With a bevy of Republican legislators in tow, noted anti-affirmative action activist Ward Connerly held a press conference in Michigan yesterday to announce the creation of a statewide steering committee for the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a ballot measure prohibiting the state from granting preferential treatment to anyone based on race or gender, in the arenas of public education, public employment or public contracting.

Connerly is the chairman of the American Civil Rights Coalition, a public advocacy group that promotes the elimination of racial and gender preferences.

Ward Connerly

At a press conference held in the first-floor rotunda in the Michigan Capitol, Connerly announced the steering committee is now staffed by 22 legislators and two other political leaders who support the initiative. The legislators serving on the committee represent nearly one-third of all Republican legislators in the state House.

The MCRI Steering Committee will be responsible for organizing statewide support for the initiative and initially will focus on gathering signatures.

Justin Jones of the American Civil Rights Coalition told WND: “Every member of the steering committee supports and endorses the goal of MCRI: for all Michigan citizens to receive equal treatment under the law, regardless of race or gender.”

“The score of lawmakers willing to stand up and swear their support for equal treatment under the law represent over 1 1/2 million Michigan citizens,” said Connerly. “And I have no doubt that more public officials and prominent citizens will join us soon as they see our cause is morally just. The majority of Michiganians, like the majority of Americans, want to be treated equally, not judged by the color of their skin. They want their kids to be accepted into college by the same standards as everyone else. They want public jobs and contracts to be awarded based on skill and qualifications, not race or gender. They hold the same beliefs that were codified in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Forty years later, we’re going to ensure those beliefs are upheld by voting for MCRI in November 2004.”

Bill Ballenger, political analyst and editor of Inside Michigan Politics, contended “affirmative action is as popular as a skunk at a wedding. Most people are in favor of the plaintiffs.”

The show of support from state legislators signals a split in the GOP over affirmative action. Despite the fact polls show a majority of voters oppose preferences, the Michigan GOP had sought to distance itself from Connerly’s initiative after the first press conference was held July 8.

Betsy DeVos, chairman of the Michigan GOP, released a statement at that time saying, “I fear that this proposed ballot initiative would only serve to further divide people along racial lines, which would be entirely counter-productive.”

Betsy DeVos

Meanwhile, political observers were asking, “counter-productive for whom and for what reason?” Some said the Michigan GOP was afraid if the issue got on the ballot it would galvanize black Democrats to surge to the polls in Bush’s re-election year. Others criticized DeVos for following liberal Democrats in their rejection of the controversial initiative.

National Review reported Republicans in Washington have been phoning their counterparts in Michigan to encourage hostility toward Connerly’s effort.

DeVos and her husband, Amway President Dick DeVos, spearheaded a voucher campaign in 2000, which was later blamed for causing Bush to lose Michigan in the presidential election. The effort was financed by Dick DeVos with considerable support from the Catholic Church and well-heeled contributors like Wal-Mart heir John Walton. DeVos spent $5 million on the measure – which voters rejected by a 70-30 percent margin.

Ironically, back then National Review reported: “The Republican establishment has done its best to prevent the DeVos initiative from reaching the ballot, fearing it will provoke a large turnout of blacks (in support of vouchers) and union members (in opposition), all of whom will then vote Democratic up-and-down the rest of the ticket.”

The report added, “Since Michigan is a key battleground state between Bush and Gore, and incumbent Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham is fighting for survival, a huge turnout by blacks and union members might doom the Republicans in these races and probably also shift control of the lower house of the state legislature to the Democrats, costing the Republicans their chance at congressional redistricting following the 2000 Census.”

When Republican Gov. Engler would not endorse the voucher campaign, DeVos fired back, “To many of John Engler’s supporters it would be frightening if he was arm in arm with the [Michigan Education Association] against the voucher effort.”

About Connerly’s initiative, Greg McNeilly, executive director of the Michigan GOP previously told NR: “Our hope is that our opposition prevents it from getting on the ballot.”

That was before 20 prominent political leaders signed on to the steering committee.

“It’s high time that the party stops backing away from these issues,” countered state Rep. Jack Brandenburg, a member of the steering committee.

McNeilly told WND the success Connerly has had in getting Michigan legislators to back the initiative does not change his or the Michigan GOP’s opposition to it. Seeking to downplay the disagreement, McNeilly said it highlights a major “operational difference” between the two political parties in Michigan. Republicans routinely engage in a “diverse and vigorous exchange of ideas,” he said, as opposed to Democrats who are caught in a “lock in-step mentality.”

Connerly led ballot initiatives to eliminate racial and gender preferences in California in 1996 and Washington state in 1998, both to success. The American Civil Rights Coalition is a national civil-rights organization created to work with grass-roots supporters and elected officials at the local, state and federal level to end racial and gender preferences and racial classifications. ACRC engages in activities including, but not limited to, initiative campaigns and lobbying and is based in Sacramento, Calif.

Related stories:

Ward Connerly takes on Supreme Court

Black activist assailed as racist

The nobleness of black conservatives

The man who kills quotas

GOP’s non-confrontational politics

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