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Decision Day Looms for Controversial Michigan Proposal

Decision Day Looms for Controversial Michigan Proposal
Proposed affirmative action ban fails to mobilize voters, so far.
By Reginald Stuart

On the politically active campus of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the buzz so far this fall has been unusually quiet, given the state’s upcoming Nov. 7 voter referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment that could dramatically change campus life.

“There’s still a lot of students unaware,” said Jaime Nelson, a senior and organizer for Students Supporting Affirmative Action, a coalition trying to mobilize the campus community of 40,000 and its neighbors to vote against the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, commonly referred to as Proposal 2.

Proposal 2, championed by conservative  activist Ward Connerly, would “ban affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employment, education or contracting purposes.” 

The lightning rod proposal in a state known for it staunch progressive and staunch conservative communities has drawn the attention of the politically active.  Among the general population, however, the mood appears much as Nelson has found it on her campus.

Governor Jennifer Granholm, the liberal Democrat seeking reelection next month, and Dick De Vos, the conservative Republican running against Granholm, have united in their opposition to Proposal 2. At a women’s forum last month, DeVos, whose father founded Amway products, called the initiative “wrong for the state.” Granholm said passage of Proposal 2 “would be a devastating blow for Michigan women.”

Proposal 2 is opposed by most of the state’s ‘establishment,’ including the major leaders in religion, academia, labor and business. They’ve made their positions known, but haven’t gone barnstorming to champion their cause. Financial contributions to the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, proponents of the ban, and One United Michigan, the opponents, have been lackluster.

“Like most proposals, it’s under the radar screen,” said Mickey Craig, chairman of the political science department at Hillsdale College, a small private college in the Southeastern corner of Michigan. “The ads I see are about jobs, the economy. That seems to be the big issue,” he said, noting the state has lost nearly 100,000 jobs in the last four years as its automobile manufacturing industry continues a tailspin. “I just don’t think people are aware of it,” said Craig, who sees no yard signs, bumper stickers or handbills for or against Proposal 2 in his rural area of the state.

In heavily Democratic Detroit, where “vote no” signs can be found in a few neighborhoods like the politically active University District, the assessment is much the same on Proposal 2.

“Some people see this as a wedge issue that may boost turnout in the city,” said John Strate, political science professor at Wayne State University for 22 years. “But, I don’t see it. It hasn’t grabbed people’s interest as much as people thought. There’s not as much money behind this as some others (ballot initiatives) in the state,” he noted, adding that more than $5 million dollars was spent in Michigan a few years ago on campaigns for and against assisted suicide.

The homestretch weeks could get a little more interesting, as formal and empirical polls show no hard trend lines indicating the outcome of a battle that could be decided by a handful of voters.

“We’re finishing up voter registration and we’ll have election day to get out the vote,” said Dominick Quinney, a senior at Michigan State University and president of the Black Student Alliance. “The fact that this is even brought up bothers me. A lot of people say this is about race. It’s about resources as well,” he said, ticking off the names of several programs that benefit from affirmative action funding. “Those resources are greatly needed on this campus,” he said.

Off campus, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative began a small radio campaign late last month with a commercial featuring the father of Jennifer Gratz, the woman who sued the University of Michigan over its policy of using race as a factor in its admissions policies and now leads the ballot initiative campaign.In the ad, Gratz’s father attacks “racial quotas and reverse discrimination” and urges voters to “restore fairness.” Passing Proposal 2 gives his daughter and others a chance to “compete based on merit, not skin color or gender,” he says, adding it “treats honest, hard working people fairly.” One Michigan United plans a counter ad.

“It’s been positioned as a racial issue,” said Terry Barclay, president and CEO of Inforum, formerly the Women’s Economic Club of Michigan. “There’s not been good and clear information out there about its impact on women business owners, contracts and children,” said Barclay. To “shed some light, not just heat” on the ballot issue, Inforum scheduled three debates on the impact of Proposal 2 on women.

“I really think this is one of those moments when it’s important for everyone to pay attention and think this through,” said Barclay. She said people need to decide ‘what is my opinion on this?’ and not just let it slide.”

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