Many conservatives view the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative with a sense of poetic justice–three years ago, after all, the Supreme Court refused to rule racial preferences unconstitutional in a pair of cases involving the University of Michigan. If approved by voters in November, the MCRI would abolish color-coded admissions policies in Ann Arbor and across the state, as well as the use of preferences in public employment and contracting.
And yet many of the Michigan’s most prominent Republicans are lining up to oppose it. “Until I feel comfortable with the system we have in place today, I will support affirmative action,” says Dick DeVos, the GOP’s candidate for governor. “If the MCRI passes, the students would not be able to compete through no fault of our own. It would be a tragedy.”
Oakland County sheriff Mike Bouchard, the leading GOP candidate for Senate, is also against the MCRI: “Anytime there’s an effort to amend and change the constitution, it always gives me pause.” He argues that the MCRI is too ambiguous. “This language would be a constitutional hurdle for a same sex public school, which I believe are not only worthwhile, but valuable.”
Bouchard’s two main opponents in this August’s GOP primary have differing positions on the MCRI. Keith Butler, who is black and a former Detroit councilman, is against it, while conservative activist Jerry Zandstra is for it. Among elected officials, Attorney General Mike Cox is the only major Republican figure who has yet expressed support for the MCRI. The state party has declined to endorse the MCRI, but takes that stance with almost all ballot initiatives, according to Chairman Saul Anuzis.
The MCRI is modeled on Ward Connerly’s California Civil Rights Initiative, which voters there approved a decade ago. Its leading advocates include both Connerly and Jennifer Gratz, who was the plaintiff in one of the Supreme Court cases challenging the University of Michigan’s use of racial preferences in making admissions decisions.
It is of course no surprise to see Democrats coming out against the MCRI. Jennifer Granholm, the governor, says she’s against it. So has just about every other Democrat who’s been asked to offer an opinion. “There will be affirmative action today…There will be affirmative action here tomorrow and there will be affirmative action in our state forever,” said Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick earlier this month, in a bizarre echoing of George Wallace.
Liberal activists, for their part, have done their best to keep the MCRI off the ballot, alleging that the name of the MCRI is so deceptive that it essentially tricked hundreds of thousands into signing the petition. Riots have nearly broken out before the Michigan Board of Canvassers, which certifies referenda such as MCRI.
Bouchard does try to qualify his opposition. “I don’t believe in college admission or any other venue that we should pick one race or sex over another in college admissions,” he says. “My philosophy and reaction is that I would not support a program that by race or status alone elevates someone over another in a competition of sorts.” It’s hard to square this rhetoric with his opposition to the MCRI, of course. At least DeVos is more consistent. Although he says that the sooner affirmative action is no longer necessary, the better, he still thinks it’s necessary. During his involvement with educational reform, he says, “it was evident to me that many of our children were not receiving access to an equal K-12 opportunity.”
None of these comments surprise Connerly, who is chairman of the MCRI. “There’s no doubt in my mind that they support us in their heart of hearts,” he says. “But they’ve made some unprincipled decisions.” He suspects that the substantial black vote in Detroit was a major factor in the candidates’ decisions, as well as pressure from the large businesses and labor unions, which have largely lined up against the MCRI.
To what extent these political dynamics will affect the fortunes of Michigan’s Republican candidates as well as the MCRI remains unclear. Bill Ballenger, the director of Inside Michigan Politics and arguably the most influential pundit in his state, analyzes the MCRI as a “marginal favorite” to win. Although an early March EPIC/MRA poll showed the MCRI to be in a closer-than-expected race, with only 44 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed, Ballenger calls that an “aberration,” and indicates that his company’s own internal polling yields a higher proportion of support. But he also acknowledges that a lack of institutional support and a well-financed opposition may yet defeat the MCRI. (The latest Detroit News poll has it at 43-42.)
Nonetheless, Ballenger indicates that both DeVos and Bouchard’s maneuvers were tactically smart. “DeVos is trying to make this a race about the economy and jobs,” he says, “He’s hoping that conservative Republicans don’t hold his opposition to the MCRI against him.” Ballenger says he does not expect the MCRI to play as large of a role in the Senate race–it’s a state issue rather than a federal one–but when asked how the Republicans’ refusal to endorse the MCRI will help turnout this fall, he admits, “It’s not going to help.”
With more than five months to go before the election, the battle to pass the MCRI will only become closer and more contentious. “I never thought it would not be an uphill battle,” says Connerly. “I fully expect this to be a tough, tough campaign.”
–Michael O’Brien is a junior at the University of Michigan and executive editor of the Michigan Review.