Serious Issues Don’t Bring Serious Discussions

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

There may be some favored spot in the United States where politicians and their constituents can discuss controversial matters and come to a decision based on the facts of the case, but California sure isn’t that place.

The case in point is the recent effort to pass SCA5, a constitutional amendment that would have again allowed the UC and state college systems to consider race in deciding who gets gets into those schools.

Now Republican legislators were never going to support the effort because, well, they’re Republicans and any suggestion of an affirmative action program is a non-starter for reasons lost in the fog of the past.

So Democrats, led by Covina state Sen. Ed Hernandez, used their two-thirds majority to pass the measure on party lines and send it to the Assembly.

That’s when it hit the fan.

Almost immediately, Asian American groups started firing out tweets, e-mails and social media posts complaining that making it easier for blacks and Latinos to get into University of California schools could make it harder for their own kids to get in.

UC admissions have become both a success story and a point of pride for the state’s Asian American community. About 39 percent of the undergraduate students at UC Berkeley in 2012 were of Asian descent, well above their 14 percent of the state’s population. And that overrepresentation is seen throughout the UC system.

Now in that perfect world of thoughtful legislating, the complaints would have led to a wide-ranging discussion of the proposed amendment before a number of Assembly committees, with members from both parties listening to the arguments and then making a decision based on their non-partisan evaluation of what’s best for the state and its people.

But again, this is California, not Utopia. What actually happened is that three Asian American state senators, who all had voted for the amendment, wrote a letter asking for a do-over, calling on Assembly Speaker John Perez to dump the bill without discussion.

And what caused this change of heart?

“Prior to the vote on SCA5 in the Senate, we heard no opposition to the bill,” senators Ted Lieu, Carol Liu and Leland Yee said in the letter. “However in the past few weeks, we have heard from thousands of people throughout California voicing their concerns about potential impacts.”

Putting aside the question of whether the trio of senators should have thought about those “potential impacts” before they voted for the bill, it should be noted that those “thousands of people” were mainly Asian American voters with a specific complaint very much in their own self interest. You know, just like all the other interest groups looking for something from the Legislature. And the three senators, hearing their political lives threatened, folded immediately.

They left themselves a little cover by asking for the bill to be held until Hernandez “can meet with affected communities and attempt to build a consensus,” which is Sacramento talk for “when pigs fly.”

With at least some of the eight Assembly Democrats in the Asian and Pacific Islander Caucus likely to oppose Hernandez’ amendment, Perez had little choice but to scrap the measure. But never fear, he plans to form a task force to study the question, guaranteeing that the amendment won’t soon see the light of day.

And did the Republicans, with the measure to repeal Prop. 209’s 1996 ban on affirmative action in public colleges off the table, come up with their own ideas about how best to get more qualified black and Latino students into California’s top colleges?

To paraphrase the movie “Chinatown”: “Forget it, Jake. It’s California.”

Instead, GOP leaders gleefully plotted on how to use the kerfuffle over UC admissions to pry Asian American voters out the Democratic Party.

There’s plenty of blame for everyone, but the final result should be a cause for sorrow, not anger by the losers or delight by the winners. Because if Californians and their leaders can’t have a serious talk about a serious subject, how in the world are any of the state’s problems going to get solved?

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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