After Colorado loss, Ward Connerly may pull the plug on affirmative-action bans

California businessman Ward Connerly says he is moving on to other issues after the defeat of his anti-affirmative action ballot measure. (Photo/American Civil Rights Institute)

California businessman Ward Connerly says he is moving on to other issues after the defeat of his anti-affirmative action ballot measure. (Photo/American Civil Rights Institute)

Anti-affirmative-action guru Ward Connerly will likely halt his nationwide push to end race and gender preferences. Connerly, a part black California businessman, spoke with the Colorado Independent an hour after Amendment 46 toppled by an extremely thin margin.

The so-called Colorado Civil Rights Initiative was the first Connerly amendment to flop after making it onto a state ballot. It was also a key measure in Connerly’s Super Tuesday for Equal Rights campaign, a nationwide thrust to dismantle affirmative action programs in five states this year. In three of those states, the measure failed to make it onto the ballot, and Thursday, after a feverishly close tally, it collapsed in Colorado. Nebraska was the only state this year to approve the proposal.

In a wide-ranging, hour-long phone interview with The Colorado Independent, Connerly said he now intends to turn his focus to prison reform. He downplayed the importance of Colorado’s rejection of a ban on affirmative action programs, and also weighed in on President-elect Barack Obama’s historic win.

When asked how he planned to proceed now that Colorado voters had rejected Amendment 46, Connerly said that he might curb his 12-year-long effort, which produced wins in California, Michigan and Washington state in years past and in Nebraska this year. “Well, I love to read. I love to write. I do have other interests,” he said. “I would like to pursue those things. I would rather do those things than get involved in these initiatives.”

“Contrary to what is said, I don’t need this for my financial well-being. I don’t need it for my psychological well-being,” he added, referring to an allegation that he paid himself $7 million from the two nonprofits that funded his Super Tuesday for Equal Rights campaign. Connerly spent more than $350,000 in Colorado this year, according to campaign finance reports.

But rather than continue the fight against racial preferences, Connerly said he will focus on reforming the criminal justice system. He has developed a passion for the issue because, he said, “I know someone for whom I have great affection who is in this situation. I had to learn a lot more about the system than I ever knew before.”

Connerly said that in the past year, he has contributed “frequently and heavily” to Families against Mandatory Minimums, a national organization dedicated to changing sentencing laws. And he is a proponent of alternatives to incarceration, such as ankle monitors for some convicts.

“I don’t want to mislead you. I don’t want to say I am no longer going to be interested in race equality in our public policies,” he said. “I think this whole business of what we are doing to people who are incarcerated is far more pressing.”

However, Connerly would not concede that the weak returns over his “Super Tuesday” efforts to dismantle affirmative action prompted him to turn his focus to another issue. In fact he went back and forth on characterizing the Amendment 46 result as a loss.

“I sort of felt Wednesday morning at 4:15 a.m. that this would probably be defeated, and I congratulate the other side. We have a different perspective, and they waged a vigorous campaign. It got ugly with the character assassination, and I wish they hadn’t done that,” he said, referring to two Vote No radio ads that called Connerly a “carpetbagger” and were later pulled from the airwaves.

But then he said: “It is up to Jessica Peck Corry and others as to when or if they concede. I am proud of the campaign they waged. The people of Colorado have spoken, and with roughly a million votes on each side, it is hard to say that the issue is settled.” Connerly also credited Corry, the director of the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative, with convincing him to launch the proposal in Colorado. Corry did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. But she refused to admit defeat in a Denver Post article, saying she wanted to wait for the last returns. Late Thursday afternoon, the Rocky Mountain News called the election with 96 percent of the votes in; 50.6 percent of Colorado voters said “no” while 49.4 said “yes.”

In spite of his ambiguity, Connerly did say that Amendment 46 — which performed astoundingly well in polls before the election — failed because Colorado voters were overwhelmed with the massive ballot.

“I think that the fact that there were so many initiatives on the ballot spoke volumes more about this issue than anything else,” he said. “There was a lot of voter fatigue in my view, and they said, ‘Let’s preserve the status quo,’ and they voted ‘no.’”

“A 50-50 vote does not tell either side anything at all. Nothing,” he added, when asked about the legacy of a Colorado loss. “I would not expect the opposition to run off the battlefield if the vote had been 50-50. Nor should they expect us to run away because because of the outcome that there is. You can’t make any decisions based on that kind of situation. Especially in view of the fact that Nebraska won as handily as it did.” Nebraska’s measure passed, 58 percent to 42 percent.

Connerly also said that Obama’s supporters in Colorado likely turned out against his initiative. “I believe that when you have a self-professed, quote, progressive running for president, and he is trying to turn out votes, well, on Election Day a number of those who never voted before were black, Latino and young. That’s what the exit polls clearly showed. Those people are more likely to be opposed to ending what is loosely called affirmative action. I think that is just indisputable.”

Connerly voted for Republican presidential candidate John McCain and said he donated $2,300 to his campaign, even though he was disappointed that McCain showed only lukewarm support for the anti-affirmative-action project. Connerly also said he gave $500 to Obama during the primary because he “was hopeful that Sen. Obama would push the ball up the field a little bit in trying to reduce America’s preoccupation with race.”

Connerly acknowledged the import of Obama’s victory: “This is a defining moment in American history, especially for black people. I didn’t cry as Jesse Jackson did Tuesday night as he witnessed this marvelous, marvelous moment with Sen. Obama making his acceptance speech. I didn’t cry. But I can understand the tears. My heart sang as much as everyone else’s.”

He said he was heartened to hear Obama, who supports affirmative action, tell ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in a 2007 interview that he doesn’t expect his well-off daughters to receive preferential treatment when they apply to universities. “We don’t benefit when people believe our skin color has something to do with who we are,” said Connerly. “Even when society thinks it is doing it for a good reason. You are not helping me. That is my view.”

Colorado voters, on the other hand, think affirmative action still has value. And Connerly won’t be back anytime soon to convince them otherwise.

“I am a pretty active guy, even at 69. And there are other things I would like to accomplish in my life,” he said. “For me to go and try to involve the Colorado Legislature in this issue, well that is not on my list of 100 things I would like to do.”

Stay tuned for more coverage of Colorado’s Amendment 46.

Read more on Colorado Independent’s past reporting on Ward Connerly and his efforts to repeal affirmative action.

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Naomi Zeveloff

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