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SCA 5: Asian-American lawmakers face fallout from affirmative action debate

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Affirmative action legislation may be off the table in Sacramento this year, but it continues to divide legislators.

Controversy over Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 has cost Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, endorsements from several legislators who had initially supported his bid to replace retiring Congressman Henry Waxman. 

And SCA 5 strife may have killed a bill sponsored by Assembly member Al Muratsuchi — a totally unrelated measure that aimed to expand the number of low-emission vehicles allowed on high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

"I think it's a form of political payback," said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine.

RELATED: Affirmative action bill SCA 5 'dead for the year'

Lieu became a target of fellow legislators after he backed off from his support of SCA 5, which would have asked voters to restore affirmative action at California's public universities. Lieu had caught heat from Chinese-Americans groups worried that race-conscious admissions — banned by voters in 1996 —would winnow Asian-Americans’ chances of getting into top schools. 

Angry that Lieu had pushed the Assembly speaker to stop the bill from advancing, six members of the Black and Latino caucuses wrote him in late March, rescinding their endorsements as they stated their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

"He seemed to have changed one of his views," one of the legislators, Assembly member Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, told KPCC. "I felt it was my purview to pull my endorsement."

Lieu responded in a statement: "I have fought my whole political life to ensure that inclusion and opportunity for all communities remains paramount in all decisions we make. I view every action I take through that lens. To distort my position into anything other than that is fundamentally unfair."

What happened with Muratsuchi is less straightforward. On Monday, 16 members of the Black and Latino caucuses withheld their votes on the Torrance Democrat's bill, depriving it of the two-thirds vote needed for passage.

After the vote, Sen. Holly Mitchell — a Democrat from Los Angeles who heads the Legislative Black Caucus and one of the legislators who withdrew support for Lieu's candidacy for Congress — told the Sacramento Bee that black and Latino Democrats may continue withholding votes from colleagues whom they feel do not share their same level of support for affirmative action.

While none of the legislators have acknowledged sitting out the vote on Muratsuchi's bill because of SCA 5, Rendon said “I think some members may have done so."

But Rendon, who himself had voted for the bill, said “there were a number of members who stayed off the bill and I wouldn’t characterize all of their reasons for doing so as the same.” 

Melissa Uribe, a field representative for Muratsuchi, said in an email the office didn't know if SCA 5 had anything to do with the demise of his bill. She added: "However, it would be very unfortunate if legislators chose politics over something like air quality."
Uribe also noted that Muratsuchi has never had a position on SCA 5 as the bill didn't make it to the floor of the Assembly.

DeSipio said he doubts that leadership will allow a trend of Democrats boycotting other Democrats' bills if that is what's happening.

"You don't want ancillary pieces of legislation that probably have broad support to fall victim to political payback," DeSipio said. "I suspect that if there are more examples of this, you'll start to see some consequences for the Democrats that aren't supporting their colleagues on bills that are in the interest of the Democratic caucus."

RELATED: Complicated relationship: Asian Americans and affirmative action

Howard Winant, sociologist at the University of California, said recent political fisticuffs are not signs of a long-term factionalism.

“I think it’s more about maneuvering than some emerging deep pattern of conflict between Asian Americans and blacks and Latinos,” Winant said.

Winant said affirmative action cannot be characterized as an issue that pits Asian-Americans against Latinos and blacks. He noted that some survey results indicate that many Asian-Americans support affirmative action.

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