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It's not even on the ballot yet, but McCain and Obama have positions

July 27, 2008 |  5:30 pm

It isn't often that an issue involving a specific state takes center stage during a presidential campaign -- particularly if the matter isn't even officially before the voters yet.

But an effort in Arizona to prohibit state and local governments from considering race, ethnicity, color, gender or national origin Former UC regent Ward Connerly is behind ballot initiatives that some describe as opposing affirmative action.in matters involving public employment, public education or public contracting was among the topics discussed by both John McCain and Barack Obama on Sunday.

The Arizona ballot initiative is the brainchild of Ward Connerly, the former UC regent who was behind a similar proposal in California more than a decade ago. His Proposition 209, approved in 1996 with 54% of the vote, amended the state constitution to prohibit public institutions from applying preferences based on race, gender or ethnicity.

He sponsored similar successful drives in Washington (1998) and Michigan (2006).

Now Connerly is taking his cause around the country, targeting Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska this year (efforts failed in Missouri and Oklahoma).

On Thursday, supporters delivered petitions containing about 100,000 more names than needed to the Arizona secretary of state's office, which now must verify the validity of each signature to determine if the initiative will make it on the November ballot.

Appearing Sunday on ABC's "This Week," McCain was asked specifically ....

...whether he supported his home state's ballot initiative, which host George Stephanopoulos said would "do away with affirmative action."

"Yes, I do," McCain replied. He noted that he had not seen the details of the proposal, then added: "But I've always opposed quotas."

(When asked on CNN's "Late Edition" about the Connerly initiative in Colorado, he was less certain of his position. "I’m not familiar with the referendum. It’s hard for me to say," he told host Wolf Blitzer, again adding that he has always opposed quotas.)

The Associated Press quickly noted that in 1998, when the issue was before voters in the state of Washington, McCain criticized such anti-affirmative-action proposals, telling an audience of Latino business leaders: "Rather than engage in divisive ballot initiatives, we must have a dialogue and cooperation and mutual efforts together to provide for every child in America to fulfill their expectations." 

On Sunday, campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds issued a statement to the AP noting that McCain has always opposed hiring quotas based on race. “He believes that regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, the law should be equally applied,” Bounds said.

Addressing the Unity '08 conference of minority journalists, Obama said Sunday that he was "disappointed" that McCain had "flipped and changed his position." (What, no flopping?)

"I think in the past he had been opposed to these kinds of Ward Connerly referenda or initiatives as divisive, and I think he's right," Obama said.  "You know, the truth of the matter is, these are not designed to solve a big problem, but they're all too often designed to drive a wedge between people."

-- Leslie Hoffecker

Photo: Ward Connerly. Credit: Associated Press

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