Washington — Howard Dean is the latest Democrat to catch heat for changing statements on affirmative action, but he isn't the only one.
At least two other Democratic presidential candidates also raised questions about programs that gave preference to minorities back in the 1990s. Even though all three have pledged their support for affirmative action in recent years, black leaders say the candidates' past criticism could create some doubt about whether they could be trusted to uphold the policy as president.
"When you've got nine or 10 candidates, all of whom seem to be strong Democrats, then I think it becomes a degree of commitment and not whether or not there is a commitment to affirmative action," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The issue has been hot button on the campaign trail this year as the Supreme Court considered affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan. President Bush spoke out against the university's policy, but the court sided with the school by one vote.
"The president essentially played the race card when he used the word quota to describe the University of Michigan affirmative action program," Dean says frequently. "And for that reason alone, he deserves a one-way bus ticket back to Crawford, Texas."
But Dean had a different position in 1995, when the then-governor of Vermont appeared on CNN.
"You know, I think we ought to look at affirmative action programs based not on race, but on class and opportunities to participate," Dean said.
Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist and fellow candidate for the Democratic nomination, brought Dean's previous statement to light this week. He said it contributed to Dean's "anti-black agenda" -- a criticism Dean and his campaign dismissed.
Although Dean is the recent target of Sharpton's ire, Sharpton also has clashed with presidential candidate Joe Lieberman over affirmative action.
Sharpton criticized Lieberman during the 2000 election, when the Connecticut senator was the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Although he supports affirmative action now, in 1995 Lieberman supported a California ballot measure that would have barred the state from awarding jobs based on racial preferences.
"Most Americans who do support equal opportunity and are not biased don't think it is fair to discriminate against some Americans as a way to make up for historic discrimination against others," he said in a speech on the Senate floor at the time.
Three years earlier, John Kerry expressed similar concerns about affirmative action creating reverse discrimination. In a speech at Yale University, Kerry said he supported affirmative action, which he lauded for opening doors for women, creating a black middle class and diversifying campuses, but he said the policy had costs as well as benefits.
"There exists a reality of reverse discrimination that actually engenders racism," he said. Later, he added, "We cannot hope to make further racial progress when the plurality of whites believe, as they do today according to recent data, that it is they, not others, who suffer most from discrimination."