Tuesday, April 24, 2007

DENVER — Civil rights advocates kicked off a four-state campaign yesterday aimed at ending government race and sex preferences by emulating the success of last year’s Michigan ballot initiative.

Organizers are planning to promote similar proposals in Colorado, Missouri, Arizona and Oklahoma for the November 2008 ballot.

“We’re calling it the Super Tuesday of Equality,” said Valery Pech Orr, executive director of the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative, the first of the four proposed ballot measures announced this week.

Helping to lead the effort is Ward Connerly, the former University of California regent who sponsored the first such initiative 11 years ago in California. That measure, Proposition 209, was approved handily by voters despite strong opposition from liberal organizations.

Similar measures have since passed in Washington and most recently Michigan, where voters approved Proposal 2 in November 58 percent to 42 percent.

Mr. Connerly and other organizers are scheduled to appear in Kansas City today to announce a Missouri initiative, followed by announcements later this week in Oklahoma and Arizona.

The proposed language of the Colorado measure mirrors that of earlier measures: “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.”

While several efforts to abolish preferences have failed in the Colorado legislature, organizers said they think voters will be receptive to the proposal. They pointed to the furor surrounding University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who is under investigation for comments comparing victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks to Nazis.

Mr. Churchill was awarded a full professorship despite weak academic credentials, and critics say the university gave him special treatment because he claimed Cherokee Indian ancestry, which is now in dispute.

“We know people are with us on this in the aftermath of Ward Churchill,” said Jessica Peck Corry of the Independence Institute based in Golden, Colo. “People are clearly saying that enough is enough — it’s time to start treating women and minorities as the competent people we are.”

Mr. Connerly disagrees with supporters of preferences who say such policies are needed to “level the playing field” for minorities and women. He and other initiative organizers say preference programs often harm the groups they intend to help. At universities, they say, the dropout rate is higher for minority students who fell short of standard admissions requirements but were admitted on the basis of racial preferences.

Since preferences were banned in California’s public universities, Mr. Connerly said, the dropout rate for minority students has plummeted while the graduation rate has soared.

“Once we eliminated preferences, retention went up,” he said. “This perceived benefit [of preferences] has mismatched them. It’s placed them in a context where they’re doomed to fail.”

The Colorado proposal goes before the state’s legislative council on Thursday. If the language is approved, supporters may begin gathering the 76,000 signatures needed to put it on the 2008 ballot.

While the measure would eliminate preferences in government contracting and hiring, Mr. Connerly said the focus will likely fall on university admissions and the tenure process.

Mrs. Corry, who sat on the university’s diversity commission, said there are about 1,000 applicants for every tenure-track position, and that race is a factor in hiring decisions. “You’ll find it very, very hard for a competent white applicant — even an exceptional one — to have a shot at these positions,” she said.

Linda Chavez, a former labor secretary who is serving as the Colorado initiative’s honorary co-chairwoman, recalled how she was involved with the University of Colorado’s first preference program, started in 1968, aimed at poor, rural Hispanic students. She said the program was originally supposed to help students polish their academic skills, but that the focus soon shifted.

“I saw it transformed from giving someone a leg up to ‘We’re going to hold you to completely different standards,’ ” said Mrs. Chavez. “I tried to teach grammar and writing, but other leaders wanted to radicalize it, tell them, ‘It’s racism that’s kept you down.’”

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