The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, banning preferential treatment in the state based on race, gender, and national origin in government hiring and contracting and in public university admissions, has so far received relatively little national notice. Yet it may well prove the most significant contest on this November’s ballot.

The nation’s ninth-largest state, Michigan has been ground zero over the last decade in the fight against government-mandated racial preferences. Fiercely contested lawsuits, launched by white plaintiffs denied admission to the University of Michigan’s undergraduate and law schools because of racial quotas favoring less qualified minorities, inflamed passions on both sides; and the Supreme Court’s 2003 twin decisions in the cases basically splitting the difference—siding with the plaintiffs in one, the law school in the other—have set the stage for the MCRI showdown.

On the face of it, this seems to be history repeating itself. The MCRI is similar in both intent and language to California’s 1996 ballot measure, Proposition 209, and Washington State’s I-200 two years later. Withstanding opponents’ charges that they aimed to turn back the clock on social justice and less-than-subtle campaigns to smear initiative supporters as racist, both those measures passed easily, by margins of eight and 16 points, respectively. In Michigan, early polls show support for the MCRI in the high sixties.

But several factors leave the outcome of the Michigan initiative—and with it the future of the fight against racial preferences—very much in doubt.

For starters, initiative proponents expect the other side to outspend them hugely. In an early 2006 filing, the MCRI had only $30,000 on hand, its funds depleted by the long struggle to get the measure on the ballot. And, it’s important to note, the anti-preferences measures in both California and Washington suffered serious erosion in support once opponents began deluging the airwaves with highly misleading commercials. While the MCRI receives funding primarily from individual donors, the Big Three automakers, among other corporate entities, are likely to play a major role in financing the opposition.

“It’s completely cynical,” observes California businessman Ward Connerly, a prime mover behind the earlier initiatives. “While they’re cutting jobs left and right, they’ll be proclaiming their commitment to diversity by opposing this initiative.” In addition, he says, “They’re being browbeaten by the likes of [powerful Michigan congressman] John Dingell, whose wife is a VP for General Motors.”

The prime beneficiary of corporate largesse in this battle to date is the broad coalition of union, civil rights, and women’s groups calling itself One United Michigan. The coalition fought a bitter holding action to keep the MCRI off the ballot, charging, among other things, that blacks who signed the MCRI petitions were misinformed of its intent. Joining them in the campaign to stop the MCRI is the more radical group By Any Means Necessary; in December, it shipped busloads of Detroit teens to Lansing, the state capital, where they violently disrupted a state board of canvassers meeting set to certify the MCRI petitions. Overturning furniture and screaming invective at the canvassers, the teens forced the meeting’s cancellation. The MCRI supporters had to go to court to have it placed on the ballot.

Nearly as much a target of By Any Means Necessary’s vitriol as alleged race-traitor Connerly is MCRI executive director Jennifer Gratz, one of the original plaintiffs in the University of Michigan lawsuit; during the board of canvassers melee, the teens actually unfurled a KKK banner alongside her for photographers’ benefit. And Gratz—young, articulate, and attractive—is indeed the MCRI foes’ worst nightmare. In addition to being a living, breathing advertisement for the injustice of affirmative action—the daughter of a retired police sergeant from a working-class Detroit suburb, she couldn’t get into the University of Michigan, despite graduating near the top of her class—she gives the lie to the claim that preference programs advantage women. “Everyone on the other side is out to confuse the issue,” she says. “BAMN is pretty ugly, but One United Michigan also builds their campaign around outright lies, saying this will eliminate domestic-violence shelters. They always try to make this a debate on gender rather than race. And, of course, they always try to portray us as ‘radical’ and ‘out of the mainstream.’ ”

In fact, this last ploy is central to the strategy of the MCRI’s foes, and they’ve received help in pulling it off from seemingly unlikely allies: leading state Republicans. Announcing his opposition to the MCRI, the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate, Amway heir Dick DeVos, an otherwise reliable conservative, declared: “We must look for ways to unify and provide equal opportunity for all people in our state.” Two of the three candidates seeking the Republican senate nomination have followed his lead.

Most observers view this stance as a political calculation: Republican candidates prefer to run in this economically devastated state on bread-and-butter issues and not arouse the solidly Democratic black base. But Republican opposition to the MCRI winds up touted by the initiative’s foes and cited in almost every news account. The contrast with, for example, California, where then-governor Pete Wilson took a leading role in the fight for Prop 209, could hardly be starker.

Ward Connerly, for his part, is scathing about what he sees as the GOP’s desertion of principle. “The bottom line is, they’re scared of race—not just in Michigan, but nationally. They’re so afraid someone will call them ‘racist’ or ‘mean-spirited’ that they just reflexively align themselves with ‘diversity,’ ” Connerly says. “What voters have to ask is, if candidates have so little character on an issue as basic as this one, on what other issues will they cut and run when the going gets tough?” Moreover, he adds, those Republicans AWOL on racial preferences are “lousy politicians,” since it’s so demonstrably a winning issue.

Michigan may well test that assumption. Jerry Zandstra, the least known of the three long-shot candidates running in the August primary to challenge incumbent Democratic senator Debbie Stabenow, is also the only one supporting the MCRI. A minister and economist on leave of absence from the conservative Acton Institute, Zandstra started out with almost no money and with ratings in the single digits, but has risen steadily in the polls. “When I came out in favor of this, I didn’t know what the poll numbers would be. But I’d re-read the U.S. Constitution, the Fourteenth Amendment, Michigan’s constitution, and the ’64 Civil Rights Act, the speeches of Dr. King, and it seemed perfectly clear.”

Why, then, he’s asked, do so few in the party leadership seem to get it? He considers a moment. “Funny, isn’t it, the people seem to be ahead of the politicians on an awful lot of issues.”


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