Largely overlooked in this November’s 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, Arizona’s Proposition 107—banning state preferences in education and government contracting based on race, gender, ethnicity, or national origin—exceeded the anti-preferences movement’s previous victories in any of the other states where such a measure has been on the ballot.
For many this won’t register as surprising, since Arizona—where the nation’s most stringent anti-illegal-immigration measures enjoy broad popular support—is 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 base—Hispanics, white feminists, students—was 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 Michigan’s anti-preferences fight in 2006, in which—in the spirit of Winston Churchill’s famous observation that if Hitler invaded hell he’d have a kind word for the devil—he said that he’d 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 who’d 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 system’s campuses were dictated by skin color and ethnicity rather than merit. In short order, he was leading the California Civil Rights Initiative Campaign, Proposition 209—and finding himself routinely vilified by California’s 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 maverick—and too committed to the single issue of ending race preferences—to fit comfortably within the Senate club.
Instead, in 1997 he formally made the anti-preferences fight his life’s 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 2006’s 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 there’s little doubt that he’d 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 California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, noting what he saw as the issue’s 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 ACRI’s work has reduced Connerly’s national profile—he works one state at a time, with much of the activity under the radar—is 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 Gratz—who 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 Connerly’s chief lieutenant—crisscrossed 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 state’s 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 state’s 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, it’s more than just reducing the size of the budget and the size of the government; you’ve got to change the policies that are expanding the size of government, one of which is race preferences. It’s not just a social issue, it’s also a fiscal one. The city of Tucson actually has had a 7 percent preference for women and minorities—their bids can come in 7 percent higher than a competitor’s and be accepted. What government can regularly afford to pay an additional 7 percent more for goods and services?”
When I ask Connerly if he’s had a chance to relax and savor the Arizona victory, there’s a momentary pause on the other end of the line. “Not really. I’m in the third trimester of my life. I’ve got to do what I can to move the ball up the field while I’ve got a few years left.” Next on the agenda, he says, are Utah and Missouri.