A LANDMARK VOTER INITIATIVE hustled prematurely onto California's recall ballot may wind up a victim of the recall itself-crushed in a rerouted landslide of gubernatorial campaign cash.
Proposition 54, the "Racial Privacy Initiative" (RPI), would bar Golden State agencies from classifying people by race or ethnicity. Its chief architect, University of California regent and antiÐaffirmative action activist Ward Connerly, crafted the measure to end government's preferential treatment based on race: "RPI's passage will signal America's first step towards a color-blind society."
California voters were not to decide on Prop. 54 until March 2004, during the Democratic presidential primaries. But state election law mandates that qualified initiatives appear on the next statewide ballot. And recall politics have changed everything. The recall wave that swept Gov. Gray Davis into a battle for his job also swept Prop. 54 onto the special ballot, leaving Mr. Connerly short on time to raise both voter awareness and cash.
Still, as recently as July, half of California voters supported Prop. 54. But earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the leading Democrat in the recall race, turned his considerable financial guns on the measure-in a bid, many say, to save his own hide. Charged in a lawsuit with violating campaign-fundraising limits, Mr. Bustamante quickly pledged to use $4 million in excess funds (contributed by Indian gambling interests) to fight Prop. 54.
Although critics labeled that strategy a bald attempt to shift attention from allegations of financial misconduct, it may already be influencing voters. A poll last week showed that only 40 percent now plan to vote "yes" on Prop. 54; another 40 percent said they'd oppose it.
Victor Shanti told WORLD he'll still vote "yes." The San Diego physician with a booming laugh and 18-inch dreadlocks believes government collection of racial data is an offensive, slave-era relic that serves mainly to "keep the poverty pimps employed."
Dr. Shanti is tough to pigeonhole, as a team of public-school educators recently found out. He and his wife Carol met with San Diego school officials in March to discuss the special educational needs of their son Sonichi, then 9. A school psychologist began by verifying that the school had correctly logged the child's name, age, and gender. Then she arrived at the box for race: "African-American," she said perfunctorily, and prepared to move on.
"Hold it," Dr. Shanti interrupted, partly on principle, and partly because it amused him. "Who said Sonichi was African-American? I didn't say he was African-American." He turned to his wife with a wry smile. "Did you say he was African-American?"
"No," she said, smiling back. "I didn't."
Dr. Shanti remembers that the school officials grew visibly uncomfortable as he explained that while his family traced its ancestry to Guinea Bissau, on the African continent, the Shantis' roots also reached into Scotland, Ireland, Britain, and the Iroquois Nation. The school officials looked "panic stricken," Dr. Shanti recalled.
Later in the meeting, race factored in again: A school speech therapist told the Shantis that she wouldn't try to correct some of Sonichi's speech problems because she realized they were actually "Ebonics." Dr. Shanti says he hopes Prop. 54 will end such misguided race-based conclusions by preventing the collection of racial data in the first place.
Language in the initiative makes exceptions for law enforcement-when an officer must, for example, describe a suspect's race or skin color for crime-fighting purposes-and for collecting racial data for medical research, treatment, and disease prevention.
The latter hasn't stopped Prop. 54's opponents from claiming the measure would endanger public health. For example, one anti-54 website claims the measure would halt research on a litany of health risks including SARS, AIDS, heart disease, and hypertension. In stump speeches, Mr. Bustamante is making similar claims.
Proposition 54 "would do none of those things," Mr. Connerly argues. He urged voters who think otherwise to "read the simple language of the initiative."
Caught, as he is, in the crosshairs of Mr. Bustamante's millions, Mr. Connerly told WORLD that some news outlets last week mischaracterized him as conceding defeat. He isn't giving up, he said, but he is realistic: "When someone is spending that kind of money in roughly a three-week period, they can saturate the air ... they can do almost anything they want to do. But we will keep marching along with our message, and hopefully, our message will prevail."