Foes of Affirmative Action in Michigan Plan to Take Their Battle to the Ballot

By PETER SCHMIDT
The Chronicle of Higher Education
7/9/03

Ward Connerly, who led successful campaigns to ban racial and ethnic preferences in California and Washington State in the 1990s, announced on Tuesday that he and other affirmative-action foes plan to embark on a similar campaign in Michigan, and may take the battle to other states.

Mr. Connerly made his announcement on the campus of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the target of two lawsuits that led, last month, to U.S. Supreme Court decisions upholding the limited use of race-conscious admissions policies by colleges.

Surrounded by the lead plaintiffs from the two Michigan cases and by prominent opponents of affirmative action from Michigan and other states, Mr. Connerly denounced the Supreme Court's decisions as contrary to the principles of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and federal civil-rights law. He said that he and other foes of racial preferences would seek to place, on the November 2004 ballot, a proposed amendment to Michigan's state Constitution that would prohibit racial, ethnic, and gender preferences in public education, public employment, and public contracting.

"We will develop a cadre of supporters who can carry our message of equal treatment for all and preferences for none throughout the state of Michigan," said Mr. Connerly, chairman of the Sacramento-based American Civil Rights Institute and its companion political-action committee, the American Civil Rights Coalition.

"Our crusade will not end with the state of Michigan," Mr. Connerly said. "In the weeks and months ahead, we will be exploring the feasibility of undertaking initiatives in other states, cities, and counties across the land."

Edward J. Blum, director of legal affairs for the American Civil Rights Institute, said Mr. Connerly is considering similar campaigns in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Oregon, and Utah, with the goal of having the measures on ballots in the fall of 2004.

In Michigan, at least, Mr, Connerly and his allies are expected to have a fight on their hands.

Although opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Michigan voters oppose the use of racial and ethnic preferences in college admissions and elsewhere, several of the state's political leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, were quick on Tuesday to declare their opposition to the proposed ballot measure. Some even vowed to block the efforts by Mr. Connerly and his supporters to get the signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot.

Betsy DeVos, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, criticized the measure as likely to "result in more division than unity."

"I fear that this proposed ballot initiative would only serve to further divide people along racial lines, which would be entirely counterproductive," Ms. DeVos said.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, and Melvin Butch Hollowell, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, also pledged to fight the proposed ballot measure.

"The Democratic Party will firmly take on Ward Connerly and his outside interests and his outside money as they attempt to tell Michigan what to do," Mr. Hollowell said. "We will be joining with a coalition of groups to not only scrutinize all of the signatures on this ballot proposal, but also to campaign vigorously to make sure it goes down in flames."

David Waymire, executive vice president of the Marketing Resource Group, a political-consulting firm based in Lansing, Mich., said that he was working to assemble a bipartisan group of business, labor, and government leaders to oppose the measure.

In a separate news conference on Tuesday, two organizations that had intervened in one of the Supreme Court cases, to help defend the Michigan law school's admissions policies, called for a boycott of any corporation or institution that lent financial support to Mr. Connerly's campaign.

"We can defeat Ward Connerly's anti-affirmative action ballot proposition before it gets off the ground, but only if we act decisively now," said Shanta Driver, a spokeswoman for the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action & Integration and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary.

"Any business, institution, or individual that funds the attack on civil rights will face a consumer boycott and pickets," warned Ms. Driver, whose group, generally known as BAMN, played a prominent role in opposing the ban on affirmative action in California.

Tuesday's announcement by Mr. Connerly came just 15 days after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of affirmative action in college admissions in Grutter v. Bollinger, involving the University of Michigan Law School, and Gratz v. Bollinger, pertaining to the university's undergraduate College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. The court struck down the undergraduate admissions policy, but only because a majority of the justices felt that the college's point-based admissions system put too much weight on race and did not give applicants enough individual consideration.

Mr. Connerly, a Sacramento-based businessman, has long been a leader in the fight against affirmative action. As a member of the University of California's Board of Regents, he played a key role in persuading his fellow regents, in July 1995, to ban the university's use of racial, ethnic, and gender preferences in admissions, hiring, and contracting.

He subsequently led the successful campaigns for California's Proposition 209 and Washington's Initiative 200, both of which banned the use of such preferences by public colleges and other state institutions. Proposition 209 garnered the support of 54 percent of California voters in the November 1996 elections, and 58 percent of Washingtonians came out in favor of Initiative 200 in November 1998.

In an interview in March, Mr. Connerly made it clear that he intended to undertake new ballot campaigns against affirmative action if the Supreme Court upheld the use of race-conscious admissions policies in the Michigan cases. He said that, although 23 states allow such ballot initiatives, he would initially aim to get measures passed in only "three or four states, strategically located and selected on the basis of demographics and political affiliation."

"We are thinking of sort of like a package, like Super Tuesday," Mr. Connerly said, referring to the day on which several states traditionally hold their presidential primaries. The goal, he said, would be to "demonstrate to the nation and to Congress" that bans on affirmative action are politically viable.

Mr. Connerly and his supporters will need to gather about 318,000 signatures -- an amount equal to 10 percent of the votes cast in the 2002 gubernatorial election -- to get their proposed measure on the Michigan ballot.

Steve Mitchell, chairman of Mitchell Research & Communications, a political-consulting firm in East Lansing, estimated that collecting those signatures would cost $400,000 to $600,000, while the campaign for the measure is likely to cost $4-million or more.

William S. Ballenger, editor and publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, said that gathering the signatures would be "no small mission," largely because "this thing is going to be challenged by everyone that you can think of in terms of its legality and wording."

Mr. Ballenger said the affirmative-action issue is dangerous for both the state's Democratic and Republican Parties. A substantial share of Michigan's Democrats fit the profile of "Reagan Democrats," who tend to have conservative social views and are likely to oppose affirmative action, he noted. The state's Republican Party, meanwhile, has to worry that the presence of the measure on the November 2004 ballot will motivate larger-than-normal numbers of black Democrats in Detroit and other major cities to head to the polls, spelling political trouble for President Bush and other Republican candidates.

Many of Michigan's business leaders submitted legal briefs to the Supreme Court in support of the University of Michigan. If they lend significant financial backing to the fight against the affirmative-action ban, the measure could be in trouble, Mr. Ballenger said.

But otherwise, Mr. Ballenger said, most polls show that the measure's chance of passing is fairly good.

A 1998 poll commissioned by The Detroit News found that 53 percent of voters opposed racial preferences in employment and other areas, while 40 percent supported them. That same year, a poll commissioned by the Detroit Free Press found that 66 percent of respondents opposed, and 23 percent supported, admissions policies that gave preferences to students based on race. (The remaining 11 percent were undecided.)

Last winter, EPIC/MRA, a research firm based in Lansing, asked 500 likely voters around the state about their views of the University of Michigan's race-conscious undergraduate admissions policy, noting in the question that the policy awarded black, Hispanic, and American Indian applicants a 20-point bonus on a 150-point scale. Sixty-three percent opposed the policy, while 27 percent supported it; 10 percent were undecided. (The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.) University of Michigan officials complained that the poll question was biased because it focused solely on the consideration of race and oversimplified the university's admissions system.