When a school-choice initiative appeared on the Michigan ballot three years ago, Betsy DeVos didn’t care what other Republican heavyweights had to say about it. “I have never been a rubber stamp. I have been a fighter for the grassroots, and following is admittedly not my strong suit,” she told the Associated Press.
DeVos cared so much about the school-choice initiative that she quit her job as head of the Michigan GOP when she clashed with then-Gov. John Engler. “While I look forward every day to doing battle with liberal Democrats, I do not enjoy petty intramural disputes,” she explained at the time. “It is obvious that the governor prefers a follower in the job of party chair, not a leader.”
Since then, a few things seem to have changed. Engler is no longer governor and DeVos is back at the helm as state party chairwoman. What’s more, she is following the lead of liberal Democrats in attacking a civil-rights initiative for Michigan.
Last week, she made her views plain when Ward Connerly and others gathered in Ann Arbor to announce plans for a referendum banning racial preferences. “I fear that this proposed ballot initiative would only serve to further divide people along racial lines, which would be entirely counter-productive,” said DeVos in a statement.
Divide people along racial lines? For the record, here’s the operative clause of California’s Proposition 209, which Connerly championed in 1996: “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.” (For the complete text of Prop. 209, go here.)
That doesn’t sound too divisive. In fact, it tracks the language of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When Prop. 209 went before California voters seven years ago, 54 percent of them approved it. In 1998, 58 percent of voters in Washington state backed their own version. As Henry Payne has reported for NRO, polls show that most Michiganders also oppose preferences: 63 percent of them in one recent survey.
It’s no secret that the White House doesn’t want a civil-rights initiative on the Michigan ballot next year, in the belief that its presence will boost turnout among black Democrats in Detroit without doing much to energize the GOP base — and thereby delivering a small blow to President Bush’s reelection hopes. Republicans in Washington have been phoning their counterparts in Michigan to encourage hostility toward Connerly’s effort, and they’ve won over many in the state party establishment. “Our hope is that our opposition prevents it from getting on the ballot,” says Greg McNeilly, executive director of the Michigan GOP.
Yet there are plenty of Republicans who support Connerly — not only in the grassroots, but also in public office. “It’s high time that the party stops backing away from these issues,” says state Rep. Jack Brandenburg. Michigan’s highest-ranking Republican, Attorney General Mike Cox, has kept silent on the civil-rights initiative — leaving open the possibility that he will support it. (Yet it must be said his statement applauding the Supreme Court’s recent rulings on “diversity” at the University of Michigan was a disappointment.)
One thing’s clear: With a civil-rights initiative heading toward the ballot, Michigan Republicans have an outstanding opportunity to show that among a herd of followers, a few of them are willing to be leaders.
— John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review. James Justin Wilson contributed to this piece.