Amendment 31: Civil Rights Or Civil Wrongs?

The paid petition circulators are already out in force. Standing with their clipboards in front of King Soopers and Safeway and Target stores, they are asking people questions like, “Do you want to ban discrimination in Colorado?” and, “Do you favor equal rights for women?” Opponents of Colorado’s Amendment 31 decry such tactics as misleading at best; proponents say it’s time to eliminate “preferences.”Welcome to the complexities of Amendment 31. In a nutshell, if it makes the ballot and is passed by Colorado voters the measure would ban programs that are largely considered to be the remaining remnants of affirmative action – programs designed to help women and minorities  in  education, business and public health.

The 37-word ballot proposal appears fairly straightforward:

“The state shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.”

But if voters pass Amendment 31 a laundry list of current programs would face obliteration in Colorado, including diversity and outreach programs in higher education, the recruitment of women and minorities in business and the elimination of K-12 programs that encourage girls’ and minorities’ interest in math, science and technology.

The effort is being organized not by a Colorado group but by Ward Connerly, the California millionaire who successfully promoted a similar anti-affirmative action measure there 12 years ago. He and his supporters have since gone on to other victories in Michigan and Washington state.

In addition to Colorado this year, Connerly and his Sacramento-based group, the American Civil Rights Institute is targeting four other states – Arizona, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Connerly, who is black, is calling this year’s push “Super Tuesday for Equal Rights” and has vowed that his efforts “will bring our nation one step closer to realizing the promise of the 1964 Civil Rights Act – color-blind government.”

Connerly is joined in his efforts by Linda Chavez, the conservative columnist who spends the bulk of her time in Washington, D.C., but reportedly owns a home in Colorado.

Chavez is officially listed as a co-sponsor of the Colorado amendment, along with Valery Pech Orr, the co-owner of the Colorado company Adarand Constructors, which won a U.S. Supreme Court case in the mid-1990s that overturned some affirmative action rules related to federal highway contracts.

The Amendment 31 campaign was first rolled out last May, at a press conference at the swanky Brown Palace Hotel in Denver – where a basic room currently rents for $254 a weeknight and the presidential suite rents for $1,249 a weeknight. Flanking Connerly at the campaign’s kick-off were state Sen. Dave Schultheis and Rep. Kent Lambert, both conservative Colorado Springs Republicans and longtime opponents of affirmative action.

“It’s racial discrimination to say a child should get a head start because of his or her race,” Schultheis announced when he was still in the state House in 2003. “We should be working toward a color-blind society. … Race should be a non-issue.”

Despite his high-profile initial involvement, Schultheis, who is white, has not emerged as the poster child for Amendment 31. The October before he joined Connerly onstage for the campaign kickoff, the lawmaker generated publicity and outrage when he sent a letter to the Greeley Tribune immediately after a horrific car accident claimed three children of a family with a Hispanic surname. In the letter, sent by e-mail the day the third child died, Schultheis wondered whether the family was in the United States legally.

Last week Orr, the amendment’s co-sponsor, described her position:

“The core of this issue is this is about fairness – what is fair in the eyes of the government,” she told Colorado Confidential.

“It’s not about affirmative action, it’s about the fact that racial preferences have become discriminatory. When you give preferences to one group, you will discriminate against another whole group.

“As I woman, I will not accept that I’m disadvantaged. I just want to compete equally in the eyes of my government.”

Amendment 31’s opponents, however, have a far different take – and a far different name for the Connerly plan. Rather than his “Super Tuesday for Civil Rights” marketing slogan, some have taken to calling the effort “Super Tuesday for Segregation.”

Organizers from Colorado Unity, which has organized to battle the amendment, have compiled a list of what they describe are “hard statistics” that show equality between men and women and people of color is still far from a reality.

Dismantling outreach programs, they say, would be devastating and would only serve to increase the multitude of disparities for minorities and women. Colorado Unity currently includes activists from the Colorado Progressive Coalition, the 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women and other longtime Colorado civil rights activists.

Among their statistics:

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