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Daniel Cameron, Kentucky's first Black nominee for governor, campaigns against affirmative action

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron appears on Fox News on September 29, 2023.
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Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron appears on Jesse Watters Primetime on September 29, 2023 to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion policies.

As he competes against incumbent Democrat Andy Beshear for Kentucky’s governorship, Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron has stood in opposition to affirmative action, diversity-equity initiatives and required anti-bias trainings.

Cameron is Kentucky’s first Black attorney general. And if he wins the state’s race for governor in November, he would be the first Black Republican governor ever elected in the nation.

But Cameron has repeatedly attacked affirmative action and diversity, equity and inclusion, or “DEI,” programs, saying they are an illegal form of race-based discrimination.

During a recent interview with FOX News host Jesse Watters, introduced Cameron onto his primetime show in late September. The tagline, “Diversity dominates our lives,” ran across the bottom of the screen.

Cameron told a national audience that he would not stand for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives if elected as Kentucky’s governor.

“What the far-left is trying to do through DEI and other far-left, crazy notions just simply is not cutting it and is making our communities less safe,” Cameron said, as a video of what appeared to be a group of people looting a convenience store in Philadelphia played.

On the show, Cameron referred to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision against race-based college admissions programs. Cameron has extrapolated on the ruling well outside of college admissions, saying private companies and public entities shouldn’t be able to discriminate on the basis of race to level the playing field for historically marginalized groups.

“Merit should determine outcomes,” Cameron said as he announced his economic plan. “Kentucky should be a place where everyone can succeed, not just those who were born on third base, or check a DEI box.”

Cameron has not specified any specific legislation or policies he would implement to limit DEI efforts or affirmative action programs.

But as attorney general, Cameron has made several jabs at several employers and programs intended to level the playing field. Earlier this year, Cameron joined counterparts in four other states in writing a letter warning the country’s top 100 law firms against programs like fellowships for people of color or goals — which he refers to as “quotas” — to diversify their employee and leadership pools.

Soon after, Cameron issued an official opinion, condemning a decades-old leadership training program for minorities in Kentucky’s executive branch. It’s one of only seven opinions Cameron has written in 2023.

“The Commonwealth has both a moral and statutory obligation to prevent racial discrimination. But we cannot meet this obligation while tolerating programs within state government itself—like the Governor’s Minority Management Trainee Program—that discriminate on the basis of race,” Cameron wrote in the opinion.

Beshear’s spokesperson said the program does not lead to preferential hiring or any guaranteed promotions. The spokesperson said Cameron didn’t contact the administration about the program before publishing his opinion.

Professor Ralph Richard Banks, who focuses on race and inequality at Stanford Law School, said Cameron is broadly interpreting the Supreme Court’s narrow ruling.

“That decision does not directly apply outside of college admissions,” Banks said. “But the court also did signal that they're going to embrace the norm of colorblindness.”

Banks said he wasn’t surprised to see attorneys general like Cameron applying the case outside the sphere of higher education. But he added that he wouldn’t be surprised if the courts do begin scrutinizing programs that have long been accepted as necessary to provide equal opportunities.

“They're not interpreting the Supreme Court's decision, so much as they are anticipating subsequent decisions based on this one,” Banks said. “That's why some people are worried about what's going to happen and other people are enthusiastic.”

In an interview for KET, host Renee Shaw probed Cameron on why he is so opposed to affirmative action programs.

“I never thought I could win this race because I'm Black,” Cameron said. “What I thought, and what I continue to think, is that people here in Kentucky care about your values, and they care about your work ethic.”

Shaw asked Cameron if Kentucky is ready for its first Black governor. Cameron said he believes skin color doesn’t matter to Kentuckians.

“I think Kentucky is ready to elect somebody that reflects their values. And I happen to be Black,” Cameron said. “I would be honored to be the first Black American to be the governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

Dewey Clayton, professor of political science at University of Louisville, said Cameron is trying to appeal to his conservative base by going after DEI programs, which are part of a larger pushback against perceived “woke” culture.

“I think he's ultimately playing politics here. And he's trying to appeal to individuals that may actually feel that that government is overreaching, and the private sector is moving in that direction, as well,” Clayton said.

Lyndon Pryor, interim CEO of the Louisville Urban League, said anti-DEI rhetoric makes Kentucky less attractive to current and potential residents.

“That should be a concern for all citizens, not just for Black people,” Pryor said. “These things are detrimental to our ability as a commonwealth to thrive and succeed.”

Pryor said no one benefits from a less diverse or tolerant workforce, which is why companies have DEI goals in the first place.

“It is economically detrimental to us as a state, it is going to be harmful to us in the long term, and it's going to be harmful to the country, in the long term,” Pryor said. “That, again, should be a huge concern for anybody who is looking at who will serve as the next governor.”

Beshear said Cameron’s letter urging law firms against affirmative action policies might make some businesses shy away from expanding into the state.

During a debate in Louisville, which has the state’s largest Black community, Beshear said racial equity should play a role in policymaking.

“We’ve got to deliver jobs everywhere. In parts of Kentucky too often left out and in neighborhoods of this city too often left out,” Beshear said.

Whoever wins the race will contend with a Republican-led legislature that has shown interest in restricting diversity and equity efforts.

Last year lawmakers passed a bill limiting how teachers talk about race and equity in the classroom. The legislation said that linking racial disparities to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is “destructive to the unification of our nation.”

At least 22 other states have also introduced bills to restrict diversity efforts at public universities, including by banning DEI offices and personnel. Kentucky lawmakers have yet to propose such legislation.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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