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)
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."
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Cover Date: August 1, 1999