The Magazine

Grand Old Preferences

Michigan Republicans undercut Ward Connerly.

Sep 4, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 47 • By HENRY PAYNE
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THIS YEAR, Michigan was supposed to be the latest victory in conservative activist Ward Connerly's state-by-state battle to enforce the language of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and end racial discrimination in government hiring. Instead, Michigan may well be his movement's graveyard, thanks to strong opposition from an unexpected corner: Republicans.

Connerly's Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) is a near carbon copy of his successful ballot initiatives in California (1996) and Washington (1998). According to its original ballot language, the initiative would not permit state discrimination "against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin." In California, for example, this has meant an end to minority set-asides in government contracting, as well as a shift in minority enrollment within the state's university system away from elite universities and into lesser-known schools.

Which is where the trouble begins. Republicans here see an opportunity: Michigan is the only state other than hurricane-ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi to have lost jobs in the current economic boom. So, intent on exploiting Michigan's weak economy to capture the governor's office and perhaps even Debbie Stabenow's Senate seat, the state GOP has jettisoned controversial elements of its platform. Opposition to racial preferences isn't the only thing the party has abandoned. In their rush to the squishy middle, Michigan Republicans have also spearheaded drives to hike the minimum wage by 35 percent and condemn oil company greed.

"I'm opposed because I fear the unintended consequences," says state GOP chairman Saul Anuzis. "If [the MCRI] passes, we'll probably spend years and years and years in court defining what it means." What's more, Anuzis says, "most people would say, yes, there is some justification for saying race should be a consideration" in hiring and school admissions.

Not Connerly. He says Dick DeVos, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, is "trying to cast himself as a moderate." Connerly goes on, "But he is abandoning a basic principle of his party--the principle of individual responsibility."

And yet, DeVos's opposition to the initiative is even more cynical than Connerly portrays. In addition to pandering to racial grievance groups, DeVos is also trying to frame the initiative as harmful to women. "I am particularly concerned [it] may have the unintended consequence of negatively impacting programs aimed at helping women in education," the former Amway president says.

But, as Jennifer Gratz, the executive director of Connerly's initiative, points out, women have filed nearly all of the most prominent antipreference lawsuits. Noting that DeVos's opponent, incumbent Jennifer Granholm, is a woman, Gratz jokingly wonders whether "he's willing to give her an 'affirmative action' boost of, say, 20 points in the polls?"

Gratz's name may sound familiar. She was the first member of her family to apply to college. Yet, despite an impressive high school career and a 3.8 grade point average, she was denied admission to the University of Michigan--in part, she says, because she was the wrong color. That led to her case against the school, which eventually made its way to the Supreme Court in 2003. She won.

Sort of. A majority of justices ruled alongside Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who found that the university's automatic reward of 20 "admissions points" for being a racial minority violated the Court's previous holdings. But, in a separate case filed against the university's law school, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in a muddled opinion, ruled that "diversity" was such a compelling interest that schools could consider race when reviewing applications. So discrimination continues--just not quotas.

Connerly's initiative was meant to finish off Michigan's racial preferences system once and for all. At first, it polled strongly. A 2004 Detroit News poll showed support at 64 percent, with 23 percent opposed. But the initiative quickly ran into a buzz saw of opposition from both inside and outside the state. As the national Republican party embraced George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" and a less confrontational stance toward racial quotas, Michigan's GOP felt pressure from Washington to distance itself from Connerly.