The state Republican Party has named Ward Connerly, the controversial leader of the drive that ended racial preferences in state hiring and college admissions, to head its fund-raising effort for the fall election.
The appointment, usually a little-noted selection, immediately became a political issue because of the high profile of Connerly, who spearheaded Proposition 209 and in recent weeks drew headlines by questioning the need for ethnic studies programs.
Mike Madrid, the Republican Party's political director, called Connerly "an exciting, charismatic part of our party who works well with our base" of political support. "Ward Connerly is a visionary" and a proven fund-raiser, Madrid said.
Garry South, campaign manager for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis, countered that the appointment of Connerly is proof that the GOP is not sincere in its efforts to increase the number of racial minorities within its ranks.
"Ward Connerly is a very, very divisive figure," South said. "If I was a Republican, I'm not sure I would want him out in front representing my party, especially as we enter a governor's race that promises to be hard fought and ultimately very close."
As a matter of cold political reality, however, South said he was delighted at Connerly's appointment. "Now maybe they'll name Robert K. Dornan as party chairman and alienate everybody," he said, referring to the flamboyant Republican ex-congressman from Orange County who is seeking to regain his old seat.
Nonpartisan political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said the appointment of Connerly shows the difficulty the state Republican Party, which is controlled by the party's more conservative elements, has in attracting minority voters, whose politics may be more moderate. Even in naming an African American to a prominent position, she noted, the party has selected a conservative.
"[Party leaders] want to look more racially inclusive, but they cannot risk alienating their base, which is predominantly older, white, conservative males," she said.
Ruben Barrales, a San Mateo County supervisor and GOP candidate for controller, said he welcomed Connerly being named to the money job. Barrales, who has assisted GOP gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren in a "Hispanic outreach" effort, said he doubted that many voters decide whom to cast ballots for based on who the party fund-raising chairman is.
"The color of money is green, and Ward knows how to raise it," said Barrales, who remained neutral on Proposition 209. "I don't see Ward out front taking positions. I see him in the trenches, raising money, talking to donors."
Connerly was selected for the fund-raising effort by state party chairman Michael Schroeder after consultation with party leaders, including state Atty. Gen. Lungren. Lungren's campaign manager, Dave Puglia, said Lungren enthusiastically "signed off" on the appointment.
"Ward Connerly has done more to advance equality of the races and equal opportunity than anybody in political life," Puglia said. "Gray Davis stands with the minority of Californians who believe racial quotas and set-asides and reverse discrimination are the answer. They aren't."
Connerly, a member of the UC Board of Regents who is politically close to Gov. Pete Wilson, said he decided to take the arduous job of fund-raising because "I think the party has some rebuilding to do. I'm one of those who thinks our bench strength is not what it should be. We've got some good candidates this year. They need money to win, and I'm going to help find it for them."
Connerly said he did not think his leadership of the Proposition 209 effort and outspokenness on other racial issues will hurt the party's efforts at attracting minority voters. "I think Latinos and black people have the ability to look beyond single-issue politics," Connerly said.