ad info

 custom news
 Headline News brief
 daily almanac
 CNN networks
 on-air transcripts
 news quiz

CNN Websites
 video on demand
 video archive
 audio on demand
 news email services
 free email accounts
 desktop headlines

 message boards



 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Affirmative-action face-off

Florida Republicans are resisting Ward Connerly's fight against racial preferences

By Adam Cohen/Tampa

July 26, 1999
Web posted at: 4:26 p.m. EDT (2026 GMT)

TIME magazine

It's lunch hour in downtown Tampa, Fla., and a team of paid petitioners is doing a brisk business signing up opponents of affirmative action. "White men love it," Gloria Brown, the bubbly grandmother heading up the petitioners, says with a laugh. "They might already have walked past me, but when I tell them it's anti-affirmative action, they come back and sign." But Brown is also getting plenty of signatures from white women, Hispanics and blacks.

The Florida petition drive is aimed at putting a referendum on the ballot next year to bar state and local governments from using race in hiring, contracting and school admissions. It's the latest effort of Ward Connerly, the controversial mixed-race businessman who got similar measures passed in California in 1996 and in Washington State last year. He's made Florida his next battleground, and he plans to travel there this week to make a major speech. But Connerly hopes Florida will also be something more: a vehicle for pushing his anti-affirmative-action crusade into the center of the presidential campaign.

Key to Connerly's plan is the fact that Florida's Governor, Jeb Bush, happens to be the younger brother of Republican presidential front runner George W. Bush. If organizers get the signatures they need, the referendum will be on the ballot in November 2000--when George W.'s name could be there as the Republican choice for President. "What better place than the backyard of the prospective nominee--his brother's state?" asks Connerly. "It's guaranteed to catapult the issue."

Connerly has another agenda. He's trying to force the Republican Party and its elected officials to join his anti-affirmative-action crusade. In California and Washington his referendums won handily--54% and 58%, respectively--but Connerly had to do it with little institutional support. That pattern is being repeated in Florida. According to a recent poll, 83% of Florida's potential voters want to end racial preferences. But both Florida's Republican and Democratic political establishments have made it clear that they wish Connerly and his petitioners would just go away.

Jeb Bush repudiated the referendum after meeting with Connerly in January. "He wants a war," Bush said. "I'm a lover." Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas, a Cuban American, calls the referendum "offensive." And while George W. says he supports "the spirit of no quotas, no preferences," he has declined to back Connerly's cause. Connerly says the party is betraying its core principles. "The Democratic Party is built around these hyphenated groups, but the Republican Party prides itself on supporting individual rights."

Why are Republicans--and the Bushes, in particular--running away from Connerly? It may be partly out of principle. George W., the self-described compassionate conservative, has staked out a moderate position on race not far from his father's New England Republicanism. He has come out for "affirmative access," a deliberately vague term that seems to include race-based outreach to minorities, something Connerly's initiatives prohibit.

Still, the bigger considerations are political. Anti-affirmative-action views may command majority support in many places, but they can make a candidate sound mean and extreme, which most Republicans don't want going into a presidential race. Such views also make it harder for the party to reach out to minority voters, including Hispanics, whom both Bush brothers have attracted. In Florida the electorate is 38% minority. Prosperous Cuban Americans, many of whom benefit from affirmative-action programs, are a force among the state's Republican voters and campaign contributors.

Connerly's forces will need 450,000 signatures to get on the ballot. But the first step is to collect 45,000 signatures, which they expect by September, and then submit their proposed referendum language to the Florida supreme court for approval. It's a heavily Democratic court and has used its power in the past to stop referendums from going to the voters.

If the anti-affirmative-action referendum makes it to the ballot, both major parties, labor and civil rights groups and two Governors named Bush will probably oppose it. But polls and the experience in other states indicate that most voters will support it. "It would pass," says Brown as she collects more signatures. "I'm seeing that out on the streets."


Cover Date: August 1, 1999

Search CNN/AllPolitics
          Enter keyword(s)       go    help

© 1999 Cable News Network, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.
Who we are.