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Published: Friday, 11/3/2006

Michigan voters will decide the fate of affirmative action

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan voters Tuesday will face five major ballot proposals, but the vast majority of attention is directed toward just one of them: Affirmative Action.

Proposal 2, called "The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative," would amend the state constitution to outlaw gender or race-based affirmative action in college admissions or any kind of public hiring.

Voting yes means saying no to affirmative action. Ward Connerly, a black California businessman, and Jennifer Gratz, a 29-year-old white woman who failed to win admission to the University of Michigan, are leading the campaign to just say yes.

Opposing them is a wide coalition of civic, civil rights, chambers of commerce, and labor and women's groups, which are banded together as One United Michigan.

In the final days of the campaign, One United Michigan is emphasizing the proposal's effects on women of all colors and downplaying its effects on African-Americans.

Trisha Stein, the chairman, argues that passing Proposal 2 would endanger not only minorities, but programs that include cervical cancer screenings for women.

Debbie Dingell, a General Motors executive and wife of Congressman John Dingell (D., Dearborn) is vice chair of One United Michigan. She fears Proposal 2 would endanger programs to attract women into science and math careers.

That is hotly disputed by Ms. Gratz, who adds that she would ask parents "to consider if we want our daughters to receive preferential treatment while our sons are discriminated against?"

Polls show the contest a dead heat.

But Mark Grebner, one of the state's most respected political consultants, doesn't think it is close at all. He has been doing his own surveys and is convinced it will be a landslide.

A landslide against affirmative action.

"I am convinced that Proposal 2 will be approved by 60 percent of the voters, maybe more," he said in an interview last week. Incidentally, Mr. Grebner, a lawyer and Ingham County commissioner, will be voting the other way. He wants to keep affirmative action.

But the sometimes cheerfully Machiavellian head of a firm he calls Practical Political Consulting, Inc., says "it's just not happening. What I do differently is not ask voters an abstract question. I give them a copy of the actual ballot."

"When real white voters read the actual language and then vote secretly, about 85 percent check the yes box. Now bear in mind that this is not a scientific survey. These are mainly middle and upper income households. But secrecy and the ballot language is the key."

He may be on to something. The ballot language appears to tell voters that affirmative action is not needed. "A separate provision of the state constitution already prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin," it says at the end.

Couple that finding with this: Time and again, in races across the country, polls have wildly overestimated the number of white voters who are willing to support black candidates or causes.

"This one's over," Mr. Grebner predicted.

What about the other ballot proposals?

The only one too close to call, he said, is Proposal 5, which would mandate that school funding be slightly raised and then protected from inflation and further legislative cuts, forever. This would apply both to K-12 education and state universities.

The political establishment and the business community strongly oppose this, because it would take power away from the legislature and cost money besides.

But it has the strong backing of the education establishment. Michigan schools and universities have endured repeated budget cuts plus mandates to do more with less.

How this one turns out may depend on the success of an expected last-minute advertising blitz, mostly from the "no" side.

As for the other ballot propositions: Practical Political Consulting (and every other survey) says that Proposal 1, which would protect state park and conservation funding from being raided, will be approved easily.

But Proposal 3, which would allow mourning dove hunting, is going down, despite a flurry of pro-hunting ads featuring ex-Detroit Tiger slugger Kirk Gibson. "The doves are safe," Mr. Grebner says.

Proposal 4 is also, he is convinced, headed for approval by a landslide. This would prevent government units from using their powers of eminent domain to take private property and transfer it to another private entity. Some cities have been doing this to get more tax revenue, and there has been growing resentment.

The proposal would not, however, affect any unit of government's ability to take your land if it needs it for public use - such as a freeway or a post office. They could still do that, but Proposal 4 would require them to pay you at least 125 percent of fair market value for it.

Footnote: Since the Bill of Rights took effect in 1791, there have been only 17 more constitutional amendments. Michigan's Constitution took effect in 1963, and has already been amended 27 times, with three more likely to pass this year.

Lawmakers are starting to worry there may be a real danger that the document may have so many additions it becomes unwieldy.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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