Republican delegates who had vowed to overturn Maryland's expanded affirmative action law for minority-owned businesses have given up, saying they could not find enough people willing to work on the campaign.
The effort -- a drive to petition the law to referendum -- was abandoned last week, organizers said.
Del. Robert L. Flanagan said volunteers and paid workers declined to collect names because they felt uncomfortable with the issue's racial dimension.
"A lot of people who originally volunteered or signed on to work on a per-signature basis have had second thoughts," said Mr. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican. "This is a very difficult issue to stand at the grocery store and approach people on."
The law, which the General Assembly passed this year, increases from 10 percent to 14 percent the amount of state business earmarked for minority-owned firms.
The petition drive organizers, which included House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman and Del. John S. Morgan, wanted the amount to remain at 10 percent.
The law's passage cut against the grain of national sentiment. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed a majority of Americans favor ending affirmative action programs for government jobs and contracts.
But when it came to actually trying to repeal such legislation, many Marylanders apparently felt uncomfortable with the task.
Mr. Flanagan said volunteers began collecting signatures this month, but then dropped out, citing their uneasiness.
Last week, the Republican delegates paid a grass-roots lobbying firm $15,000 to find people to gather signatures. The company offered workers 75 cents for each name, three times its usual rate of 25 cents, Mr. Flanagan said. On Friday, the firm returned the legislators' check, saying it, too, could not find enough people.
"I know that [in our] society, as a whole, we have a serious problem in our ability to discuss issues pertaining to race," Mr. Flanagan said. "Obviously, I underestimated the seriousness of the problem."
He declined to identify the lobbying firm -- "the guy . . . was adamant that his name not be used" -- or any of the volunteers or paid workers. He said that contractors who opposed the law had contributed the $15,000.
The petition drive was an uphill battle from the beginning. Under Maryland law, the Republicans had to collect 14,333 certified signatures from registered voters by June 1. Then, they had to gather an additional 28,667 signatures by June 30 to qualify for the 1996 ballot.
Mr. Flanagan estimated the effort netted at least 2,500 names before it ended Friday.
"I think they knew it was going to be very difficult when they went into it," said Lance Copsey, executive director of the state GOP. "Maryland is not referendum-friendly."
For some Republicans, the petition drive's failure probably came as a relief because the effort had divided GOP legislators. Some had supported it, arguing that it would drive a wedge between conservative and liberal Democrats. Others feared it would drive minorities away from the traditionally white party.
"It's not the most party-broadening issue that we could pursue at this time," said Martin G. Madden, a Howard County Republican.
Mr. Copsey attributed the failure to lack of support among the party rank and file. "I think there are a lot of Republicans around the state who have been working extremely hard to bring more minorities into the party and they were unwilling to make this referendum a party issue," he said.