Ward Connerly—The GOP's Missing Marcher

Daily Convention Coverage


In the parade of high-profile blacks the Republicans have put before the American people this week, one African-American marcher is missing: California's Ward Connerly, the University of California regent, long-time Republican activist, and current chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute, an organization that crusades against racial preferences. Connerly spearheaded the successful campaign to end racial preferences in admissions, hiring, and contracting at the University of California. Connerly was a major reason why Prop. 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative, which ended racial preferences in the Golden State, was approved by 55 percent of the vote in 1996.

Connerly's absence is stranger still given that he's no stranger to Republican conventions. He served as an alternate delegate for Dubya's dad in 1992 and again as a delegate for Dole in 1996. This cycle, Connerly endorsed George W. Bush early and often, and considering the premium placed on diverse faces this year (and the fact that Bush's people handpicked delegates from the Golden State), Connerly should have been a shoo-in.

Instead, he wasn't even invited. In fact, when he inquired about even purchasing a booth to sell his book, Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences, he says the party turned him down, claiming he was into advocacy, not publishing.

Connerly understood all this. "I wasn't crestfallen," he told me on Wednesday during a phone interview from his Sacramento office. "Dubya has staked out a theme that he's a uniter, not a divider, and the presence of someone who's opposed to racial preferences in an era when the party wants to attract more minorities will subject him to criticism by Democrats. He has a hard time reconciling it with his compassionate conservative theme."

Though he may understand the strategy involved, Connerly's not necessarily happy with it. Connerly feels Colin Powell took a cheap shot at him during the general's Monday night speech. "We must understand the cynicism that exists in the black community," the retired general told the nation. "The kind of cynicism that is created when, for example, some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education, but hardly a whimper is heard from them over affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax codes with preferences for special interests."

Connerly takes that line personally. "Powell was referring to me," says Connerly, who has corresponded with Powell regarding the issue. "It is quite disheartening because I don't have a forum at the convention to offer an alternative point of view. I've been biting my tongue on this, knowing how scripted the convention is. But when Powell goes out of his way to snub me and I have no opportunity to respond, that's a problem. It's not the snubbing that's the problem; it's the slapping around. How many times do I have to be kicked around?"

As for a rebuttal, Connerly says Powell's statement was "ill-informed, illogical, and ill-behaved." "Not one black kid has been denied an opportunity to get an education because of the demise of racial preferences," says Connerly, explaining why Powell's ill-informed. "Racial preferences didn't give them an education, it determined whether they went to UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles or somewhere else."

Connerly says it's illogical because there's no connection between the tax code and racial preferences. Asks Connerly, "Why does one have to be outspoken against the tax code to have legitimacy to speak against racial preferences?"

And Connerly accuses Powell of bad behavior. "The theme of this convention and the reason I, Ron Unz or Pete Wilson or others identified with issues are not there is because he wants it to be a united theme, to ensure there is not a discouraging word," says Connerly. "So Powell gets in front and center and bashes some in his own party and never says anything against the NAACP or anyone else."

Connerly also thinks Powell is just flat out wrong about combating the cynicism among black Americans. He estimates a full-blown Republican embrace of racial preferences would boost support among blacks from around 10 percent to 15 percent, a negligible gain. Connerly says Republicans should focus not on what he calls "institutional blacks," those who work for the government or civil rights organizations, but on the black middle class and people in interracial relationships. "I can't tell you the number of blacks I meet who are sending their children to private school," says Connerly. "Those are the people who the Republican message of limited government, lower taxes, individual freedom, and respect for your accomplishments, not your race's accomplishments, will appeal to." Adds Connerly, "My main strategy would be to say to the black middle class and the Latino middle class, 'Your needs are no different from anyone else's. Take a look at your paycheck.'"

The GOP hasn't always snubbed Connerly. The California party once gave him the Ronald Reagan award for leadership and in 1997 he was feted at a gala dinner in Washington D.C., for his leading role in Prop. 209's passage. He has been good to the party in return, serving as the statewide finance chair for the party in 1998. He travels up and down the West Coast, paying his own way, delivering four to 10 speeches a month for local and statewide candidates. Says Connerly, "Powell only goes to conventions as a nominal Republican who then proceeds to lecture those of us who go out in the trenches."

The cold shoulder at the convention bothers Connerly for another reason, too: It's his position on preferences, not Powell's, that's written into the Republican platform. "We believe rights inhere in individuals, not groups," the platform states. "We will attain our nation's goal of equal opportunity without quotas or other forms of preferential treatment." Connerly has been preaching this Republican gospel for years.

Connerly thinks Bush's compassionate conservative message is a good one to attract new people to the party. "No matter how hokey it sounds, the theme of compassionate conservatism makes sense," says Connerly. "It creates an umbrella to bring people in, so long as the compassion doesn't overwhelm the conservatism."

But he doesn't feel his opposition to racial preferences, or the platform's embodiment of this view, are inconsistent with the message. "There seems to be a view among some of the compassionate conservatives that they have to bash the rest of us who've taken principled stands on this issue in order to make themselves look good," says Connerly. "Powell and the nominee setting up a straw man of the evil Republican Party they are going to save the country from. It's a hell of a way to unite the party."