‘Antipreference’ Campaigns Heat Up

Ward Connerly is working to end affirmative action programs in five states, but opponents are fighting back.

There are no massive crowds at his rallies and no news media entourages documenting his every word and move. Still, Ward Connerly, champion of the nation’s “antipreference” movement, is busy revving up his “Super Tuesday Equal Rights Campaign,” hoping for another knockout punch to the nation’s affirmative action programs for minorities and women.

Connerly has been campaigning in five states — Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma — seeking to get sufficient voter support to get his proposed constitutional amendment on their respective state’s November election day ballot. If he succeeds, voters would be asked this fall to decide whether their state’s constitution should include language prohibiting so-called “preferential treatment” for racial minorities and women in the admissions policies of state-controlled colleges and universities and in the awarding of contracts by state and local government bodies.

“Once we get on the ballot, I think we’ve won,” says Connerly, a California businessman who has succeeded in persuading voters in California, Michigan and Washington state to approve constitutional language similar to what he is promoting this year. “When people read the language, they are apt to vote for it,” Connerly says confidently in a telephone interview with Diverse.

Connerly’s string of successes has mobilized traditional civil rights advocates and others who support affirmative action in these states. They too are organizing, hoping to blunt his momentum and persuade voters to keep intact programs they say help level the playing field for minorities and women.

“When I learned Ward Connerly was coming to Arizona to destroy the system we have, that really bothered me,” says Kyrsten Sinema, coordinator of Protect Arizona Freedom, the umbrella organization of groups closing ranks to oppose Connerly. Sinema, a Democratic state legislator representing central Phoenix, says the impact of Connerly’s ballot initiative passing would be “colossal.”

She says the state would be forced to abandon its small program for minority and women contractors and eliminate a variety of programs at the state’s public colleges aimed at helping minorities and women.

Sinema ticks off a short list of possible victims of a Connerly win. They include the Women in Science and Engineering Program, a project at the three state universities that provides technical and financial support for women pursuing careers in these fields. Another casualty would be the Hispanic Mother Daughter Program, a project that works with Hispanic girls and their mothers from seventh grade through 12th, helping both learn skills and giving them access to programs and people who can help them become productive adults.

“I would hate to see students denied these opportunities,” says Sinema. “When Arizonans know the truth, they will vote against this.”

For sure, Connerly has his work cut out for him. What might have looked like a jigsaw puzzle when he launched his campaign in California nearly a decade ago now works like a lean, mean machine. His well-financed campaign in all five states this year is based on the same blueprint, with customized changes to fit the legal landscape of each state.

Connerly campaign committees in each state have essentially the same name, but varied petition requirements. In Arizona, where state law requires ballot petitioners to secure 300,000 signatures by July 3, work is being coordinated by the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative. In Nebraska, where 114,000 signatures are required by July 3, work is being championed by the Nebraska Civil Rights Initiatve. The Missouri campaign by a similar name needs 149,000 signatures by May 4. The Oklahoma and Colorado campaigns have cleared the petition hurdle.

In Arizona, Missouri and Nebraska, where Connerly is still seeking signatures for his petitions to get on the ballot, he is relying on volunteers to get about 10 percent of the signatures required to place an initiative on a state ballot, he says. From that point on, he, like others who try to put questions on state ballots for voter decision, will be turning to professional signature gatherers.

By design, Connerly’s ballot initiative language is simple yet sweeping. It’s short enough to be understood by rank-and-file voters. In instances, such as Missouri, where the initiative’s language is being challenged by the state’s secretary of state, Connerly has a small battery of lawyers on call. He budgets $25,000 to $100,000 to hire attorneys to craft the “boilerplate” language that various state organizations can customize, he says.

The “boilerplate” language voters are being asked to support says, “The state shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.” It varies a bit from state to state but not by much.

Should he clear the petition hurdles and legal challenges, Connerly’s efforts this fall will rely heavily on cleverly worded ad campaigns featuring everyday people claiming affirmative action and so-called “preference” policies have evolved into reverse discrimination programs that give special treatment to ethnic minorities and women.

Connerly’s ad blitz in Michigan in 2006, featured the father of Jennifer Gratz, who charged applicants less qualified than his daughter, a young White woman, were admitted to the University of Michigan instead of her. The neighbor-next-door appeal of reverse discrimination connected with voters and worked like a tonic.

Connerly feels his issue is a grass roots one, saying “Republicans are so politically correct and Democrats so solicitous that you aren’t going to affect those blocks at all. We have just as much grief from Republicans who support the idea but don’t want to do anything to get it on the ballot because it will inspire higher Black turnout.” Connerly is backed by a handful of deep-pocket conservatives who pour cash into his nonprofit  American Civil Rights Institute, which is based in Sacramento. He expects the final tab for this year’s campaign to cost between $4 million and $5 million.

So far, the coalition Sinema is coordinating includes the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Urban League, the NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, League of Women Voters and American Association of University Women. 

 “Connerly is targeting states he believes will fall for his rhetoric,” says Sinema. “I think he underestimates us.”

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