Kerry Defends Race-Based Set-Asides
Josh Gerstein, N. Y. Sun, Mar. 5
In an interview scheduled for broadcast on Super Tuesday, Senator Kerry of Massachusetts touted his support for programs that set aside government contracts for members of particular racial groups.
“I have been involved from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I have fought consistently for affirmative action, for set-aside programs, for housing, for inner-city school money, and after-school programs,” thesenator told Tavis Smiley, a National Public Radio journalist who formerly hosted a talk show for Black Entertainment Television. “I fought to hold onto the set-aside programs for minority-owned businesses.”
The senator’s comments this week represent the unambiguous end to his flirtation with changes to affirmative action and other government programsthat take race into account. It’s an issue, like many others, on which Mr.Kerry’s tune has changed. President Bush has already signaled a willingness to attack Mr. Kerry on that count, saying, “Senator Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue.”
Whether Mr. Bush will seek to raise Mr. Kerry’s views on racial preferencesduring the upcoming campaign is unclear; Mr. Bush has a mixed record of his own on the subject and may not want to risk appearing divisive or alienatingto minority voters.
What is clear is that Mr. Kerry has long been acquainted with the strong emotions the subject so often unleashes.
An early and overlooked episode in the senator’s political education on race came in May of 1989. Affirmative action was in trouble. The Supreme Court had just struck down a race-based set-aside program for constructioncontracts in Richmond, Virginia. In some quarters, there were fears that all race-conscious programs at every level of government were about to bedismantled.
Against that backdrop, Mr. Kerry strode into a meeting of minority contractors in Boston.
Mr. Kerry was then and is now a proponent of programs that set-aside government contracts for minorities, but on that day he appeared to attempt to educate the largely black audience about what he said were white attitudes on the subject.
“You’re dealing with a lot of people who came into this country 60, 70 years ago, 80 years ago, 100 years ago, whatever. Didn’t speak a word of language in this country. Nobody helped,” Mr. Kerry explained. “I’ll tell you, there weren’t any Yankee bankers lending a lot of money to Irishmen and Italians in those early years and they kind of struggled along. Correct?”
Some in the audience clearly believed the senator was taunting them.
“We don’t want to offend them? To hell with them!” shouted Robert McCoy, the African-American owner of a landscaping firm.
“What I tried to describe to you is the politics of the situation and howpeople feel. Now, you can ignore how they feel, or you can decide you want to walk over how they feel, or you can decide it’s irrelevant how they feel,” Mr. Kerry said.
“What about how we feel? I’m not worried about how they feel,” an exasperated Mr. McCoy declared.
Mr. Kerry chided him. “Well, if you don’t worry about how other people feel,we’re in trouble,” he said.
The exchange was captured by a crew from the local public televisionstation, WGBH.
In an interview yesterday with The New York Sun, one of the organizers ofthe event disputed the notion that the crowd turned on the senator but acknowledged that it was a heated meeting.
“I wouldn’t say it was hostile. It warmed up a little bit,” said Walter Williams, an African-American who remains active in Boston constructioncircles.” There were some people there that obviously were in some disagreement,” he recalled.
Three years later, Mr. Kerry stirred up a much larger political hornet’s nest with a speech raising questions about affirmative action. In the carefully prepared address delivered at Yale University, the senator said, “just as the benefits to America of affirmative action cannot be denied, neither can the costs. Too many politicians, particularly in my own party,have not acknowledged those costs for fear of undermining the very goals ofaffirmative action.”
“The truth is that affirmative action has kept American thinking in racial terms,” Mr. Kerry said, adding, “Somewhere within that vast apparatus conjured up to fight racism there exists a reality of reverse discrimination.”
The speech touched off a political firestorm. Several prominent Democrats repudiated Mr. Kerry’s comments. Some of his African-American supporters denounced him. Others dismissed the speech as an effort by Mr. Kerry to position himself as a possible vice presidential pick. A top civil rights leader, Mary Frances Berry, accused Mr. Kerry of using “racial innuendo.”
Within days, Mr. Kerry retreated from his remarks, while also blaming the press for failing to put his comments in the context of his long support for programs aimed at helping minorities.
The Yale speech has haunted Mr. Kerry and become fodder for his political opponents. In this year’s Democratic primary contest, General Wesley Clarkand Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri both suggested that Mr. Kerry’s Yalespeech indicated that he had wavered in his commitment to affirmative action. Mr. Kerry steadfastly denied the charge.
Suspicions about Mr. Kerry’s allegiances linger within the African-Americancommunity. In the NPR interview this week, Mr. Smiley said manyAfrican-Americans believe Mr. Kerry has not done as much for their community as has Senator Kennedy. Mr. Kerry bristled at the suggestion.
“I think Teddy would tell you that’s not entirely true, certainly in the last years. But Teddy Kennedy’s been there for 40 years, I’ve been there for 20 years,” Mr. Kerry said. Mr. Kerry listed various positions on his senateand campaign staffs that are filled by African-Americans.
Mr. Kerry said his legislative record on minority issues has been limited by the Senate’s tradition of awarding committee chairmanships to the longest-serving senators. “Because of seniority, I have not been chairman of a very significant committee, I’ve been chairman of a smaller committee, the small business committee,” he said.
Mr. Kerry has been chairman or ranking member of that committee since 1997. It oversees the Small Business Administration, which runs the government’slargest set-aside program, known as 8(a) for the section of the law that authorized the program.
Aides to Mr. Kerry say he has voted repeatedly to preserve minority contracting programs and has repeatedly pressed agencies to set aside more contracts for firms owned by minorities and women.
Advocates for those businesses confirm that Mr. Kerry has come to their aid on numerous occasions.
“Kerry has been a champion for set asides,” said the president of the National Association of Small and Disadvantaged Businesses, Henry Wilfong Jr. “I’ll give him credit for using the weight of his office. He fought for us.”
A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, Heather Layman, said she was not sure whether Mr. Bush planned to challenge Mr. Kerry over his position on set aside programs. However, she said Mr. Kerry’s variousstatements on affirmative action indicate a tendency to vacillate onimportant questions.
“This is one of a long line of issues where John Kerry has tried to have it both ways,” she said. “This fits the same pattern.”
One challenge Mr. Bush’s campaign would face in raising the issue against Mr. Kerry is that Mr. Bush’s statements and actions on the issue have also been ambiguous.
In 2000, as a candidate, Mr. Bush said he favored “affirmative access,” a policy that appeared to incorporate the outreach components of affirmative action while casting aside the racial preferences.
However, as president, Mr. Bush has made no effort to dismantle race-conscious programs. The administration did file a brief challenging theUniversity of Michigan’s affirmative action program, but it stopped short of saying that such programs were always unconstitutional. Instead, the Justice Department argued that schools should have to try race-neutral policies to boost minority admissions before turning to mechanisms that explicitly take account of race. Last June, the Supreme Court rejected the administration’sposition by a 5-to-4 vote.
Opponents of set-aside and preference programs said they are disappointed that Mr. Bush has done little to change the status quo.
“The results are not very good,” said Roger Clegg, the vice president andgeneral counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Mr. Clegg said that despite a series of court rulings striking down set-aside programs, the federal government continues to keep them in place.
“Neither party is very eager to change the way these programs operate. The Democrats don’t want to change the programs because a very powerful component of their base likes them. The Republicans, for reasons that baffle me, have concluded that it would be a political mistake to go after these programs,” Mr. Clegg said. He said that polls show racial preferences are “very unpopular” with nearly every segment of American society. Despite that, the White House has “concluded you lose more votes than you gain by taking these programs on,” Mr. Clegg said.
A political science professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore College, George Lanoue, said that the Small Business Administration’s 8(a)program, which Mr. Kerry oversees, has become endeared to politicians of all stripes.
“It’s pretty much on autopilot now. It’s politically untouchable,” said Mr.Lanoue, who opposes the program. He said it uses race and gender as the primary criteria for deciding who gets contracts and who does not.
Mr. Clegg said he doubted Mr. Bush would raise the issue of set-asides withMr. Kerry, but that the question could come up at a debate or if Mr. Kerry decides to attack Mr. Bush for not doing enough to help minority firms.
Democrats have also pointed out that officials in the Bush White House have acknowledged that “ethnicity and gender” are sometimes taken into account infilling administration jobs.
Ms. Layman disputed the notion that Mr. Bush’s position on racial preferences is muddled. “I think it’s clear he’s against the quota system,”she said.