- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

LANSING, Mich. — A proposed ballot initiative aimed at abolishing race-conscious policies in public hiring and college admissions is facing opposition from Michigan’s Republican hierarchy because it could hurt President Bush’s re-election chances here, its proponents say.

“What nobody wants to acknowledge is that this opposition is concerned that [the initiative] will negatively impact President Bush’s re-election,” said state Rep. Leon Drolet, co-chairman of a committee of Republican legislators working to get the measure on the November 2004 ballot.

“I can’t imagine any other reason. I do not think that is will negatively affect Bush’s re-election. This is a core issue and we should never shy away from these issues.”

State Republican Party chairman Betsy DeVos has issued a series of statements opposing the measure, citing its potential for divisiveness in a presidential election year.

“The potential for a racially divisive campaign, complete with the typical kinds of irresponsible rhetoric that often comes from both sides, is my chief concern,” Miss DeVos said in a commentary published in a Detroit newspaper.

Constituents have sent letters and e-mail to the state’s Republican Party, asking why its leaders have backed down on the issue in a state where polls find most residents oppose race-conscious hiring and college admissions.

“What we need now, and what would be best for our state, is to commit ourselves to reducing racial tensions and focus on policy objectives that unite us as Americans,” was the response one such inquiry received from the party’s executive director, Greg McNeilly.

The initiative is being pushed by Ward Connerly, the California businessman responsible for similar measures approved by voters in California and Washington state. It prohibits use of race as a factor in filling state jobs, hiring state contractors and admissions to public universities.

Michigan is considered important in the 2004 presidential election, a place that is always hard-fought and trends Democratic in presidential elections. Mr. Bush was promised a Michigan victory in 2000 by then-Gov. John Engler, but the Republican failed to deliver the state.

At the time, some suggested that a school-voucher initiative, pushed by Miss DeVos, contributed to increased voter turnout in the heavily Democratic southeastern part of the state and led to Al Gore’s victory.

That loss, which still stings some Republicans, is considered the root of the loud opposition to the controversial race measure.

“I am surprised to see the Republican Party come out against this,” said state Rep. Jack Brandenburg, who is also a co-chair of the committee promoting the initiative.

“The party should be stepping up to the plate on this issue; it shouldn’t be afraid. And what could be seen as influence from the White House, if that is true, well, the primary job of the Michigan Republican Party is to get Michigan candidates elected. We have a national party to take care of the president.”

When he called Miss DeVos last week to talk about his displeasure, she said she would do nothing to impede the effort of the lawmaker and his steering committee.

“I do hope they back off,” Mr. Brandenburg said. Miss DeVos did not return a phone call seeking comment on her position.

As Mr. Connerly fends off the state’s Republican leadership, he also battles his traditional foes here as well.

Last week, Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat, sent a letter to Mr. Connerly, calling his efforts “ignorant meddling in our affairs.” His “brand of divisive racial politics has no place in Michigan, or in our society,” Mr. Dingell wrote.

Mr. Connerly shrugged off Mr. Dingell’s letter with a succinct missive of his own.

“Ironically, your advice is the echo of southern segregationists who sought the comfort of states’ rights to practice their discrimination against black Americans. Have you learned nothing about “civil rights” from that horrible chapter in our nation’s history?” Mr. Connerly responded.

“I must ask whether you have run your ‘get out of town’ sermon by the hundreds of other Michiganders who have called, written and e-mailed me to come to Michigan and assist in the restoration of the principle of ‘equal protection under the law.”

In an interview earlier this month, Mr. Connerly noted that Republican opposition anywhere to his initiatives “reaffirms what I have been saying, that this is not a partisan issue.”

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