California Gov. Gray Davis stepped into the political crosshairs this week when he gave a middling response to a reporter's question about whether reparations would be in order if the state uncovered that unethical insurance practices harmed immigrants and slaves more than 200 years ago.
The Democratic governor, who is running in a tight race for re-election this year against Republican businessman Bill Simon, made the comment when he appeared Wednesday on a stage with Rev. Jesse Jackson at the Digital Connections Conference, a small business gathering sponsored by the civil rights activist’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition in San Jose.
"Clearly, we want to right any wrongs and do justice to people who were taken advantage of," he told the audience, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report.
The comment, which leaves open the door toward reparations, comes one week before the release of a California Department of Insurance study on slave-era insurance practices. The law authorizing the study was signed by Davis after approval by the legislature.
A companion piece of legislation to the study commissions the University of California to hold a research conference on the economic legacy of slavery.
At the conference, Davis said he would wait until the results of the insurance study before making any comment on reparations, the newspaper said.
When called Friday, a spokesman in Davis' office said, "The governor did not take any position on reparations."
Jackson, on the other hand, praised Davis for approving the study and "laying out the predicate … which will go a long way toward a national remedy of this crisis," and suggested any reparations coming out of the study would go to nonprofit groups, rather than victims’ descendants.
"If we correct a wrong, and make a crooked way straight, everybody wins," said Jackson. He called the study "a groundbreaking national issue."
But political observers say that Davis is walking down a thorny path, perhaps in his desire to embolden the support of his more liberal base, including black and Latino voters.
In a recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 11 percent of the public said they favor paying reparations to descendants of slaves while 81 percent said they are against reparations. Blacks and other minority groups, however, were almost four times more likely than whites to support paying reparations, according to the poll.
As many as 71 percent of California voters in the 2000 election were white, and many future voters may not support reparations now that the state is mired in a $20 billion deficit, experts say.
"The governor has really gotten himself between a rock and a hard place on so many issues and this is just one of them," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst and professor at the University of Southern California.
"The conclusion I come to is I would expect that he has decided that it is necessary to motivate his Democratic base for November and he has also decided to mollify the liberals in that Democratic base," she said. "But I don’t know how he can propose any more spending now that we are facing a $20 billion budget deficit."
Reparations have become a hot-button issue which gained steam last month when the first and the largest lawsuit targeting slavery-era corporations was launched on behalf of slave descendents in New York.
Civil rights activist Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, who claims she is the descendant of slaves, filed the suit against Aetna Corp., CSX Inc. and Fleet Boston Financial, seeking upwards of $1.4 trillion on behalf of 35 million such descendants in the United States.
Like the mounting claims in California, Farmer-Paellmann claims in part that the three corporations had taken out "property" insurance policies on American slaves for slave owners before 1865. According to the plaintiff’s legal team, which includes a cadre of black activist lawyers and scholars, a thousand more companies may be named as defendants before the case is through.
Movements to make reparations a federal issue have been largely unsuccessful by liberal Democratic members of Congress in the past.
"I really don’t think voters are focusing on this issue and I think it will just may give the Republicans fodder to attack Davis among their own centrist moderates and to motivate their own base," said Bebitch Jeffe.
Simon is ahead of Davis 44 percent to 38 percent in an April poll conducted by a Republican firm, Problasky & Associates, in California. The Simon campaign did not return calls for comment.