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Thursday, February 26, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Fire From Both Sides Now -- Lawmaker Fashions Alternative To I- 200

Seattle Times Olympia Bureau

OLYMPIA - In the divisive debate over Washington's initiative to end racial and gender preferences, Rep. Hans Dunshee has found something both sides can agree on: They hate his idea for overhauling affirmative action.

Dunshee, D-Snohomish, says preferences in government hiring, contracting and college admissions should be granted on economic need, not race or gender. To do that, Dunshee yesterday introduced a bill that would put the question to voters on the November ballot alongside Initiative 200, the citizen anti-affirmative action measure.

"I've tried to find something between I-200, on the one hand, which would just end everything and, on the other, defending the status quo," Dunshee said.

The sponsor of I-200, Rep. Scott Smith, R-Graham, said that while Dunshee's proposal may be sincere, he thinks it's part of a Democratic strategy to confuse voters so they vote against I-200 in November.

And initiative opponents say Dunshee - who is the most strident Democratic opponent of the legislature's Republican majority - is pushing the agenda of the far right. They say they want the focus to remain on the I-200 alternative they support and are hoping that a boost from Gov. Gary Locke next week will give it a fighting chance this year.

I-200 would effectively ban affirmative action for minorities and women in state and local public employment, public education, state college admissions and public contracting.

"Hans' proposal jeopardizes the very same principles that Initiative 200 jeopardizes," said Kathleen Russell, manager of the No! 200 Campaign.

The reactions, people say, show Dunshee's unpopularity with Republicans who control the Legislature and with the liberal establishment, which doesn't accept dissension like Dunshee's.

Dunshee's proposal would create a commission to set new standards for government affirmative-action programs based on characteristics of family, income, education level, geographic location and other socioeconomic factors.

Race and gender could be used temporarily "to eliminate the evident effects of documented past discrimination . . ."

It's an idea gaining favor in other parts of the country, particularly in college admissions. It is promoted by some prominent conservatives, but Dunshee said it also is becoming more palatable among moderate Democrats who want to address the public's unease with hiring preferences, but don't want to end all affirmative-action programs.

I-200 is an initiative to the Legislature, and lawmakers must either approve it, send it to the ballot or send the initiative and an alternative measure to the ballot.

Dunshee's plan received a cold shoulder from Republican leaders yesterday, in part, because he is not popular with the ruling GOP.

"I would not be in a position to comment on any legislation Representative Dunshee might have," said House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee.

Dunshee can be outspoken in his opposition to the Republicans' business-oriented agenda and is the Democrats' most vocal, and colorful, spokesman for those whom he likes to call the little guys and average folk who live in his rural Snohomish County district.

The negative reaction to Dunshee's plan from opponents of I-200 shows the uncompromising nature of Seattle's liberal establishment, said Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle.

Several weeks ago, Murray organized a meeting between Dunshee and leaders of the campaign against I-200. While Murray backs a different alternative, he said he wanted to see if there was room to compromise, and he wanted Dunshee to have a chance to make his case.

"They just made it very clear they thought this was a far-right issue," Murray said. "I think there is a liberal orthodoxy that doesn't understand the politics of the rest of the state. To not even be allowed to have a conversation out of our own ideological preference is wrong."

Murray said he got a taste of that himself several weeks ago when he suggested it might be better to let a ban on gay marriages become law rather than fight it on the ballot. Now, he says, he is being criticized for trying to bring Dunshee's ideas into the debate.

Rep. Kip Tokuda, D-Seattle, said he opposes Dunshee's bill because "it dilutes the original intent of affirmative action, which was to get at past inequities and discrimination," not because it is at odds with some Seattle mindset.

"I wouldn't characterize Seattle as a certain line of thinking," Tokuda said. "I just think the perception is that it is a little more liberal than the rest of the state. But there is not a sense of elitism or arrogance that would cut people out of the debate."

Tokuda, a Japanese American, said he knows from growing up in Seattle's Central District that Dunshee's plan wouldn't do enough.

"I grew up in a pretty middle-class household, but my parents, despite having the same amount of money as their colleagues and friends, could not always live where they wanted to live and weren't privileged to the same kind of opportunities," he said. "And socioeconomics were not a factor."

Tokuda has sponsored his own alternative to I-200. It would make clear that quotas and hiring unqualified people is prohibited but would continue current government hiring practices.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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