality were present for Sunday’s vote, urging lawmakers to ignore the initiative and let it go to voters.

At the same time, Jackson and other I-1000 backers also were sitting in the House and Senate galleries, watching the legislative action intently.

As time was running out to hold a vote Sunday in the Legislature, Nguyen said he and other I-1000 supporters pushed the issue even harder. Because lawmakers have to approve initiatives to the Legislature during their regularly scheduled sessions, going into overtime would have meant the end of the legislative debate on the initiative. 

With that in mind, Gov. Jay Inslee and his chief of staff were consistently present in the wings of the House and Senate on Sunday, in part to urge lawmakers to act on I-1000 before midnight. Inslee had previously voiced support for the initiative during his State of the State address in January, calling it a "well-reasoned approach" to combat structural inequities. 

As of early Sunday evening, however, the governor's efforts appeared to have failed. Negotiations over the contentious school-levy bill had broken down. Legislative leaders had worried that a prolonged debate over the levy policy, as well as the potential for another over the state budget, could leave no time to hold another lengthy debate over the initiative. 

But a delay in action for the school-levy bill actually created a window of opportunity for I-1000 to go to a floor vote.

And Democrats took it.

“Other things were falling apart,” Saldaña recalled. “So it was like, if that is not going to happen, let’s not waste this moment.”

Nguyen said he did two other things to help move the conversation along over the course of the weekend.

First, he bluffed about the Senate vote count, he said. Even on Sunday morning, Nguyen wasn’t sure that there actually were 25 votes for the measure in the Senate, despite assuring leaders that there were, he said.

Nguyen said he was betting that some senators who were on the fence about I-1000 would actually vote "yes" when faced with the prospect of the initiative coming to the floor.

He appears to have been correct. Two Democratic senators known as moderates in their caucus, Steve Hobbs and Dean Takko, were among those who voted to pass the initiative in the end. Hobbs and Takko didn’t respond to requests for comment on Monday and Tuesday.

Another last-resort tactic, Nguyen said, was suggesting he and some other legislators might withhold their votes on the state operating budget “unless we at least address this issue” of I-1000.

These hardball tactics weren’t his preference, Nguyen said. At the same time, he said he wanted to show legislative leaders that I-1000 was important, just like the budget.

“I’m not a person that does transactional stuff and plays games,”  Nguyen said Monday, “but I was sick and tired of seeing people of color being ignored for so long. And I felt like it was happening again.”

Liias, the Senate majority floor leader, said he never heard about that threat.

But it’s one that could have held some weight. As talks dragged on Sunday, Democrats were trying desperately to avoid a 30-day special session. With Republicans no longer in control of the state Senate, Democrats — now with healthy majorities in both chambers — faced pressure to end the Legislature's pattern of extended sessions in budget-writing years.

Across the Capitol rotunda, other legislators were similarly leaning on leaders in the state House.

State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said some of the new legislators in her caucus, such as Bellevue Rep. My-Linh Thai, were relentless negotiators who wouldn't quit.

“New members don’t understand that they’re supposed to be limited. So they’re not. And great things happen because of that,” said Jinkins, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.  “We just had all these amazing kind of newer members who just didn’t know enough to give up hope, and kept working on it. And that worked out perfectly.”

Others have been working on the issue for decades, with less success. Since her election in 1998, State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, has frequently sponsored measures to repeal I-200, to no avail.

She, too, doubted I-1000 would come up for a vote. “If you had asked me at 5 o’clock [Sunday] if this measure was going to go forward, I would have probably figured out a nice way to say it doesn’t look really likely,” Santos said Monday.

Santos said she thinks the more limited nature of I-1000 might have contributed to a different result this year. I-1000 doesn’t go as far as repealing all of the 1998 initiative, she noted, but rather amends it to allow more consideration of a candidate’s diverse background, along with more targeted recruiting and outreach efforts.

The fact that the proposal came from citizens also gave it more heft, Santos said, citing a constitutional provision that directs lawmakers to prioritize initiatives to the Legislature above most other bills.

When the initiative finally did come to the House floor, Santos was the first one to deliver a speech urging her colleagues to pass it.

The support of three former governors provided another boost. During a joint hearing last month involving Jinkins' committee, former governors Christine Gregoire, Dan Evans and Gary Locke all testified in support of the measure. Locke and Gregoire are Democrats, while Evans is a Republican.

Republican legislators, for their part, also decided not to prolong the debate over the initiative, even as several said they would prefer to focus on enforcing existing anti-discrimination laws instead.

That decision helped create the time not only for lawmakers to quickly vote on I-1000, but also to pass a new state budget and approve a compromise on school levies before midnight.

David Postman, Inslee’s chief of staff, said Monday afternoon that if Republicans had decided to hold a lengthy debate or cause other delays, “we would be in special session today.”

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said that, although members of his caucus firmly opposed I-1000, he didn’t see a point in dragging out the debate or forcing a special session under Democrats’ watch. Once Democrats decided to vote on the initiative, there wasn't much minority Republicans could do to change the outcome, he said.

"I am going to fight down to the last breath when it makes a difference," Wilcox said.

In this case, he said, “Being partisan would not change anything for the people of Washington, except that it would add to the cost of the session."

After a chaotic rush to the finish, the Legislature barely finished its work on time, adjourning right as the clock struck midnight Sunday.

For Rep. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, who campaigned against I-200 more than 20 years ago, the successful vote to dismantle the 1998 initiative still felt surreal the next day.

“'It hasn't sunk in yet,” Valdez said Monday, while still recovering from several nights of minimal sleep and late-night votes. “It makes this job rewarding if you are able to stand up and fight for what you think is right.”

A statewide vote on I-1000 still may end up happening, as initiative opponents have already filed paperwork for a referendum effort. If they gather about 130,000 valid signatures by late July, voters may be asked in November whether to uphold or overturn the Legislature’s decision on I-1000. Qiu, part of the group of I-1000 opponents who demonstrated at the Capitol on Sunday, is leading the referendum campaign.

Jackson, the leader of the I-1000 campaign, said that whatever happens with that signature-gathering effort, the Legislature's passage of the initiative will improve the law's chances of surviving a possible referendum. He called Sunday’s vote “a tremendous victory.”

“To pass it through the Legislature gave it a matter of strength; that would not be the case were they to punt,” Jackson said. “It’s a tremendous success for our governmental institutions, and the use of taxpayer dollars in a fair and equitable way.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.