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Published: Friday, 11/4/2005

Will Michigan voters pass ban on affirmative action?

LANSING, Mich. - The Michigan Court of Appeals sprung a little trick or treat of their own on the state on Halloween, and it appeared that a few frightened politicians were working on disguises of their own.

The appeals court unanimously directed the state to put a constitutional amendment banning affirmative action on the November, 2006, ballot.

The amendment, called the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, would outlaw racial and gender preferences in university admissions decisions. It would also end affirmative action in hiring for state jobs.

Polls show it is likely to pass by an overwhelming margin. Most Republicans and conservatives oppose affirmative action; Democrats and minority voters are most likely to want to keep it.

Yet within hours after the court's decision, two leading Republicans said they would oppose banning affirmative action. Dick DeVos, next year's all-but-certain gubernatorial nominee, and Keith Butler, the leading candidate for the U.S. Senate nomination, said they would oppose it.

"I am particularly concerned that this proposal may have the unintended consequence of negatively impacting programs aimed at helping women in education," Mr. DeVos said in a statement.

Keith Butler, who is black, said "This proposal is wrong for Michigan. We still live in a society where some among us need assistance."

What's going on here?

Prior to the court's ruling, both men had refused to take a position on the initiative. And when they did, they merely issued statements, and did not talk with the media or take questions about affirmative action.

What they are trying to do is avoid giving the Democrats the chance to charge that they are racist, or don't care about minority progress.

Regardless of their stands, most observers believe the anti-affirmative action proposal is likely to pass. The move to put it on the ballot came as a reaction to a decision last year by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld affirmative action policies the University of Michigan uses for undergraduate admissions.

California businessman Ward Connerly came to Michigan after that, and helped bankroll an effort to collect signatures to put it on the ballot. Far more signatures were collected than needed, but opponents charged that the signatures had been gathered under false pretenses, and a state board of canvassers deadlocked along partisan lines.

That sent the issue to the courts. Though those who support affirmative action vowed to appeal this ruling to the state supreme court, court watchers said it seemed unlikely that the state's highest court would even take the case.

Rulings by the lower courts ordering this on the ballot have been unanimous and consistent, and in most such cases both state and national supreme courts tend to affirm decisions already made.

Steve Mitchell, a well regarded Republican pollster, predicted that this may neutralize the issue in terms of the major races, although he agreed that every candidate for anything in the state would likely be forced to take a position on banning affirmative action programs.

That could change if a dark horse candidate for the U.S. Senate, the Rev. Jerry Zandstra, should win the nomination. He openly supports banning affirmative action, saying that he is for racial equality and meritocracy.

Regardless of what shakes out with the politicians, look for big bucks - at least $6 million - to be spent on this issue. Ironically, those who want to keep things the way they are now are apt to spend more money.

The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative spent its money getting this on the ballot, Mr. Ruff said. He thinks support for the proposal may wane some when it is understood that programs for women would suffer, too.

But neither he, nor any other pundit, thinks the voters will fail to ban affirmative action. Regardless of the merits, that could have a negative economic impact on an already cash-strapped Michigan. African-American groups and others who regularly hold conventions could boycott the state. That is not something anyone wants.

Footnote: On the eve of next week's mayoral election in Detroit, outgoing city auditor general Joe Harris said "insolvency is certain. The only question is the timing." City finance director Sean Werdlow says the city could run out of cash to pay its bills by next month. If they are right, that could trigger an eventual state takeover of the city's affairs. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is fighting an uphill battle for re-election, says both men are wrong.



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