Stateline Story

Florida: A Reluctant Affirmative Action Battleground

  • September 20, 1999
  • By Tim Nickens

TALLAHASSEE -- Ward Connerly's drive to ban affirmative action in Florida has all the signs of a failed campaign.

No endorsements from big-name politicians.

No fat bank account.

No organized support other than construction contractors.

Yet Connerly's Florida Civil Rights Initiative appears to be gaining momentum even as Gov. Jeb. Bush, state legislators and civil rights groups wish it would disappear well before the 2000 election.

The campaign by the black California businessman to amend the state Constitution has gathered more than enough signatures to trigger a review of the ballot language by the state Supreme Court. And Connerly claims to have pledges from several dozen supporters outside Florida to write checks of $10,000 each.

"Believe me," he said recently, "I have some very substantial pledges lined up to be delivered as soon as I say we are at the Supreme Court and ready to go."

Bush and other Republicans want Connerly to go away.

The son of the former president aggressively campaigned for support in historically black, predominantly Democratic neighborhoods last year. He won 14 percent of the black vote, twice his total from his unsuccessful 1994 campaign, and he has appointed a racially diverse management team.

But Florida Republicans fear those outreach efforts would be ruined by Connerly's amendment drive and inject a high-profile, divisive issue into the 2000 elections.

Connerly acknowledges he chose Florida for his anti-affirmative action efforts because of the state's national stature. He wanted the biggest stage he could find, and where better than the state governed by the younger brother of the favorite for the Republican nomination for president, Texas Gov. George W. Bush?

Nervous politicians and civil rights groups such as the NAACP are taking Connerly seriously because of his track record. Connerly led the successful referendum drives to ban affirmative action in 1996 in California and in 1998 in the state of Washington.

His 37-word Florida amendment mirrors the referendums approved in those states: "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 Connerly faces hurdles he did not encounter in California or Washington.

The Florida Supreme Court reviews proposed amendments to determine whether they cover more than one subject. Even Connerly agrees with Florida legislators and lawyers who doubt his amendment could pass the one-subject requirement.

So Connerly's group is simultaneously collecting signatures for three more amendments -- one that would ban the use of race in public education, another for public employment and a third for public contracting.

Connerly says his group already has gathered more than the 43,532 signatures needed to trigger the court review. That is 10 percent of the 435,329 signatures required for amendments to the Florida Constitution to be placed on the ballot.

Then there is the question of money.

Florida consultants estimate a referendum campaign in Florida, with a dozen media markets, could cost $10-million or more. The initiative had less than $22,000 in its account at the end of June.

While the California Republican Party contributed generously to his amendment drive there, the Florida GOP will not give Connerly a nickel and has discouraged its donors from giving him money. Connerly says money won't be a problem after the ballot language is approved.

As he continues to gather signatures, the Florida NAACP and other civil rights groups are plotting their own strategy. "We're going to bring every bit of influence and effort we can muster," said Florida NAACP President Leon Russell.

One possible response: Mounting a drive for a competing amendment that would protect affirmative action by writing it into the state Constitution.

Meanwhile, Bush has avoided exchanging rhetorical shots with Connerly. The governor previously called the amendment drive divisive, even though he shares Connerly's dislike of preferences and quotas.

Instead, the Bush administration is following through on the governor's February pledge to Connerly to conduct a review of Florida's affirmative action policies. Some Republicans hope that review will lead to Bush proposing changes that would be enough to prod Connerly to call off his amendment drive.

But Connerly is skeptical that any recommendations by Bush would be as far-reaching as the impact of his amendments.

"If anyone was interested in trying to forge a compromise, they would probably want to do that around the time we go to the Supreme Court," he said. "After that, their bargaining position is going to be even less than it is now."

Tags: Justice