Largely overlooked in this Novembers torrent of electoral good news for conservatives is a decisive victory in Arizona for the ongoing campaign to roll back racial preferences. With nearly 60 percent of the vote, Arizonas Proposition 107banning state preferences in education and government contracting based on race, gender, ethnicity, or national originexceeded the anti-preferences movements previous victories in any of the other states where such a measure has been on the ballot.
For many this wont register as surprising, since Arizonawhere the nations most stringent anti-illegal-immigration measures enjoy broad popular supportis reliably red. Yet according to Ward Connerly, longtime leader and mastermind of the anti-affirmative-action movement, resistance to the measure was not just fierce but vicious, even by the standards of pro-preferences diehards. It was a very, very tough campaign, he says, and their baseHispanics, white feminists, studentswas highly energized. They not only played on white guilt, like you find everywhere, but played the race card with particular abandon.
Leftist students were especially active, among other things dredging up and widely disseminating an offhand remark Connerly made during Michigans anti-preferences fight in 2006, in whichin the spirit of Winston Churchills famous observation that if Hitler invaded hell hed have a kind word for the devilhe said that hed accept the support of the Ku Klux Klan for the initiative: If the Ku Klux Klan thinks that equality is right, God bless them. Thank them for finally reaching the point where logic and reason are being applied, instead of hate. As Connerly notes with bemusement, the young leftist activists peddling the canard that I was a white supremacist presumably never got a look at him, since he is black. He adds that at one point a spokesman for the No on 107 campaign, a 22-year-old self-avowed socialist, threatened via Twitter to punch him in the face. We had to get an injunction forbidding him to come within 100 feet of me. He pauses, chuckling. If only that injunction could extend to all socialists.
Now 71, Connerly has been at it since 1994. Back then he was a successful Sacramento businessman whod recently been appointed to the University of California Board of Regents, and he recalls his incredulity, and mounting sense of outrage, as he learned the extent to which admissions decisions on the state systems campuses were dictated by skin color and ethnicity rather than merit. In short order, he was leading the California Civil Rights Initiative Campaign, Proposition 209and finding himself routinely vilified by Californias vast and multidimensional liberal establishment as a race traitor and worse, despite the fact that he himself is unfailingly civil. Prop. 209 generated extensive media attention, and in the wake of its passage, Connerly, by then a national figure, briefly considered a Senate run against Barbara Boxer. While internal polls indicated that his chances were good, Connerly determined that he was too much of a maverickand too committed to the single issue of ending race preferencesto fit comfortably within the Senate club.
Instead, in 1997 he formally made the anti-preferences fight his lifes work, founding the American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI). In the years since, with a cadre of skilled loyalists, he has brought the anti-affirmative-action battle to other states through the initiative process, scoring especially impressive wins in the blue bastions of Washington State and Michigan. In both cases, he prevailed without the support of the state Republican Party, and in Michigan, victory came in the face of 2006s powerful national Democratic tide. Indeed, the only state in which an anti-preferences measure has failed was Colorado, in 2008, where it lost 50.6 to 49.4 percent while Barack Obama was carrying the state by 9 points.
Connerly professes no regrets about declining a more traditional political route to achieve his policy ends, and theres little doubt that hed have found the need to cater to the demands of assorted constituencies, even conservative ones, frustrating and dispiriting. In 2008, for example, he surprised and disappointed some longtime allies by opposing Californias Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, noting what he saw as the issues connection to his fight against government-imposed preferences. If you really believe in freedom and limited government, to be intellectually consistent and honest you have to oppose efforts of the majority to impose their will on people, he asserted, to the consternation of social conservatives.
That the character of the ACRIs work has reduced Connerlys national profilehe works one state at a time, with much of the activity under the radaris not a concern for a man who appears to have almost no personal ego, but it is safe to assume that it has hardly been a spur to fund-raising. In Arizona, for instance, the entire campaign was run on less than $100,000. Connerly and Jennifer Gratzwho was the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case Gratz v. Bollinger, which took on preferences at the University of Michigan, and who has served ever since as Connerlys chief lieutenantcrisscrossed the state, speaking to groups of every size. We went out and sold this initiative retail, Connerly says, educating the public about what this creature affirmative action is really about, pointing out how divisive it is, how deeply unfair, how fundamentally racist. They managed to persuade, among many others, the editorial board of the states largest paper, the Arizona Republic, which in its endorsement of Prop. 107 echoed his view that one of the little-acknowledged tragedies of affirmative action is how it stigmatizes legitimate minority achievement: Connerly tells how the African-American pilot of a commercial airliner thought he saw fear in the eyes of passengers, who wondered if he was truly qualified for the job.
Arizona was also encouraging in that the states Republican party lined up behind the initiative, something that has occurred all too rarely in past campaigns. That is certainly a lesson to be absorbed by those in the national party who remain terrified of being smeared as racist. It has been a constant fight, Connerly observes drily, not only with our opponents, but with those presumed to be our friends. The Tea Party has been especially helpful in setting the Republican Party right in this regard. Connerly has made a point of speaking at Tea Party functions, hammering home the message that if you really want to effect change in the country, its more than just reducing the size of the budget and the size of the government; youve got to change the policies that are expanding the size of government, one of which is race preferences. Its not just a social issue, its also a fiscal one. The city of Tucson actually has had a 7 percent preference for women and minoritiestheir bids can come in 7 percent higher than a competitors and be accepted. What government can regularly afford to pay an additional 7 percent more for goods and services?
When I ask Connerly if hes had a chance to relax and savor the Arizona victory, theres a momentary pause on the other end of the line. Not really. Im in the third trimester of my life. Ive got to do what I can to move the ball up the field while Ive got a few years left. Next on the agenda, he says, are Utah and Missouri.
Harry Stein, a contributing editor of City Journal, is the author of I Cant Believe Im Sitting Next to a Republican, among other books.