Campaign '06: A Fight Over Affirmative Action in Michigan

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In Michigan, it's Ward Connerly and Jennifer Gratz versus the state's entire political establishment — and Gratz and Connerly may actually win. Connerly, an African-American businessman famous for being the force behind affirmative action bans that passed in California and Washington in the late 1990s, is now pushing his favorite cause in Michigan. A group he helped found called the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative is backing an initiative on the state's ballot in November that would ban both racial and gender preferences in state government hiring and college admissions. Gratz, who after being denied admission to the University of Michigan filed suit in a case that eventually reached the Supreme Court, is leading the effort. The forces opposing them are vast and cover the entire political spectrum: the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor in Michigan, labor unions like the United Auto Workers, top officials at two of the state's biggest businesses, Ford and General Motors, the Chamber of Commerce groups in several of the state's cities and the Michigan Catholic Conference, as well as national groups like the NAACP and the Urban League. "It's a very lonely battle," Connerly told TIME earlier this year.

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Yet even that powerful opposition may not be enough: polls show Michigan voters closely divided over the issue, with 41% supporting the ban, 44% opposing, and about 15% still undecided. The opposition to the measure got off to a sluggish start. Affirmative action proponents intended to raise more than $5 million to saturate the airwaves against Connerly's group, which only has about $2 million, but have only collected about $3 million thus far. "Nobody pays attention until the last month," said Debbie Dingell, a top GM official and co-chair of the One United Michigan campaign, which is organizing to stop the initiative. (Her husband is Michigan Congressman John Dingell.) Opponents of the initiative filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to keep it off the ballot, accusing Connerly's group of misleading people about the initiative's aims as they collected the 300,000 signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot.

But the biggest problem opponents face is the voters' ambivalence about affirmative action. It seemed racial preference programs had won an important victory in 2003, when a Supreme Court that included seven members appointed by Republicans ruled that universities could provide special consideration to minorities, as long as they didn't use strict point systems like the one that the University of Michigan's undergraduate program had used. (The school gave 20 points on a 150-point scale for being black or Hispanic, and Gratz was the plaintiff in the suit that ruled it unconstitutional.)

In her majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor suggested affirmative action was an issue that should be revisited in 25 years. In fact, the debate has never gone away. Two conservative advocacy groups, the Center for Equal Opportunity and the Center for Individual Rights, have contacted dozens of colleges and other groups since the decision, questioning the fairness of race-exclusive programs and threatening to file complaints or lawsuits if non-minorities weren't allowed into such programs. Earlier this year, the Justice Department forced Southern Illinois University to allow non-minorities and men access to graduate fellowships originally created for minorities and women and demanded the city government in Pontiac, Mich., end a program that required one of every three firefighters promoted to be a minority or a woman. And in Louisville and Seattle, white parents have filed suit against integration programs in those school districts that they say prevented their children from going to the school of their choice because of race. Those cases have now reached the Supreme Court.

A recent poll by the Detroit News showed people in Michigan have complicated, if not contradictory, views on the subject of affirmative action. When read the statement "even though affirmative action may be unfair to some individuals, the good that it has done makes up for that," 45% of respondents said yes, while 42% said no. Although 75% praised the virtues of a "diverse student body," 53% said "affirmative action wrongly sends a message to minorities and women that they are not capable enough" and 60% disagreed with the notion that "affirmative action is needed to compensate minorities and women for centuries of oppression."

The key voting bloc — as in many of the key House and Senate races that will determine who controls Congress — may well be white women, the soccer/security moms who often decide later than other groups on how they will vote. The Free Press poll found 83% of blacks opposed the measure to ban affirmative action, while 53% of white men supported it. But white women were about equally divided on the issue, with 20% undecided. Affirmative action proponents are pitching their arguments squarely at them, warning of the loss of funding for programs that promote women in traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering. Connerly's group says "race trumps gender" in affirmative action, and Gratz offers herself as living proof, arguing she was kept out of the University of Michigan because she wasn't black or Hispanic.

Whatever happens in Michigan, this won't be the last word on a divisive debate that has lasted for decades. The Supreme Court, with two new conservatives on the bench, could rule next year in the Seattle and Louisville cases that race cannot be considered at any level of education. But win or lose, Connerly and Gratz say they are committed to ending affirmative action wherever they can. And if Connerly heads to another state, the NAACP and other groups are likely to take him on. His battle may feel lonely, but his opponents will make sure he has lots of company wherever he goes.