The Magazine

Grand Old Preferences

Michigan Republicans undercut Ward Connerly.

Sep 4, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 47 • By HENRY PAYNE
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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.