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.

Michigan's entire political, business, and labor establishment has followed suit. A broad coalition, ranging from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce to the ACLU to the AFL-CIO, has joined under the banner group "One United Michigan" to fight the MCRI. "One United Michigan" supporter and longtime state liberal activist Dave Waymire says this bipartisan coalition is proof Michigan still thinks racial discord is a central fact of American life. Racial preferences are essential, he says, "because otherwise people won't understand each other. Government preferences force people to mix."

Deprived of major financial supporters, the initiative received another crucial blow this past spring. State election officials changed the language of the MCRI to make it a "ban on . . . using affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment." The decision to include the term "affirmative action" in the ballot language was a big victory for MCRI opponents. In 1996, California voters had easily approved language banning "discrimination or preferential treatment," but not "affirmative action." Significantly, in a poll before the '96 vote, the Los Angeles Times found support for the California Civil Rights Initiative narrowed considerably if the words "affirmative action" were included in the ballot language. A nearly identical proposal in Houston failed in 1997, when opponents succeeded in including the misleading term. Sure enough, once the language was changed, support for the MCRI eroded.

A July 18 Detroit Free Press poll found a plurality of potential voters opposed to Connerly's initiative by 48 percent to 43 percent. A more recent poll by the Detroit News, released August 16, found likely voters deadlocked at 47 percent to 47 percent. Adding the words "affirmative action" to the initiative "is what causes a big drop in support," says Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell. "Under the old language, there's no doubt it would have passed. Under the new language, it's uncertain whether it will."

Connerly agrees. "'Affirmative action' is not a term of art," he says. "In its original form, 'affirmative action' meant government would make sure everyone was treated equally, 'without regard to race.' It meant outreach that was race neutral. It meant going into a black church and making sure everyone knew they had a right to vote. When 'affirmative action' began to evolve as a tool to advance so-called diversity, it became a discriminatory tool."

With Republicans in opposition, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative's fiercest opponent--the hard-left group BAMN, or By Any Means Necessary--has had free rein. The group's tactics have been ugly, including disruptions of pro-MCRI events and BAMN chair Luke Massie's alleged brandishing of a switchblade in a debate with Jennifer Gratz. Yet Democrats continue to embrace the group. In mid-August, Gov. Granholm supported another in a series of BAMN legal filings designed to keep Connerly's initiative off the November ballot.

In other words, it's been a long, hard slog for champions of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. But Connerly and his supporters don't give up easily. "Politicians don't have to take a principled position on racial preferences because they don't feel the effect of these quotas," Gratz says. "This fight is about the elite establishment versus grassroots people like me."

Henry Payne is an editorial cartoonist and writer for the Detroit News.