Democratic Candidates Back Affirmative Action

Democratic presidential hopefuls say they will continue to promote affirmative action (search) regardless of the Supreme Court (search) ruling in the case challenging the constitutionality of programs to help minorities in college admissions.

On Monday, the court ruled that minority applicants may be given an edge when applying for admissions to universities, but limited how much a factor race can play in the selection of students. A closely divided court upheld the University of Michigan (search) law school program that sought a "critical mass" of minorities by a 5-4 vote. The court split 6-3 in finding the undergraduate program unconstitutional.

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who received his law degree from the University of Michigan, praised the court's decision in the law school case, but said he was disappointed with the ruling on the undergraduate program.

"Any effort to deny our nation's compelling interest in ensuring diversity is short-sighted and wrong," Gephardt said in a statement.

The case was a main topic of discussion Sunday at a candidate forum sponsored by Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

"When I'm president, we'll do executive orders to overcome any wrong thing the Supreme Court does tomorrow or any other day," Gephardt said.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich also made a pledge to put affirmative action into federal law as president.

"If this president doesn't want to let us be one nation, then it's time to elect a president who will let us be one nation," Kucinich said.

President Bush opposes the University of Michigan's policies, and several candidates cited his position as a reason he should be voted out of office next year.

"The president has divided us," former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said. "He's divided us by race by using the word 'quotas.' There's no such thing as a quota at the University of Michigan, never has been."

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry said: "We deserve a president of the United States who doesn't call fairness for minorities special preferences and then turn around and give special preferences to Halliburton or to Enron to write the energy policy."

Kerry said he was committed to have minorities in positions of power in his administration, and pointed to diversity in his campaign staff.

Al Sharpton said Democrats shouldn't be talking about getting more blacks in high places, but getting the right blacks.

"If we doubt that, just look at (Supreme Court Justice) Clarence Thomas," he said. "Clarence Thomas is my color, but he's not my kind."

Seven of the nine Democratic candidates attended the forum. Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida said they couldn't make it because of scheduling conflicts.

The candidates discussed a broad range of issues of importance to the mostly black audience, including education, the criminal justice system, tax cuts and health care.

They pledged to address disparities in Internet access between the poor and more affluent Americans and to work to overturn the Federal Communication Commission's decision to relax limits on how media companies can merge and grow.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman said the decision would particularly affect minority-owned media, but predicted it "will be temporary."

"It is wrong; it is un-American," he said.