JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.
Tim Asher sat calmly and appeared unfazed moments before he was to address a roomful of Hispanic leaders, some of whom were likely to be hostile to his message that Missouri should end affirmative action programs based on race and gender.
In recent months, Asher, 45, has become accustomed to speaking before skeptical crowds like this one at Hispanic Day at the Capitol.
Asher, with his boy-next-door looks, has become the face of the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative.
The initiative calls for an end to racial and gender preferences in public higher education and state and local government.
If Asher and a cadre of hundreds of signature-gatherers collect enough names on their petitions by Friday, the issue will be brought before voters on the November ballot.
In Asher’s view, it’s a grass-roots movement that many Missourians support. And he says it all traces back to the day when, as a college admissions director, he took a stand against race-based scholarships.
Asher believes his position is common sense that the state should treat everyone the same. So when he stands before the crowd in Jefferson City, he assumes he can win it over.
On this day, he was greeted with polite applause. By the time he was done, he faced a series of pointed questions and angry retorts about discrimination and the need for affirmative action programs.
“Sir,” one Hispanic woman said to Asher, “try to walk in our shoes.”
In the eyes of his critics, Asher is merely the front for a well-funded campaign that has methodically sought to topple affirmative action initiatives in state after state.
That effort, led by California businessman Ward Connerly, helped end gender and racial preferences through successful ballot efforts in California, Washington and Michigan.
Buoyed by those victories and armed with millions of dollars, Connerly has connected with local residents such as Asher to take his crusade into Missouri as well as Colorado, Arizona and Nebraska. His campaign in Oklahoma recently failed.
Connerly, a former member of the University of California Board of Regents, has become the nation’s most identifiable critic of affirmative action.
He says he has learned firsthand, being part Black and growing up in the Deep South, the importance of not treating people differently based on skin color whether that’s discriminating against Blacks at the lunch counter, or offering them special treatment to get into college.
Almost from the moment Connerly hinted last year that he would bring his campaign to Missouri, labor leaders and workers’ advocates began organizing into a coalition called Working to Empower Community Action Now.
“We think until we have a level playing field, affirmative action must remain in place as one of the most effective tools to level the playing field for women and minorities,” said Brandon Davis, a coalition member and political director of the regional chapter of the Service Employees International Union.
With the battle lines drawn early, the fight almost immediately centered on the effort to gather signatures.
For the opposition, that’s meant sending volunteers to seek to interrupt the work of those who are circulating petitions.
Opponents, working through the WeCAN coalition, have trained more than 90 volunteers in the St. Louis area who have spent weekend shifts driving around the region, patrolling grocery store parking lots and outside of Cardinals games, looking for Asher’s signature-gatherers. They try to approach people before they’re asked to sign a petition, telling them not to be fooled by circulators who may say only that the initiative would ban discrimination.
WeCAN has also hired local workers through the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now to do similar work as paid canvassers.
Asher and Connerly, in turn, complain that their opponents are using intimidation tactics following circulators from site to site and sometimes ripping petitions from clipboards.
In recent weeks, ads have been popping up on Web sites asking for more circulators from around the country in a last-minute push to meet the deadline. The ads note that circulators can make as much as $1,000 per week (the going rate being $1.25 per signature) and have all expenses paid.
To get their issue on the November ballot, Asher and Connerly need 140,000 to 150,000 signatures by May 4 of registered voters spread out among at least six of the state’s nine congressional districts. Asher has repeatedly declined to say how many signatures he has secured.
“We’re well on our way to getting where we need to be,” Asher says simply.
Even as critics accuse him of running the initiative drive from out of state, Connerly does not shy away from his involvement and that of his organization, the American Civil Rights Institute.
He said he’s probably raised a couple million of dollars in his “Super Tuesday for Equal Rights” fund to financially back the anti-affirmative action campaigns in five states. The fund helps cover Asher’s salary.
Missouri campaign finance records show that nearly all the $160,000 raised by April 15 for the Missouri initiative comes from Connerly’s Super Tuesday fund.
“Yes, we’re assisting them,” Connerly said. “But we’re not the ones providing the emotional capital there … We’re not the ones who are fronting this.”
Most of the money has been spent on National Ballot Access, a Georgia-based company that is coordinating the petition-gathering effort.
Asher acknowledges that many of his paid petitioners are from out of the state. But he said they are joined by Missouri volunteers who are passionate about the issue.
“We seek the support of the people of the state, be they Black, White, Red, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Constitutional Party,” Asher said. “In the end, all that matters is what the people decide.”
The WeCAN coalition, in contrast, had about $77,500 on hand as of April 15.
In some ways, Missouri seems a strange target for these efforts.
Unlike the University of Michigan or the University of California, Missouri’s public universities by and large do not have caps on enrollment and accept as many people who meet their admissions criteria. Most Missouri schools also say they do not factor in race or gender when making admissions decisions.
“It’s not a zero-sum game out here, and so the issue should not be so hotly debated here,” said Michael Middleton, deputy chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia. “But we have people who fan the flames of divisiveness.”
Still, Asher’s initiative would affect race-based scholarships and mentoring and tutoring programs for minority students at public universities. It would also affect hiring and business contracts with state and local government.
Connerly says he decided to focus on Missouri largely for one reason: Asher reached out to him for help.
Asher first contacted Connerly in late 2004 after complaining about the diversity scholarships at North Central Missouri College in Trenton. Asher had been the admissions director there until his contract was not renewed earlier that year.
Connerly and others wrote to the college, insisting it open up the scholarships. In response, the college adjusted the scholarships so they were no longer contingent on race.
After he was let go from the college, Asher first alleged gender discrimination in a complaint he filed with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The claim was not substantiated.
Later, Asher sued the college, alleging that he had been fired in part because he had raised concerns about the legality of the school’s race-based scholarships as well as about whether the college was correctly appropriating some state funds.
The college denied all of Asher’s claims, saying he raised questions about the scholarship only once, and that was more than a year before his contract was not renewed. The college said the reason it cut ties with Asher was because of insubordination. College lawyers say he held an unauthorized meeting with college employees about building a student center and had a negative change in behavior after being placed on probation.
A circuit judge in Grundy County ruled last year that Asher’s lawsuit had no merit. Asher has appealed.
These days, Asher works out of his home in Odessa, near Kansas City, where he has most recently worked in construction. He often criss-crosses the state for media interviews and speaking engagements like the one in Jefferson City.
During that half-hour panel, the atmosphere in the room of about 30 people began to get more tense as audience members stood to speak about how the initiative would affect them personally.
As voices begin to rise, Asher asked them to give him one example of discrimination that still exists today in Missouri. Audience members laughed and dropped their heads back.
“We’re business owners,” responded Omar Maldonado, who runs Puckett Floor Coverings in Florissant. “We face it every day.”
Maldonado said the discrimination he comes across isn’t explicit something that people say to your face but he knows it exists.
A moderator eventually cut off the discussion, saying it was time for the next panel.
Those still riled by the discussion took their conversation into the hallway, where they continued to vent. Asher, meanwhile, left the room undeterred.
“People have a right to have different opinions on things,” he said later. “But I always enjoy the opportunity to talk about the initiative.”
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