Affirmative Action Foes: Chasing the Initiative

Affirmative Action Foes: Chasing the Initiative

By Amy Wood

Vol. 21, No. 2, 1999, pp. 3-9

Ward Connerly and his deceptively-named American Civil Rights Coalition are on a mission to overturn affirmative action one state at a time. After successful initiative campaigns against affirmative action in California (1996) and Washington (1998), Connerly and the American Civil Rights Coalition (ACRC) are gearing up to do the same in at least two states in the year 2000.

Connerly, a California businessmen-cum-conservative activist, established the ACRC, and its educational affiliate, the American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI), in 1997 in order to provide instructional, political, and financial support to legislators and grassroots organizers seeking to overturn affirmative action. But as legislation to end affirmative action continually fails to pass in state after state the ACRC has turned its primary focus to ballot initiative campaigns. By taking the issue directly to the people, it hopes to circumvent the slippery logistics of state politics, including what it calls “fearful and fickle” politicians.

What these campaigns allow the ACRI to do, however, is distort the issue. Connerly’s Coalition pretends to be championing progressive values of diversity and racial equality, while in actuality it favors tearing away programs that make such diversity and equality possible. If affirmative action supporters are to stop these wolves in sheep’s clothing, voters need not only the truth about affirmative action, but the truth about Ward Connerly and the American Civil Rights Coalition.

Last year Southern Changes (see “Going Nowhere Fast,” Spring 1998) reported that despite the popular perception that many states were ready to overturn affirmative action in the wake of California’s successful Proposition 209, only fifteen states showed any action at all. In 1998, only one of those fifteen, Washington state, actually eliminated affirmative action through its “Civil Rights Initiative,” a campaign abetted by Connerly and the ACRC.

As we discovered last year, legislation to abolish affirmative action is going nowhere. Eight states saw new anti-affirmative action bills introduced in 1998, none of which passed. Legislators are clearly giving up: in 1999, the number so far is down to seven new pieces of legislation, all of which are at a standstill. (See chart on page 8.) Nor have congressional challenges succeeded; four federal legislative moves against affirmative action during 1998 and 1999 were defeated.(See summary on page 13.)

The ACRI attributes this failure not to any public disregard for anti-affirmative action, but rather to “cowardly” politicians who cave-in to “powerful minority lobbies,” blatantly ignoring the will of the people, whom it claims are ready to eliminate the “unfair preferences and discrimination” that affirmative action programs supposedly promote. As the initiative campaigns in Washington and California show, Connerly and his people have mobilized votes for their efforts. For the year 2000, ACRI has such a campaign underway in Florida, with Michigan also within their scope. The organization also acknowledges interest in Nebraska, Oregon, Ohio, and Colorado for anti-affirmative action initiatives, but no one in any of these states has grabbed the reins-yet.

Why Florida and Michigan? According to Kevin Nguyen, director of state affairs, the ACRC does not target particular states for initiatives, and it never comes into a state as an uninvited outsider. Rather, grassroots organizers in Washington, Florida, and Michigan came to ACRC asking for help. But Allen Douglas, executive director of the Associated General Contractors (the building contractors’ union which asked Connerly to help them run a campaign in Florida), says that Connerly came to Florida first-making speeches and meeting with Republican party officials-before Douglas contacted him. Connerly clearly makes himself most visible and accessible in states that might be conducive to an initiative campaign (like Florida, where an initiative campaign failed in 1997; like Michigan, where there is currently an anti-affirmative action lawsuit again the University of Michigan; like Oregon, lodged between the anti-affirmative successes in California and Washington.)

Once the ACRC is invited in, however, the kind of

Page 4

support it offers differs from state to state. “It is not a cookie-cutter process” explains Nguyen, “we adapt strategies to the unique circumstances of each state.” In Washington, ACRC largely acted as a clearinghouse for various organizers who were working on the campaign, and, of course, as a fundraiser. In Michigan, its involvement so far has been minimal. Connerly visited the state in 1998 and is talking to Republican State Senator Bill Bullard on beginning a campaign. Bullard says the initiative has already passed an informal review by the Secretary of State and is now under a formal review by the state board of canvassers (appointed by the governor and consisting of two Democrats and two Republicans). This board will approve the language of the bill and write the one-hundred-word summary that will go on the petition. When, or if, the initiative passes this process, Bullard will begin gathering the 304,000 signatures needed for it to be on the election ballot in 2000. Although Bullard is confident of passage, he is working largely alone; there is no organizational structure in place to run a campaign, he has not raised any money, nor has the ACRC provided more than advisory help.

Florida is clearly the state to watch in the year ahead. Connerly and the ACRC are taking on a more direct and involved role than in Washington. The Associated General Contractors (AGC), the nation’s oldest and largest contractor’s union, was supportive of Connerly’s California and Washington campaigns, and, according to Douglas, has been behind many court cases to “outlaw minority preferences.” Florida’s branch of the AGC, with between 1,700 – 2,000 members, mostly building contractors, has pledged financial and political support for the initiative, but they have asked the ACRC to manage the initiative campaign.

The ACRC has hired a savvy, experienced political consultant, Herb Harmon, to do just that. While the 1997 campaign, Harmon says, “never really got off the ground at all, this campaign is more serious; it is being handled by professionals.” The ACRC clearly hopes that Harmon, who is the ex-director of the Republican party in Florida and handled the Bush and Reagan campaigns in the South, will not only bring the campaign to fruition, but that he can help smooth relations with the reluctant Republican party.

Indeed, Republican Governor Jeb Bush has said that although he opposes “rigid quotas and set-asides,” he believes ACRC’s campaign would be divisive and untimely. For that reason, he has ostensibly asked Connerly to leave Florida alone. In a letter to Connerly, written in February, 1999, Bush writes, “Ward, we live in a state where our education system denies our children the basic right to learn; where child abuse and neglect are an expectation, not the exception; where taxes and mandates stifle economic competitiveness; where our urban core residents are in need of an improved quality of living; and where our developmentally disabled and seniors are not receiving the services they should. As I explained, my concern is that a bitter political campaign that divides Florida by race or ethnicity would keep our state from focusing on these pressing issues-issues on which I must build a consensus.”

The ACRC is not persuaded however. “There is never a good time to solve a problem,” says Harmon. They are also confident that Bush’s lack of support will not be an issue for them. “If we could win in Washington with strong opposition from a popular, politically-established Democratic governor [Gary Locke], we don’t fear opposition from a new Republican governor,” explains Nguyen. The reason for this lack of republican support, according to Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, is the negative repurcussions that followed the party’s strong support of the initiatives in California and Washington. “Republicans looked at what happened in California and Washington and realized that it hurt them. The measures passed, but their candidates lost votes. They lost control of the legislature in California and Washington. It would be foolish for them to take up the cause again,” says Narasaki.

It is still too soon to tell how this lack of support will affect the campaign in Florida. The initiative campaign is only in the beginning stages: getting legally filed as a political action committee, and deciding on the language of the ballot. The approval process for an initiative is much more difficult in Florida than in either California or Washington. It must be approved by the local supervisor of elections, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and finally the state Supreme Court before campaigners can begin to gather the 435,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Proponents of affirmative action who are working to counter this effort in Florida are hoping that the initiative never makes it out of the approval process. If it does, Harmon is certain that Florida’s voters will approve it: “the popular support is there, it just a matter of mobilizing that support.”

Mobilizing support through adept political strategy is what the ACRC excels in. While the tactics in each state differ, the particular political strategy it employs to publicize these initiatives and lure voters remains the same. It is this aspect of Connerly’s strategy that most threatens fairness.


One of the ACRC’s strongest means to assist these campaigns is with money. It costs about as much to run an initiative campaign as it does to run any political campaign. According to Allen Douglas, the Florida campaign hopes to raise up to 10 million dollars for their initiative, which Harmon will begin doing as soon as the petition is approved. Much of this money will come through the ACRC’s

Page 5

fundraising efforts. According to a forthcoming report by the Institute for Democracy Studies (IDS), Connerly matched every dollar that the Washington Initiative 200 campaigners raised within the state with out-of-state money. As stated in its 1997 tax returns, the ACRC itself put up $177,650 out of its own budget.

Crucial to these fundraising efforts is the financial support of the Republican Party. In the campaign for Proposition 209 in California, for instance, the Republican Party donated 2.5 million dollars, over a third of the total amount raised. The GOP was similarly involved in the Washington campaign. Governor Bush’s very publicized snub of Connerly in Florida could have real political effects on the ACRC’s campaign there.

In addition to official Republican support, the ACRC/ACRI also receives money from wealthy businessmen and investors, and from leading national conservative thinktanks and institutes. The ACRC/ACRI itself refuses to divulge the names of its donors, stating that it wants to protect the anonymity of these benefactors. But according to the IDS research, Connerly’s organizations have received large donations from ultra-right wing groups, most significantly from the Bradley Foundation and the Scaife Foundation, both of which openly proclaim a conservative, “traditional values” agenda. Connerly’s anti-affirmative action initiatives are to be sure one of their causes that will restore conservative values.

Money alone is not necessarily the key to success. After all, with ample financial support from the Democratic Party, and corporations like Boeing and Microsoft, proponents of affirmative action in Washington were not able to win the day. Connerly and the ACRC have been particularly shrewd in devising a political strategy to seduce voters with progressive-sounding and benign rhetoric, while at the same, inflaming fears of racial competition and “preferential treatment.”

Ballot Language

The initiative language in both Washington and Florida follows that of California’s proposition 209: “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 contraction.” Buzz words like “discriminate” and “preferential treatment” conceal the true intent of the initiative. Because discrimination

Page 6

and preferential treatment have historically been used against women and minorities, the language sounds as if the initiative is championing the progressive goals of the Civil Rights Movement. As state Senator Darryl Jones, chair of Florida’s Black Leadership Conference says, the language is so “massively misleading, it’s so benign that most of us would vote for it if we didn’t know what it really meant.”

Indeed, the NAACP discovered that during the Washington campaign, the ACRC had duped some of their African-American volunteers into thinking they were working for a progressive civil rights cause. Proponents of affirmative action in Florida will exert much of their effort in educating voters to the meaning and design of these innocuous, benevolent-sounding initiatives.

But Jones is also hoping that the vagueness of the language trips up the campaign before it reaches voters. Indeed, the drawn-out approval process in Florida is a large source of hope. Florida law states that ballot initiatives must deal with a single issue written in language that must be “forthcoming,” that is, it must do what it says it will do. The fact that the initiative as it is written deals with public education, employment, and contracting at once was not a problem in Washington or California, but it may be in Florida. For this reason, Harmon has put together four initiative petitions. One is all-inclusive and is modeled directly after California’s Proposition 209. The other three deal specifically with education, employment, and contracting, respectively.

It is on the “forthcoming language” clause, that Jones and his affirmative action colleagues proponents will focus, arguing that the initiative will in no way end discrimination and that Florida laws to counter the effects of discrimination and to act as a preventative already exist.

None of the (affirmative action) programs that these initiative programs target use the terms “preferences” or “preferential treatment.” “Preference,” notes Narasaki, “that’s a loaded term. It conjures up visions of unqualified people getting ahead solely based on race or gender.”

In fact, a recent poll conducted by the ACRI shows that 83 percent of Floridians (including 79 percent of African Americans polled) support eliminating “discrimination” and “preferences,” while another poll conducted by the Orlando Sentinel found that only 45 percent of Floridians support ending “affirmative action” (including only 18 percent of African-American respondents).

If the ballot language stated clearly that the intiative would eliminate affirmative action, then the measure would have a much smaller chance of passage.

This is exactly what happened in a failed initiative in Houston, Texas, to end affirmative action in public hiring and contracting in November of 1997. (The state of Texas does not have an initiative process, so the ACRC instead has been working there at the local level.) When supporters of affirmative action brought the language of the initiative to the courts, the initiative was changed to read that it would “eliminate affirmative action that benefits women and minorities.” The initiative was subsequently defeated by a 54 percent to 44 percent margin. The ACRC, of course, argues that the move to change the language was a “politically-calculated action” on behalf of the mayor and the liberal political establishment. “It is an inappropriate statement,” says Nguyen, “if it were true, we would support it.”

Public Rhetoric

ACRC and its supporters and allies across the nation repeatedly assert that they are not against affirmative action, “as long as it is broad-based and not discriminatory.” “We are not against helping the disadvantaged,” explains Nyugen, “but through aggressive outreach programs and recruitment efforts.” In this manner, supporters of these initiatives position themselves as not only benign, but as progressive, and even liberal. They don’t want to end affirmative action, they say, they only want to do away with unfair “discrimination” and “preferences.”

Besides language tactics, the ACRC and its supporters have other ways of affecting strategy. For one, they publicly distance themselves from extreme conservative or racially inflammatory positions. For example, Bullard and the ACRC had been very careful to disassociate themselves from another Michigan state senator, David Jaye, who for some years has been introducing legislation to eliminate “discrimination” and “preferences” in the Michigan legislature. Jaye, however, according to Bullard, is a “lightning rod”-a confrontational and controversial politician who has in the past said some very “racially inflammatory” things. “Jaye doesn’t represent mainstream Republicans nor the people of Michigan,” Ngyuen adds.

Similarly, the ACRC/ACRI does not divulge its funding sources presumably because many of its donors are affiliated with more right-wing positions than the ACRC/ACRI would like to be publicly associated with. For instance, billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife-who according to the Sarah Scaife Foundation’s 1998 annual report, gave $275,000 to ACRI in 1998-is a controversial, ultra-right-wing figure, viewed as the financial engine behind the modern right-wing movement. According to the Washington Post, Scaife’s foundation has donated at least 340 million dollars to numerous conservative causes, media outlets, and institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, and The American Spectator. Last year, Scaife, heir to the Mellon banking fortune, was revealed as the chief financier behind various anti-Clinton activities (he was, for example, a primary backer of the Paula Jones case). While the ACRC/ACRI or Connerly himself may or may not be as politically conservative as these benefactors, they certainly do not want

Page 7

potential voters to think they are. Indeed, though their money comes from well-known Republican and conservative institutions, Connerly and his spokesmen are careful not to position themselves as right-wing or conservative in any way. Rather, they state emphatically that they are working for social progress and justice.

Such a position has the political effect of appealing to a large block of the public who is undecided, or who support a “mend it, don’t end it approach.” For example, a poll conducted on the eve of the Washington initiative by The Seattle Times revealed that “most voters expressed support for affirmative action programs for minorities and women but said those programs were in need of reform”

The ACRC’s rhetoric taps into this middle-of-the-road support. Indeed, it even argues that these initiatives have the effect of re-mobilizing and bringing new energy to affirmative action programs through “aggressive outreach and recruitment efforts.” Nyugen asserts for instance that in California, Prop 209 “forced people to get off their duffs and go out and aggressivly recruit and help the disadvantaged [initiate] active participation in disadvantaged areas.”

In this vein, the ACRI says that it approves of need-based affirmative action programs and supports the law the California legislature recently passed to accept the top 4 percent of every high school class into California’s university system. This law, enacted as a response to the dearth of minority enrollment in the university system in the wake of 209, aims to maintain diversity through the de facto segregation of California’s public school system. If the top 4 percent of every school are accepted, it will include the top 4 percent of minority-dominated high schools, thereby assuring minorities a place in the University system. But since each high school, to be sure, has a different standards for grades and test scores, the law will effectively re-instate the uneven standards of “merit” that ACRI supposedly disputes. Yet Nguyen says they support the law because “it will give hope to all individuals (the 4 percent law) wouldn’t devastate the applicant pool, it will strengthen it.” Washington, he adds, is looking “keenly” at California’s model.

In their support for “progressive” steps like the 4 percent rule, as well as their rhetoric which evokes the Civil Rights Movement, the ACRC/ACRI have not only disguised themselves as moderate and even progressive, they have framed proponents of affirmative action as reactionary, emotional conservatives who are afraid of reasonable and effective change. “For white people affirmative action is an issue,” asserted Ward Connerly last year at a Michigan public hearing, “for black people it is an emotion.”

“The insidious nature through which they camouflage themselves divides us,” responds René Redwood, executive director of Americans for a Fair Chance. “It does not bring us together.” She adds that supporters of affirmative action need to learn not only how to counter these political strategies, but they also need to work positively for progressive action that gets beyond the racial paradigm within which the debate surrounding affirmative action is stuck.

Indeed, at the same time that Connerly positions himself as non-discriminatory and broadminded, he continually speaks of affirmative action only in terms of race, tapping into white America’s racial fears and anxieties. Leslie Gross, staff attorney in the National Litigation Project of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights, explains, “Connerly packages his pleas for colorblindness in race-baiting terms. He paints the issues in terms of black and white, targeting hot-button issues like busing. That’s not what affirmative action is about.” Similarly, Redwood and others have pointed out that Connerly talks about racial progress and ending discrimination, but he has no real strategy to implement such progress in schools or communities. “He’s either knowingly misleading,” according to Darryl Jones, “or he’s incompetent.”

Positive Action

Those actually working for racial equity and progress must implement a two-pronged strategy to counter Connerly’s efforts. In Florida, a coalition of pro-affirmative organizations has formed and has begun to plan their defense. The coalition, named FREE (Floridians Representing Equity and Equality) is made up of groups representing minority, women’s, labor, and other progressive concerns. First, they intend to educate the public about the real goals and designs behind the initiative effort; they will not let Connerly get away with his seemingly benign and enlightened rhetoric.

According to Florida’s NAACP director, Leon Russell, FREE will “smoke out” the Associated General Contractors’ role in the initiative, highlighting the “anti-competition” anxiety that bolsters anti-affirmative action feeling. “They [the contractors] want to remove the competition of women and minorities” says Russell, “We want to warn Floridians what this initiative is about. Floridians will support us if the language and purposes are clear.”

In addition to what Darryl Jones calls an “ongoing education” of the people of Florida, FREE also is planning proactive tactics to ensure affirmative action’s survival in the state. In 1998, FREE presented a proposed constitutional amendment to the commission appointed to review Florida’s state constitution (a revision that occurs every twenty years) which would ensure the maintenance of affirmative action programs in the state in order to remedy past discrimination. Russell said FREE backed off this proposal when national NAACP leadership feared it might bring out opponents and unnecessarily re-mobilize an anti-affirmative action campaign (after the 1997 initiative plan had died). Russell says now FREE will re-present their plan

Page 9

for a constitutional amendment that supports and guarantees public affirmative action programs in the form of a separate initiative campaign to compete with Connerly’s. If the group is successful in its petition campaign, there could be two initiatives on Florida’s ballot in the year 2000: one seeking to end affirmative action, the other seeking to ensure its survival. FREE’s initiative campaign, when launched, not only aims to subvert the ACRC’s initiative, but also to help educate voters to the real benefits and purposes behind affirmative action.

It is precisely this form of education that Americans for a Fair Chance’s Redwood argues affirmative action proponents need to be engaging in. Most of all, she asserts, “we need to take affirmative action out of the race-gender paradigm. Too many Americans are blind to the progressive results of affirmative action,” that have not only benefited women and minorities, but all Americans. These benefits include many things that Americans take for granted today-the public postings of job announcements, law enforcement officials representing their own communities, women as officers of the court which has changed how the courts view and treat rape and domestic violence, to name a few.

To make this point, we could learn something from Connerly’s strategy, Redwood adds. “We need to use white men the way they use minorities-as spokespeople-to show that the consequences of affirmative action have been the benefits to the nation as a whole.” Simply put, proponents of affirmative action need to start appealing to that large block of white America wavering in the middle of the road.

However, while Connerly may use fear and dishonesty to run his campaigns, proponents of affirmative action, Redwood insists, must insist on straightforwardness. “We are not willing to lie to people. We trust that people will see through it, and we can help them see those tactics.”

If FREE can do that, they will, in Russell’s words, “do something no other state has done,” that is face Connerly and win.”

“Its not the end of affirmative action” concludes René Redwood. “The face of America is the face of affirmative action.”

Amy Wood is a doctoral candidate in American Studies in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University. She wrote “Going Nowhere Fast: Affirmative Action Opponents Stymied in the States,” in the Spring, 1998 Southern Changes.