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Thursday, July 14, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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GOP aide Arthur Fletcher, who pushed affirmative action, dies

Times chief political reporter

Arthur Fletcher is known as the father of affirmative action and equal-opportunity laws, and he had a long career serving Republican presidents. But just days before he died this week, Mr. Fletcher was remembering another of his accomplishments: the 1968 race for lieutenant governor of Washington state when he almost ousted a Democratic legend from office.

"He and I talked about that just days ago," said Olympia businessman Nat Jackson, a protégé of Mr. Fletcher's. "At the time you didn't even know how big it was. But looking back over 35 years no one has come that close; being a Republican and running that close, it was indeed incredible."

Incredible because Mr. Fletcher was black, and Jackson says no African-American politician has since come as close to winning a statewide race.

Mr. Fletcher worked as a special assistant to former Gov. Dan Evans before serving a string of Republican presidents, helping to create federal affirmative-action programs as an assistant secretary of labor under Richard Nixon and serving as chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under President George H.W. Bush.

Mr. Fletcher, 80, died in Washington, D.C., Tuesday; a heart attack is suspected. He collapsed at his home and had suffered from heart disease.

"Art Fletcher had great impact on the private sector's ability to effect the downtrodden and those who were left behind," Jackson said. "I know the benefit he generated, and it'll take years for people to realize it.

"Every time you see a black or Hispanic working on a construction project, he wasn't there for the most part before Art Fletcher."

Mr. Fletcher's wife, Bernyce, said her husband was most proud of his work on creating affirmative action during the Nixon administration.

"That was his legacy," she said yesterday. "He said he'd go to his grave trying to protect that legacy, and that's exactly what he did."

She said it was particularly hard for Mr. Fletcher to watch fellow Republicans in recent years try to undo affirmative action.

But as a black man promoting anti-discrimination and minority-jobs legislation, Mr. Fletcher had clashed with his party before.

"My party has designed a top-down strategy, which says the wealthy, the rich, the affluent belong to this party," he said in launching a short-lived presidential campaign in 1995. "It's time to stop that and say there's room for anybody who wants to participate in the Republican Party."

And as a Republican, he sometimes found himself a target of criticism from liberals.

When he was nominated to head the Civil Rights Commission, he told an interviewer, "I am trying to get dollars from honest work into the pockets of more minorities. I could care less about the social implications. I'm not interested in social justice. I'm into economic participation and economic justice."

Jackson said Mr. Fletcher's drive for economic opportunity came from his own difficulty finding work after returning as a veteran of World War II with fresh scars from a German sniper's bullet.

"He used to say that a German could come to America and find a job and housing but he couldn't find those things when he came back," Jackson said. "There were no jobs for black soldiers and nobody gave a damn, and I don't think he ever forgot that."

In Washington state, Mr. Fletcher was a Pasco city councilman when he emerged as a voice in moderate Republican politics. In 1968 he ran for lieutenant governor on a slate with Gov. Dan Evans, Slade Gorton for attorney general and Lud Kramer for secretary of state.

Mr. Fletcher easily won the primary, besting a Seattle legend, hydroplane pilot Bill Muncey.

But in the general election, Mr. Fletcher was the only one of the "Action for Washington" slate to lose. But he nearly beat John Cherberg, a former University of Washington football coach who served as lieutenant governor from 1957 to 1989.

As a special assistant to Evans, Mr. Fletcher pushed for minority representation in labor unions and police and fire departments, said former Secretary of State Ralph Munro.

"Part of it was by legislation, part of it was embarrassment, part of it was just a loud, clear message," Munro said. "Art was one of the most emotional speakers in America. He'd have the crowd in his hand, laughing or crying, within 30 seconds."

A memorial service for Mr. Fletcher is scheduled for next Thursday in Washington, D.C. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to an organization Mr. Fletcher founded: Friends for America's Future, 516 G St. S.W., Washington, D.C., 20024.

Stuart Elway, a Seattle pollster who worked on the 1968 campaign, said Mr. Fletcher always remained practical and pragmatic as he pushed for social change from within the Republican Party.

"He used to say, 'You can dream all you want. But if reality is here, I want to be here,' " Elway said.

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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