Female Voters Courted in Affirmative-Action Fight

By David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006

DETROIT -- The women are having their say in Michigan politics this year. With Democrats trying to reelect Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow over their male Republican challengers, no state has a more feminist cast to its ballot.

And, in a referendum fight over affirmative action, female voters will probably decide whether Michigan becomes the third state to outlaw preferential treatment for minorities and women in education, state employment and public contracting.

Ward Connerly, the Californian who sponsored successful anti-affirmative-action initiatives in California and Washington state during the 1990s, has brought an identical measure to Michigan.

His spokeswoman here is Jennifer Gratz, who was the plaintiff in a lawsuit accusing the University of Michigan of discriminating against her for being white when it did not admit her as a student a decade ago. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the university's right to give preference to "under-represented groups" but barred it from artificially boosting their entrance qualification scores.

After her rejection, Gratz said in an interview, she contacted Connerly and asked him to bring the fight to end racial and gender preferences to Michigan. It has turned into an expensive and bitter battle -- with women's votes the main prize in what polls suggest is a tossup election.

Trisha Stein, campaign manager for One United Michigan, the broad coalition fighting the measure to ban affirmative action, said polling shows that "if this is a campaign about gender, the proposal will not pass, but if it's a campaign about race, it will likely pass."

The opposition to Connerly looks formidable. Stein counts more than 200 organizations on her side, including major Michigan businesses, labor unions, and religious and civic groups. One United Michigan has raised and spent more than $3.3 million.

But Connerly faced equally formidable establishment opposition in California and Washington and prevailed. In an interview, he said Michigan has presented "more obstacles than I expected," but he still predicted victory. "People see simple fairness in what we're proposing," he said.

On Friday, his supporters in Michigan reported raising $1.3 million and spending slightly more than half, with the rest in reserve. More than $1 million came from Connerly's California organization and similar groups elsewhere.

The proposed amendment to the state constitution 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."

Debbie Dingell, a General Motors executive who is co-chairman of One United Michigan, said that if the initiative passed, it would jeopardize special treatment programs for breast and cervical cancer and end an effort to attract more women into science and mathematics careers.

Gratz says such fears are exaggerated. "I have a degree in math," she said, "and colleges are eager to have more women coming into the field. This is a distraction from the real issue: discrimination on the basis of race and gender."

Church groups and civil rights organizations in Detroit are trying to mobilize the African American community in opposition to the initiative. But at a rally of female activists in a local Teamsters hall, leaders complained that it is difficult to communicate the message that a vote in favor of affirmative action requires marking the ballot "no."

One United Michigan's radio and television ads are targeted at women, with one concluding that the measure "hurts Michigan's mothers and daughters, taking away opportunities, risking their future."

Connerly's side ran ads during the summer but has delayed going back on the airwaves until the final days. A tracking poll for One United Michigan conducted by Steve Mitchell, a veteran Michigan pollster, found a sharp gender split on the proposition.

In the first few days after the ads began in mid-October, opposition among women rose from 36 percent to 49 percent, and most recently it has leveled off at 47 percent, with 35 percent opposed. Men supported the measure, 49 percent to 40 percent. Mitchell said the outcome is too close to judge, especially because there is a history of white voters fudging their answers to pollsters on racial matters.

Mitchell also noted that on ballot issues, the undecided typically break to the "no" side, but he cautioned that the racial aspect of the measure might change the pattern.

There is also a partisan split in the polling. Although GOP gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos and other prominent Republicans have urged a "no" vote, 63 percent of Republicans in the poll said yes, while 59 percent of Democrats said no. Independents were split.

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