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Anti-Affirmative Action Group Sues

August 27, 1999

ATLANTA (AP) _ A conservative group has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Atlanta, claiming a program that sets aside city contracts for businesses owned by minorities and women is unconstitutional.

The Southeastern Legal Foundation filed suit Thursday, making its latest target the city that is the birthplace of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a proud symbol of black economic achievement.

The group wants the city to abolish the affirmative action program, which was started in 1975 under Maynard Jackson, the city’s first black mayor. It affects up to one-third of city contracts.

The issue has been bitter. Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, who as a child was the first black to integrate a North Carolina school system, has likened the foundation to the Ku Klux Klan.

``The program has strengthened our economy and helped remedy past and present discrimination,″ said Campbell, adding that the city would vigorously defend it. ``Diversity and equal opportunity have made our city appealing and great.″

The foundation, which has challenged race-based preference programs around the country, says the true purpose of the law is to ``channel public funds to political supporters of defendant Bill Campbell.″

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four construction firms.

Foundation president Matthew Glavin said he was willing to negotiate, but insisted any settlement would require that the city abolish the program.

``You can’t break the law just a little bit,″ he said. ``The program will end either voluntarily or by court order.″

Glavin is calling for the city to use a race-neutral program to give a percentage of contracts to local or small and disadvantaged companies.

``I don’t think we’ll settle,″ said state Rep. Billy McKinney, D-Atlanta. ``We’ll just let Matt Glavin and that bunch of racists file their suit and do the best they can.″

The Atlanta area has been an economic success story for blacks, with a thriving black middle class. About two-thirds of the city’s 400,000 residents are black.

In 1995, the Supreme Court curtailed the federal government’s freedom to give special help to racial minorities. Affirmative action foes argue that set-asides award work on the basis of race and are therefore unconstitutional.

In 1989, the court struck down a Richmond, Va., affirmative-action plan and made it far more difficult for communities nationwide to set aside certain percentages of jobs, construction contracts or other sought-after treatment for minorities.

In several recent battles, communities have given in to the foundation’s demands rather than risk a long, costly court battle.

Earlier this year, the threat of a lawsuit from the foundation forced the DeKalb County school board to abolish a voluntary busing program that allowed blacks to attend primarily white schools.

Last year, the foundation forced Atlanta’s school system to agree to a two-year ban on mandatory racial hiring goals. And in Florida, the group successfully challenged Jacksonville’s set-aside program for contracts.

The foundation won perhaps its biggest victory earlier this year in a suit against the Clinton administration over its statistical sampling plan for the 2000 census. The Supreme Court disallowed the plan, which was expected to increase the number of minorities counted.

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