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.
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.”
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.
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.