Connerly, Sen. Watson Engage in Shouting Match


In a stunning, racially charged argument, state Sen. Diane Watson and University of California Regent Ward Connerly--both of whom are black--engaged in a public shouting match Tuesday that climaxed with Connerly calling Watson a “lightweight” and a “bigot.”

The outburst, which interrupted a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Higher Education, came after Watson, a Los Angeles Democrat, delivered a lengthy indictment of Connerly and the UC Board of Regents’ decision last summer to approve his proposals to roll back affirmative action.

The hearing was called to examine UC’s tradition of shared governance among regents, administrators and faculty--a relationship that has deteriorated badly as a result of the affirmative action debate.


Connerly, who led the charge to ban race and gender preferences at UC, said later that he was provoked not only by Watson’s comments Tuesday, but by past remarks that she has made about his wife, who is white.

“There are things that you’ve said publicly that amount to bigotry! You’re a bigot!” Connerly yelled at one point. Then, responding to Watson’s assertion that Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Connerly because she and other legislators had pressured Wilson to diversify the UC board, Connerly lashed out again.

“I doubt that the governor relied on Diane Watson’s recommendation of who he was going to appoint to the board,” he said. “You’re the last one that I think he would rely on. You’re a lightweight. He would not rely on your opinion.”

The clash, which followed several weeks of pitched debate over whether UC can ban affirmative action without sacrificing diversity, underscored how fiercely the opposing sides feel about the issue. It also illustrated how intensely personal the fight has become.

Ironically, Connerly’s sharp words came as he was attempting to stress the importance of maintaining civility in conversations about affirmative action. But when Watson and Connerly went at it, the dialogue degenerated as fast as a schoolyard brawl.

“Why don’t you resign from the Board of Regents?” Watson asked.

“Why don’t you resign from the Legislature?” Connerly shot back.

“I was elected,” Watson said.

“I was appointed,” Connerly said. “I’m serving a 12-year term. In a couple of years you’ll be gone from the Legislature. I’ll still be there.”


Watson also pointedly told Connerly that blacks are “your kind,” implying that he needed to be reminded of his race.

Connerly said later that he felt that Watson was referring to a remark he has heard her make in the past--that his views, and his choice of a spouse, prove that he has sold out his people.

“Sen. Watson has said that I want to be white. And as evidence of that, that I married a white woman,” Connerly said. “I thought that in this nation the whole range of miscegenation laws had been struck down along with the bigotry that props them up. . . . [She] frequently crosses the line, and I’m not just going to sit back and take it anymore.”

Watson acknowledged that she has mentioned Connerly’s wife, Ilene, in the past, but suggested that Connerly chose to focus on that Tuesday to avoid addressing her claim that he has benefited from the very affirmative action programs that he seeks to abolish.

“He’s married a white woman. He wants to be white. He wants a colorless society. He has no ethnic pride. He doesn’t want to be black. I said that,” she said after the meeting. “He can call names, but the facts are the facts. . . . Who’s the bigot? I am not a bigot.”

During the select committee hearing, Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), the committee chairman, tried to steer the discussion back to who should run the nine-campus university--a question that some believe is more important than the affirmative action issue.


“Is everybody through?” Hayden good-naturedly asked Watson, Connerly and Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), who had accused Watson of “defiling” Connerly, prompting her to decry his habit of “butting in.”

And with that, the hearing resumed.

Hayden noted that while the regents have ultimate authority to set UC policy, for decades they have joined with administrators and faculty to make decisions on curriculum and admissions issues. Many UC professors believe that the regents abandoned that system when they voted to ban race and gender preferences, which Hayden said threatens to “become a demoralizing and chronic quagmire for the state.”

Regent Roy Brophy agreed, warning that a university whose board is warring with its faculty is a university at risk. The academic senates at all UC campuses have passed resolutions calling for the regents to rescind their action, he said.

If the current rift is not healed, he said, “don’t think for a moment that we will continue to be great. We might just slip off into the ocean and become a ho-hum university system that attracts only mediocre faculty.”