The Chicago Defender, Leonard Sparks, Oct. 16, 2006
A ballot initiative to amend the Michigan constitution to ban affirmative action in public institutions has not only galvanized civil rights organizations, but has spurred a lawsuit alleging fraud in a petition drive and led a congressman to call for an IRS investigation of one of the proposal’s lead sponsors.
The amendment, called the ‘Michigan Civil Rights Initiative’ backed by a group by the same name, will be put before Michigan voters on Nov. 7. It was placed on the ballot after a petition drive in which supporters submitted more than 500,000 signatures.
If passed, it would ban special consideration of race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin in state contracting, education and employment.
Opponents see the amendment as a blatant attack on affirmative action in Michigan and say the potential casualties of the proposal include college scholarships that consider race and gender, minority retention programs, and federal and state contracts awarded to minority — and women-owned firms.
They have gone on the offensive against the proposal’s chief spokespersons: Ward Connerly, who backed similar initiatives in California and Washington; and Jennifer Gratz, who prevailed against the University of Michigan in 2003 after she was denied admission to the school in 1995.
‘It’s huge,’ said Shanta Driver, a spokeswoman for By Any Means Necessary, a civil rights organization based in Detroit. ‘If we lose in Michigan, it sets a national precedent.’ Along with the NAACP and a group called One United Michigan, BAMN has responded with a vigorous campaign to educate voters about the proposal, which is modeled after Proposition 209, a constitutional amendment adopted by California voters in 1996, and Initiative 200, a similar measure approved by voters in Washington in 1998.
According to the Michigan secretary of state’s online contributions database, the American Civil Rights Coalition, an affiliate of ACRI, contributed more than $750,000 in cash and in-kind donations to the Michigan campaign between April 2004 and January 2005.
‘It’s really outrageous,’ Driver said. ‘It’s such an affront to democracy to be able to have such important fundamental questions about civil rights bought and paid for.’
Also leading the fight against affirmative action in Michigan is Jennifer Gratz, executive director of MCRI.
In June, a number of plaintiffs, including BAMN and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, sued MCRI in federal court, alleging widespread fraud during its petition drive and violations of the Voting Rights Act.
Although the drive netted more than 500,000 signatures, BAMN said a high number of minorities signed the petition because they were deceived about its intent. Of 500 signatures BAMN examined, Driver said, 87 were by Black voters.
‘Not a single one of them had signed the petition knowing it was to end affirmative action,’ she said. ‘It was deception on such a massive scale that there was no way they collected enough signatures to get that on the ballot.’
That claim was supported by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, which said it found ‘evidence of shameful acts of deception and misrepresentation by paid agents of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative.’
Although U.S. District Court Judge Arthur J. Tarnow denied the plaintiffs’ request to keep the Proposal 2 off the ballot, Tarnow’s opinion concluded that ‘MCRI and its circulators engaged in a pattern of voter fraud by deceiving voters into believing that the petition supported affirmative action.’
Two months after the suit was filed against MCRI, U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan) sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service requesting an investigation of the more than $1 million in compensation earned by Connerly as head of the ACRI and the ACRC.
In the letter, Conyers wrote that ‘Mr. Connerly’s compensation, when including amounts treated as expenses, raises questions about use of the organizations’ funds. It appears that he may have been paid amounts far greater than the value of any services he may have rendered.’