He’s Either Mr. Right or Mr. Wrong : What Drives Ward Connerly in his crusade to end affirmative action? Faith in America, loyalty to his old friend, the Governor, and the certainty that his life story holds a lesson for us all.
There were leathery-faced men in dress slacks and cowboy boots. There were women in bouffant hairdos and earrings in the shape of elephants, patriotic scarves knotted around their necks. Eight hundred of them, all Republicans, jammed into a cavernous hotel banquet hall near the San Francisco Airport. They had come from every county in California for the party’s semi-annual state convention. All but half a dozen were white.
On the dais stood Ward Connerly, a balding black businessman in a dark gray suit and red patterned tie. Friend of Gov. Pete Wilson, outspoken member of the University of California Board of Regents, Connerly had come to ask for their help in qualifying a statewide anti-affirmative action initiative for the November ballot.
With 10 days left, Connerly told the Republican delegates, the campaign was still 200,000 signatures shy of its 1 million goal. His voice boomed from a dozen loudspeakers as he urged his fellow Republicans to join with him in staging “our own Million Man March” to gather signatures from those who seek to ban racial preferences in California. Connerly’s voice grew hushed. His enemies, he told the crowd, had accused him of selling out, of going against his own people. They were wrong, he said.
“My people are defined not by the color of their skin but by the fact that we share common values,” he said, raising his eyes to look into the hundreds of white faces. “And this weekend, I’m with my people.” Exploding in applause, the delegates rose to their feet.
It was a quintessential Connerly performance. Earnest and eloquent, self-aggrandizing and sometimes careless with facts, Connerly has testified before Congress, urging the removal of minority set-aside programs. He has worked closely with his mentor, the governor, to push the UC Board of Regents to ban racial and gender preferences in the university’s contracting, hiring and admissions. And he has stepped in to rescue the floundering campaign to put the so-called California civil rights initiative, or CCRI, on the ballot.
Through it all, Connerly--a 56-year-old Sacramento land use consultant--has argued that remedies to racial injustice now do more harm than racism itself. Prejudice, he says, can no longer be blamed for keeping minorities down. Americans are decent people who want to do the right thing--the nation has come a long way since slavery and should be allowed “to say, ‘We have done all that we’re going to do to level the playing field with regard to race. . . . We’re no longer going to feel guilty.’ ”
Similarly, Connerly insists he should be allowed to define himself without regard to race. He resents being labeled black or African American. If he were a white businessman or a white UC regent, his race would go unnoted, he says. To mention his ethnicity is to subtly create “a whole correlation between color and ability.” Race is largely irrelevant in America today, he says, offering his own life as evidence.
“If I, a kid whose mother had died, who had to borrow the first $85 to pay tuition and buy my books, if I can go to college, anybody can go to college,” he says, calling up one of several personal anecdotes that he uses to reinforce his view of American society. To blame racism for failure, he says, “is a cop-out.”
The governor calls Connerly “living proof that there is no need for artificial preferences.” And Connerly himself is proud to say that he is particularly well-suited to lead the fight against them: “I don’t want this to sound egotistical, but there are times when there’s just a good fit between people and issues.”
Connerly’s opponents assert, however, that it is his skin color, not his speeches or his views, that creates that “good fit.” Even as Connerly rejects ethnic labels, they accuse him of using his race to endow conservative positions with a power they would never enjoy without him. In taking on affirmative action, they argue, he has turned his back on the needs of other blacks to gain influence for himself.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s a hypocrite of the worst kind,” says Fred Jordan, chairman of the California Business Council for Equal Opportunity and a member of the state Commission on the Status of African-American Males. “He doesn’t particularly want to be called African American or black, but he’s using it very astutely to advance his own personal gains. For someone to stand within the ranks and say, ‘I’m not black,’ but use it to destroy his own people--that’s the kind we brand as a traitor.”
Traitor or egalitarian? Crusader or Uncle Tom? Connerly has been called all of these things during his rise to political prominence. In recent months, he has stepped out from behind the scenes--where for years he has been one of the governor’s most trusted, but least known, friends. After Connerly was a guest on “This Week With David Brinkley,” Republican strategist William Kristol--who thinks Connerly is one of the nation’s most articulate spokesmen against affirmative action--got to know him over the phone. Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard magazine, predicts that by the November election, Connerly will have a national reputation. “Ward Connerly is already pretty well known,” he says. “But he’ll be a lot better known six months from now.”
Connerly likes the attention. Even as reporters pore over his business dealings, searching for evidence that he benefited from the very affirmative action programs he seeks to eliminate, he unfailingly returns their calls. Even as Democratic legislators revile him, accusing him of betraying his “kind,” he accepts their invitations to participate in public hearings. Even as he complains that it is taking a personal toll, Connerly relishes the battle. Ordinarily cordial, Connerly can be brutal and withering when on the attack.
Recently he called state Sen. Diane Watson a “bigot” and a “lightweight.” He has asserted that Regent Roy T. Brophy’s opposition to the UC system’s affirmative action ban gave him added incentive to “shove [the statewide initiative] down his throat.” He has called one UC chancellor a “hired hand,” accused students of whining and told faculty activists to “go back to the classroom.” When asked last December whether he would attend a meeting that professors had requested to air concerns about how the UC system is governed, he said, “I think I have a conflict. I’m trimming my toenails that day.”
“He is willing to put himself out front. You’ve got to admire that,” says Bob Mulholland, an advisor to the state Democratic Party, who says he likes Connerly personally. “But this is no Mother Teresa. Ward is an astute person that understands that you’re better served if you’re close to power. . . . He understands power in a democracy.”
On a foggy Sacramento morning, Ward Connerly is hard at work behind the wheel of his 6-year-old Cadillac Seville. With his left hand, he riffles through a thick sheaf of telephone messages. With his right, he alternately steers the car and dials his cellular phone. His first call is to a man he hopes will donate $100,000 to support the ballot initiative campaign. With thousands more signatures to collect, and a professional signature-gathering firm to pay, such calls occupy much of Connerly’s February. The potential donor is out, and a secretary asks what Connerly wants. “It’s a blatant attempt to get money,” he tells her politely.
“If you waltz around it,” he explains after hanging up, “I believe people don’t respect you as much.” His next call is to Thomas “Dusty” Rhodes, president of the National Review, the prominent conservative magazine. They chat about William Kristol, whom Connerly has turned to for help with right-wing radio talk-jock Rush Limbaugh. “I’d asked him to see if Rush would give CCRI a plug,” Connerly informs Rhodes. “Tell him it’s crucial.”
The next call is also crucial. The governor’s secretary answers and greets Connerly warmly, as if she talks to him all the time. “I just wanted to tell the governor that last week, I sent a floral bouquet to my father-in-law in his name,” Connerly tells her, explaining that his wife Ilene’s father has been ill. He doesn’t want Wilson to be confused if Ilene calls to thank him.
Outside of his own family, Connerly’s relationship with Pete Wilson is the most important in his life. Though just six years younger, Connerly looks up to the governor and credits him with offering the kind of guidance that his own father, who left when Connerly was just a toddler, never gave. The two men met in 1968, when Connerly was working in the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Wilson, then a young legislator from San Diego, had just been named chair of the new Assembly Committee on Urban Affairs and Housing and he needed a chief consultant. Connerly, whose interest in housing had begun in college when he’d uncovered racial discrimination in rental units around Cal State Sacramento, came highly recommended.
Wilson liked Connerly “instantly.” He hired him in 1969, and they worked together until 1971. Connerly says meeting Wilson was a pivotal moment in his life. Wilson urged him not to limit his career aspirations to government employment, which was seen as a safe haven for minorities. “He said, ‘You’re selling yourself short. There’s a whole new world out there in private enterprise.’ And it turned me around.” Previously apolitical, Connerly became a Republican.
The friendship would pay lifelong dividends for both men. For Connerly, it created a professional niche. One of the bills Wilson sponsored during that period revised a state law requiring every city and county to include a “housing element”--a formal proposal for new and existing residential units--in its general plan. Today, Connerly & Associates, the firm Connerly and his wife opened in 1973, specializes in writing housing elements; according to one competitor, the firm has written more of them than anyone else in the state. Put simply, Connerly and his 14 employees help local governments satisfy a state bureaucracy that he helped establish--one of the services for which clients pay him up to $450 an hour.
The friendship has had tangible rewards for Wilson as well. In recent years, Connerly has contributed more than $110,000 to Wilson’s campaigns, and he says he’s raised “a couple of million dollars” more from his network of contacts in the building industry and local government. When Wilson ran for governor in 1990, Connerly and his wife contributed $65,000. The next year, Connerly was Wilson’s top contributor, giving $10,000 personally and $20,000 more from his firm, and before the 1994 reelection campaign he would give an additional $16,000. And then there were the dinner parties the Connerlys have hosted at their home, charging couples as much as $5,000 each to dine with Wilson and his wife, Gayle.
When Wilson was first elected governor, he asked Connerly to join his administration as secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing. Connerly said no. His firm was flourishing and he would lose money if he left it behind. “But I promise you that anything you want me to do outside of government, you know how I feel about you and I’ll do it,” Connerly recalls telling Wilson. “I’ll raise money for you, and if you need me on some task force or something, I’ll do that. But I’m not interested in any position. I can’t afford it.”
Connerly has made good on his promise. In 1991, the governor named him to serve on his Council on California Competitiveness under Peter Ueberroth. Two years later, Wilson appointed him to a 12-year term on the UC Board of Regents, the governing body of the nine-campus, 162,000-student university system.
Still, it is the battle to roll back affirmative action--first at the UC system and now statewide--that has cemented the Wilson-Connerly alliance as never before. “I was a Ward Connerly fan a long time ago,” says Wilson. “But I am both very proud and very grateful for the kind of leadership and courage he has shown on this issue. . . . I have grown to admire him even more as a result of what I have seen him do in the last year.” In recent months, the two have talked nearly every day. Wilson has advised Connerly on UC strategy, sometimes personally editing Connerly’s written communications to the board. Connerly, in turn, has pushed affirmative action to the fore when Wilson--who made opposition to racial preferences one of the central tenets of his failed presidential campaign--needed it most.
The perception around the Capitol is that “probably nobody has higher standing and access [to Wilson] these days than Connerly,” says one Sacramento insider, “because of the heavy baggage he’s carrying on affirmative action. The governor is very protective.” In a city where power is measured in precise increments, others caution that for all of his access, Connerly is not part of Wilson’s small inner circle. “The group that’s really tight around the governor has not changed for many years. They like [Connerly]. He’s doing a job for them. But he’s not inside,” says one source close to Wilson. Nevertheless, “the perception that is out there is good for Ward, there’s no doubt.”
Last year, for example, Connerly & Associates registered for the first time as a lobbying firm. Among its new clients: Louisiana-Pacific Corp., the huge lumber company that has paid $17 million in environmental penalties in the past few years alone. On forms filed with the state, the corporation is asked to report “whose actions you will attempt to influence” by hiring a lobbyist. The governor’s office is at the top of the list.
For years, Connerly’s firm has represented several building industry associations. Lately, people in the construction industry say that when they seek to press their causes--from building code amendments to growth control--with members of the Wilson administration, they are told, according to one, “We can’t do anything until we talk to Ward.”
But Connerly has gained something else during the past year that he prizes as much as his enhanced professional clout: He has become a public figure. Though he protests that his new role has cost him money--”I’m sacrificing about a quarter of a million dollars a year in billables,” he says--he has warmed to fame. “Understand what I’m saying, because it can sound egotistical, [but] there’s a certain star quality in this whole business,” he said one rainy afternoon, as poor weather threatened to deter volunteers from gathering more signatures for CCRI. Connerly had discovered, he said, how to use his name recognition to rally the troops, inching the ballot measure ever closer to qualification.
“If someone is in the media enough, that person commands a certain stature,” he explained. “If I call [a volunteer] and say, ‘This is Ward. I need about 100 more signatures out of you,’ that really does the trick.”
Later, with just a few days to go before the initiative’s qualification deadline, Connerly was even more bold about taking credit for the campaign’s progress. “I want to be candid with you--I’ve had a lot to do with it,” he said, noting that when he took the helm, the campaign had just 200,000 signatures in hand. “I don’t want to sound immodest, but I think that I. . . have made the difference. People support issues largely because of the individuals who are identified with them.”
In speeches and in interviews, Ward Connerly wields the story of his life as if it were a moral talisman, imbuing each treasured moment with meaning. Better than almost anyone in California politics, he knows how to evoke the drama of his own experience: A black child, abandoned, then orphaned, who studied hard, worked his way up from poverty and made something of himself. “I became totally self-supporting at age 13,” Connerly informs audience after audience. “I understand what it’s like to struggle.”
It is an impressive tale, and he tells it well. Born in 1939 in Leesburg, La., Wardell Anthony Connerly hardly knew his parents. His father, Roy, disappeared before he was 2. His mother, Grace, died when he was 4. His grandmother, a full-blooded Choctaw Indian, and an aunt and uncle raised Connerly in Sacramento. Connerly says his grandmother was a strict disciplinarian who made him attend Macedonia Baptist Church every Sunday and who insisted he get an education. “I had to make sure I did my studies--and she would physically ensure that I did,” he recalls. “And at the end of every day, I would read something [aloud]--the Scriptures or my studies. Just to let her monitor. She was the oversight committee, if you will.”
The family was poor--Connerly says that at times, he walked to school with holes in his shoes and ate little more than sweet potatoes at every meal. His uncle piled lumber in Sacramento’s sawmills. His grandmother sold eggs. In his teens, money was so tight that the family applied for welfare. But after the first check arrived, Connerly sent the social worker away. He found a job making 65 cents an hour as a stock boy in a fabric store. Even in childhood, his aunt remembers, Connerly was “very serious. He was not a person to play about nothing.”
From Connerly’s archive of childhood stories, he selects certain ones to tell and retell. There is the one about a white girl who defended Connerly from a man yelling racist epithets. Later, Connerly rescued the girl from a neighborhood bully who happened to be black. The lesson, Connerly says: “Racists come in all colors.”
There is the one about the white bus driver who altered his schedule to help Connerly get to work on time, or the tale of the white classmate who offered him a ride so he wouldn’t be late. The lesson: “People will reach out to you if you let them.”
Except for passing mentions, however, Connerly almost never provides examples of how racism directly affected him. The reason he avoids such stories lies partly in his belief that it is foolish to dwell on adversity. Black Americans live in the past too much, he insists. Instead of looking through the windshield at the opportunities that society offers, “we look in the rearview mirror at racism and segregation and slavery and discrimination.” Too often today, black people wrongly expect these things, so “when the slightest thing happens, guess what? We find them.”
But Connerly has bolstered his opposition to affirmative action with personal anecdotes so often that his life and his ideology have become inextricably intertwined. He can’t talk about one without the other, and you can’t help but wonder if stories that don’t fit his agenda just don’t get told. Ask him whether his grown son and daughter have been hurt by prejudice, for example, and he says, “My kids have never been addicted to race.” Press him, suggesting that because his wife is white, the family must have discussed racial identity for the benefit of their mixed-race children, and he says this: “It’s something that we never really talked about--consciously. Because this wasn’t a black household or a white household. It was just an American household. . . . We just never got them exposed to all this race stuff.”
When Connerly analyzes history, it is almost always in personal terms. Ask him when he thinks affirmative action’s problems began to outweigh its benefits in American society, and he answers with an anecdote. In the early ‘60s, when he was student body president at Sacramento State, “it was somewhat of a novelty to have a black person serving a leadership role,” because few blacks were enrolled. When he applied for his first job after graduating in 1962 with a BA in political theory, he admits he had “a little bit of a disquiet that maybe race would work against me.” He acknowledges that he benefited from the “climate of diversity” that affirmative action created, implying that it was needed then.
But by 1969, when Wilson hired him, Connerly insists that he was a strong competitor for the job, regardless of race. “Forget the color, here was a candidate with pretty good attributes,” he says of himself. “When I went to work for Pete, I was recruited. When you’re being recruited, race is not a factor.” Having benefited from affirmative action, Connerly now no longer needed it. And thus, he asserts, neither did anyone else.
“The affirmative action people try to hang it around your neck and say, ‘You wouldn’t be here today without [it],’ ” he says. “Now how long do we do that? Every black and woman that comes along between now and time immemorial is supposed to say, ‘Thank you affirmative action’?”
For critics like Constance Rice, western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, this is an offensively self-centered view of the nation’s past. People like Connerly and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are hypocrites, she says, to “thump their chests about merit, when neither of them operates in a realm where merit matters. It’s political connections. . . . [They] get seduced into completely forgetting the entire history of this country and the reality that most people face.”
At the core of Connerly’s politics is a deep faith in the individual and a distrust of government interference. While he does not identify himself with Libertarianism, he espouses many of its principles, leading him to take some unexpected stands. He is for abortion rights. He supports the Equal Rights Amendment. And he is currently pushing the UC administration to begin paying benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian employees. “They pay their taxes and what they do in their bedroom is none of our goddamn business,” he says.
Connerly draws much of his inspiration from a surprising source: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In one sentence, Connerly will demur that he is not worthy of the comparison. In the next, he draws it anyway. “I’m certainly no Martin Luther King. I shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath with that man,” Connerly said recently when asked why the anti-affirmative action ballot initiative has drawn such fierce opposition from other blacks. “But in the early years, the black community almost in total didn’t like what he was doing. . . . He was kind of like a pariah as he went from church to church saying, ‘Let’s stand up for our rights.’ Well, I’m a pariah with those people.”
He makes the comparison often. “There are many who say, ‘Gee, this is divisive,’ ” he said of the initiative campaign in one speech. “You don’t think it was divisive when Martin Luther King said that Rosa Parks will not sit on the back of the bus?”
Connerly isn’t the only one to see parallels. Shelby Steele, a professor at San Jose State University and author of “The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America,” said Connerly is not unlike King in that he “is answering an extremely difficult call against enormous odds--in many ways more difficult than King, in that the injustice he’s fighting is not as self-evident as the one that King fought against.” Instead of betraying blacks, “[Connerly] believes in his people more than sometimes they’re able to believe in themselves. . . . He’s precisely the kind of person who usually does change history.”
But Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University history professor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, says it is precisely Connerly’s revision of history that is so disturbing. He calls the assertion that most blacks opposed King’s efforts to ensure equality “preposterous.” While King died too young to hear the words affirmative action, Carson points out, “he called for a Negro Bill of Rights that was going to be based on the Veterans Bill of Rights. He was clearly in favor of doing something affirmative.”
As for King’s desire for Americans to be judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin--a quote that Connerly uses to explain his opposition to racial preferences--Carson cautions against oversimplification. “We all wish for that kind of a society and King wished for it, but he didn’t imagine that that society had come into existence,” Carson said. “That phrase was used when he was talking about his dream, not the reality. The question is how do we get to that dream.”
The UC Board of Regents meets 10 times a year in a basement conference room at UC San Francisco. Its 26 members sit at a huge ring-shaped table that is separated from the public by velvet ropes. Although the board now includes more than a handful of women and nonwhites, in many ways it remains what it always has been: a gentleman’s club whose membership is exclusive, monied and powerful.
When Ward Connerly joined the board in 1993, “none of us had ever heard of him,” recalls a fellow regent. But the board quickly learned. “He hit the ground running,” says board Chairman Clair W. Burgener, “and hasn’t slowed up.”
During his first meeting, Connerly was the only regent to side with the board’s lone student representative in voting against a fee hike. A few months later, he sent board members a scathing five-page letter in which he criticized them for stifling dissent and for too often letting administrators set the university’s course. The board, Connerly warned, was in a “fragile stage” of transition during which the passivity of the past would, he hoped, be replaced by an aggressive effort to hold UC administrators accountable. “We can either recognize this fact and guide the outcome of what we are to become,” he wrote, “or we can ignore what is occurring and run the risk of coming unraveled, fighting in public, and exchanging memos and letters which vent our frustrations with each other.”
Today, more than two years after it was written, that passage seems both prescient and ironic. Just as Connerly predicted, the board has often bickered in public. And more often than not, it has been Connerly--now chairman of the influential finance committee--who has been at the center of the fray, faxing memos and venting frustrations. “He doesn’t mince words,” says Burgener, who is fond of Connerly. “As long as he’s there, everyone’s going to know he’s there.”
At board meetings, Connerly’s speech alternates between the colloquial and the academic, pumping up his oratory with quotes from such political philosophers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Paul Harvey. He is civil--almost overly so--addressing fellow board members, even ones he dislikes, as “my friend.” But beneath the collegial manner lurks an acid tongue and a temper. “I don’t want to sound demagogic,” he says. But he cannot help it.
Last July, a few weeks before the board was to consider Connerly’s two resolutions to ban race and gender preferences in the UC system’s hiring, contracting and admissions, he faxed his fellow regents a nine-page letter apologizing for what he called his “dogmatic rhetoric” and “Lone Ranger image.” Still, the letter went on to proclaim, “WE ARE BREAKING THE LAW!!!” Noting that his proposals were opposed by UC’s president, its chancellors, its faculty and its students, Connerly warned that the board needed to act swiftly: “The desire to promote racial diversity is such a part of the university culture that they will continue to try to find ways to achieve their objectives unless the Board of Regents makes our policy to the contrary very clear.” For emphasis, he reminded his colleagues that, “I have seen this problem from a perspective that few of you will ever see.”
What happened next is well known: Working together with the governor, a regent by virtue of his position, Connerly prevailed. The board’s vote attracted national news coverage for Wilson’s fledgling presidential bid. It also sparked anger throughout the UC system and among Democratic legislators, several of whom said they had approved Connerly’s appointment largely because they believed that as a black man, he would advocate diversity. State Sen. Diane Watson of Los Angeles accused Connerly of selling out his own people. “He probably feels this makes him more white than black, and that’s what he really wanted to be,” she said, adding, “He married a white woman.”
Connerly’s role in rolling back affirmative action at the UC system also prompted scrutiny of his business dealings. Everyone wanted to know if Connerly had benefited from the minority set-aside programs that he so loudly attacked. Reporters unearthed a $1.1-million contract Connerly had won from the California Energy Commission. Signed more than a year before a law began requiring that 15% of state contracts go to minority-owned firms, the original contract contained no minority set-aside language. But when the contract was amended in 1992 and 1994, Connerly had a choice: either certify that he was a minority contractor or find another minority firm to take 15% of the work.
Connerly’s decision to identify his business as black-owned in this instance is often cited as evidence of hypocrisy. He maintains, however, that the accusation itself proves how ridiculous minority set-asides have become. It was, he says, a matter of profit or loss--he had no choice. “This is a contract I already have,” he says. “Since I am regarded as a black man and I own my own business, I can sign that form to keep. . . the 15% that I otherwise would have to give away. It’s as simple as that.”
Connerly’s most outspoken critic on the board is Roy Brophy, a conservative Republican appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1986. He calls Connerly “a manipulator of facts” who “twists” the truth and uses the “threat of political force instead of persuasion.” Last year, for example, sources say Connerly attempted to circumvent the UC system’s presidential selection process, which Brophy headed, by lobbying UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien to become a candidate. Tien agreed to be considered, according to the sources, but only after Connerly told him that a majority of regents, including the governor, would support him. When the board chose UC San Diego Chancellor Richard C. Atkinson for the job, Tien felt embarrassed and betrayed. Later, Connerly denied having made the overtures to Tien.
The day after the affirmative action vote, Connerly found what looked like bullet holes in two office windows. At the governor’s insistence, the California Highway Patrol provided round-the-clock security for a couple of days; even now, to draw less attention, a large piece of plywood obscures the sign on his firm’s front lawn. So in late February, when 60 student protesters appeared on that lawn to yell, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ward Connerly has got to go!” Connerly was enraged. He promptly faxed a two-page letter to UC President Atkinson alleging that university resources were being spent to encourage such protests and demanding an investigation. He also demanded reimbursement for a sprinkler head he said protesters had trampled: “That cost is $25, which includes labor and materials. This letter constitutes an invoice from my firm.” Within days, the memo was being widely circulated within the university as one more example of Connerly’s over-the-top arrogance.
But to Connerly, it was the only way to respond: If the university was smug enough to think it could put one over on him, it deserved to be shown its place. For if there is one thing that Connerly cannot stand it is condescension. “ ‘God, you’re so articulate, you’re so bright,’ ” Connerly mimics, his voice oozing with false earnestness. “That kind of an attitude--that ‘You’re so articulate for a black man’--does more damage to black people than the bigots. That notion that black people are . . . unable to compete and we’ve got to pat them on the head and say, ‘We want to help you.’ Until we begin to say, ‘Goddamn it, you’re no different than anybody else. You’re no better, no worse, and you’re going to make it on your own and I’m not going to give you all these mental concessions--until we start doing that we will continually believe that black people are a little less able.”
Connerly’s moral certainty is his most attractive quality. Yet he seems oblivious that despite his poor beginnings, despite his mother’s death and his father’s absence, he has had one big advantage that is enjoyed by few people of any race. For nearly half his life, he has been Pete Wilson’s bosom buddy--his consultant, his fund-raiser, his tireless volunteer. That single fact, his critics say, undermines his argument that Americans should be allowed to succeed or fail on their merits alone. Connerly enjoys a different kind of preference, they say, one forged through long years of loyal friendship and patronage. Without it, his life would never have been the same.
On February 21, just three months after Ward Connerly took over the anti-affirmative action initiative campaign, he strode through the doors of the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters, a smile on his face and a heavy box of signatures in his arms. Behind him, carrying identical boxes, walked the governor, state Sen. Quentin L. Kopp of San Francisco, Assemblyman Bernie Richter of Chico and Tom Wood, one of the initiative’s co-authors. In a choreographed display, each man laid his box on the registrar’s counter as television cameras rolled. “You have a lot of counting to do,” Connerly told the clerk warmly.
He had won the first round: With nearly 1.1 million signatures gathered, he predicted the initiative would qualify for the November ballot. There were speeches and questions from the press. Then, the event over, Connerly stepped out the doors of the registrar’s office and ran right into Louis Daniels.
Daniels wasn’t there for the news conference. He was at work, delivering the county’s interoffice mail. But when he saw Connerly, Daniels introduced himself. He was 35, he said, a churchgoer and a college graduate. He had a wife and two sons to feed. But he was black and the best job he could find was delivering mail for the county Department of General Services. And he was afraid, he said, that because of Connerly, things were going to get worse.
“You take away the preferences, there are no checks and balances to say that anyone cannot treat us the way we were treated before,” Daniels said. When Connerly asked him why he was defending affirmative action, Daniels said quietly, “I’m defending the right of my sons to have an opportunity in this country that we have built.”
Noticing Daniels’ first name embroidered on his county uniform, Connerly began addressing him as “Louis,” and at one point, offered his phone number in case he could be of help. But he was not swayed by Daniels’ fears. “When this initiative passes,” Connerly told him, “I’m still going to be black. I still have to exist in this same system that you do. I still have a payroll to meet every two weeks. And I have faith in the system.”
The system shows no signs of betraying Connerly now. He has just delivered a manuscript about his battle against affirmative action to his new literary agent, Lynn Chu, who brokered House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s $4.5-million book advance. Connerly’s working title is “Let the Troops Go Home,” a reference to the federal troops that upheld blacks’ civil rights in the South decades ago. In one chapter, Connerly explains what he calls the “Thinking Black Syndrome”--why black Americans feel compelled to fall into lock step on certain issues.
For the next seven months, Connerly plans to help “set the tone” for the CCRI campaign. When the Republican National Convention comes to San Diego in August, Connerly may well be invited to speak. If no one else thinks to ask him, Wilson says he will consider suggesting it. “He is very, very effective on any platform,” says the governor. “On this subject, he speaks from the heart.”
And after Election Day? Some Republicans have urged Connerly to run for office, but he says he’s not interested. “There is no possibility that I will ever run for the Legislature, the Congress, secretary of state, controller, lieutenant governor. There’s just no possibility. . . . I swear to you, when this initiative passes, one way or the other, sayonara!” he says. It’s not that he doesn’t want power. He simply rejects the premise that he needs to campaign to get it. “I dont think you need to be an elected official,” he says, “to have an influence.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.