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  •   A New Front in Ballot Battle

    By David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, January 23, 1999; Page A1

    The national battle over affirmative action and racial preferences is moving into the heartland and then, very possibly, into the presidential politics of 2000.

    Ward Connerly, the architect of initiative victories that knocked out programs designed to increase the number of minorities attending elite public universities or getting state government jobs and contracts in California and Washington, has targeted Michigan for his next big initiative campaign.

    Meanwhile, a number of Republican presidential hopefuls are giving high visibility to their opposition to race-conscious remedies for past discrimination. Their stance is opposed by Vice President Gore and most Democrats, and could make affirmative action a significant issue in the next presidential campaign.

    "Republicans should grow a backbone and grab this issue but in a skillful way. This is not an angry white male thing," said John Carlson, the coordinator of the Washington initiative campaign.

    The widening of the battlefield comes as public opinion polls show white Americans have less sympathy for programs designed to aid racial minorities and are increasingly ready to say that the rules should be the same for all, regardless of race, sex or ethnicity.

    Connerly, an African American businessman and University of California regent who spearheaded successful initiative campaigns against race preferences in California in 1996 and Washington in 1998, said Michigan is at the top of his list of target states for the 2000 election cycle.

    A simmering dispute over admissions policies at the University of Michigan has produced a pair of lawsuits that are scheduled to be heard later this year, keeping the issue on voters' minds.

    State Sen. William Bullard, a Republican who sponsored an anti-affirmative action constitutional amendment that died in the legislature last year, said in an interview that this year he will concentrate on organizing a signature drive to place such an initiative on the November 2000 Michigan ballot. Assuming a big-name sponsors' committee can be assembled this winter and adequate funds are in sight, Bullard said he expects the signature drive limited to 180 days would begin this spring.

    Connerly said in an interview that he also has been contacted by people in Colorado, Florida, Nebraska and Oregon about possible initiatives in those states. After a meeting Wednesday with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), he released a report criticizing admissions policies at Florida's public medical and law schools.

    Connerly said that financial considerations dictate "we concentrate our resources and efforts in one or two states, rather than diluting them."

    Michigan is particularly attractive for affirmative action foes, not only because the issue would be brought into a political swing state in another section of the country, but because Michigan like California and Washington has a prestigious state university whose race-conscious admissions policies have become the source of controversy.

    Class action lawsuits were filed late in 1997 against the undergraduate college of the University of Michigan and its law school on behalf of white applicants who said they were the victims of reverse discrimination. Preliminary motions have been disposed of, and the cases are set for argument this summer.

    The university is strongly defending its policies, which have produced a campus where one of seven students is a member of a minority race. But a poll taken for the Detroit Free Press last October found only 27 percent of those interviewed supporting the university admissions policy, while 47 percent were opposed and 26 percent were undecided.

    The language of the Connerly-backed initiatives provides that the state "shall neither discriminate against, nor grant preferences to, anyone on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity." In the Michigan poll, when voters were asked a question using the word "preferences," opposition rose to much higher levels.

    While employment and contracting policies have direct economic impact on limited numbers of people, university admissions practices have provided the emotional fuel that powered Connerly's group to victory in the two West Coast states.

    He had the strong backing of then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R), a 2000 presidential possibility, when his California initiative passed by 55 percent to 45 percent. In Washington state, where he faced adamant opposition from Gov. Gary Locke (D), most of the large newspapers and some of the state's biggest businesses, the Connerly-backed initiative passed by a surprisingly wide margin.

    Carlson, the Seattle Republican political consultant and former talk show host who led the Washington initiative drive, said that even though opponents of Ballot Measure 200 raised three times as much money, the measure won more than 58 percent of the vote in a high-turnout year when Democrats made gains at every level of the ballot. Citing exit polls showing Measure 200 was backed by 80 percent of the Republicans, 62 percent of the independents and 41 percent of the Democrats, and 66 percent of the men, 51 percent of the women and 54 percent of union household members, Carlson said the issue can be a winner anywhere.

    The breadth of support was consistent with the findings of a survey last summer by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. That survey found only 37 percent of respondents said the government "should do more" to help minority groups. In 1968, a similar question found 50 percent of the interviewees said government should do more.

    Robert Blendon, the Harvard professor who served as an adviser on the project, said the shift in attitudes on the race question is one of the sharpest recorded over the last 30 years.

    Both sides in the debate have found, however, that the wording of the ballot question goes a long way toward determining the outcome. Voters tend to have a positive reaction to the term "affirmative action" but a negative reaction to "preferences and quotas."

    In a Houston referendum, Connerly's opponents, led by then-Mayor Robert Lanier, persuaded the city council's majority to rewrite the initiative language from a ban on "preferences" to discontinuance of "affirmative action," and the initiative was defeated by 55 percent to 45 percent.

    A court subsequently invalidated the election results, because of the language change, and Connerly said he is waiting to see if the new council and mayor suspend the programs on their own. If not, he said, he will mobilize for another initiative with his wording in Houston.

    Several of the Republican presidential prospects seem ready to follow that advice and "grab the issue." Former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander said in a recent interview that the California and Washington initiatives "point the way" to sound national policy. "Government should stop making distinctions based on race. No discrimination, no preferences." Alexander said if any affirmative action programs continue, they should be based on class, not race.

    Former vice president Dan Quayle has called for ending affirmative action and the repeal of "all quota laws." Publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes has denounced "quotas" and has said, "In America, you should be judged as an individual, not as a member of a group." Texas Gov. George W. Bush has said, "I'm against quotas and preferences." But when the courts outlawed a race-conscious admissions policy at the University of Texas, Bush backed legislation saving places at the university for the top 10 percent of the graduates of every Texas high school, a policy that could increase minority enrollment without explicit racial preferences.

    By contrast, Vice President Gore has supported Clinton administration affirmative action programs that include preferences in government contracts for minority firms. Gore had a spirited debate with Connerly on the issue during one of the round-table discussions that were part of President Clinton's 1997 race initiative. Gore and Clinton opposed the Connerly-backed initiatives in California and Washington, with Gore making several fund-raising forays into the latter state to help those fighting Measure 200.

    But the issue is not without its problems for Republicans. When language identical to that of the Connerly initiatives was offered as an amendment during debate on extension of the Higher Education Act last year, it was defeated in the House, 249 to 171. The margin of defeat came from 55 Republicans who joined all but five Democrats in opposition, while 166 Republicans supported the amendment.

    David Bositis, a political scientist at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who has followed the issue for the leading think tank on minority affairs, said: "I would not be surprised to see Connerly's initiative pass in Michigan or most other places he might put it on the ballot. But I don't see white voters supporting Republicans because of this. The number of voters for whom affirmative action matters is very small. And when they pursue issues like this, it further solidifies [minority] opposition to the Republican Party."

    Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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