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Drive to kill affirmative action ends

Blaming the state Supreme Court, a California businessman throws in the towel for 2000 but promises to have the measure on the ballot in 2002.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 9, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Ward Connerly said Monday that he is ending his controversial petition drive to ban affirmative action in Florida this year, and he blamed the state Supreme Court for making it impossible to place the issue before voters this fall.

"We can't even get it on the ballot because of the process," Connerly said Monday. "Something is wrong with this, fatally wrong." Connerly said practicality, not politics, drove the decision to end an attempt to amend the Florida Constitution this year. He has waited since Thanksgiving for justices to rule on whether his proposed amendments meet requirements for clarity and scope.

With the ruling still pending, Connerly said it is pointless to collect the remaining 390,000 signatures necessary to place the issue before voters.

But even as he backed out for this year, Connerly vowed his initiative would be on the ballot in 2002, when Gov. Jeb Bush will be up for re-election and many voters will be gauging the success of the One Florida initiative Bush offered to counter Connerly.

"We will be on the ballot in 2002," said Connerly, a California businessman who led successful anti-affirmative action drives in his home state and Washington state. "The governor can do whatever he wishes to support us or oppose us."

Bush, clearly pleased by Connerly's decision, said the amendment drive will not be an issue in 2002, much less one that makes it to the ballot.

"It won't happen," he said. "The longer we have to show the progress we're making, the less we'll have the need for an initiative."

In November, as Connerly's momentum seemed strongest, Bush made what he later called a "calculated risk" in announcing One Florida.

By executive order, Bush declared that state universities and state agencies under his direct control would not use race or gender as considerations in admissions, contracting or hiring.

At the same time, the governor promised to reach out to minorities so that state universities and state agencies "reflect the full diversity" of Florida, where more than 30 percent of residents are racial or ethnic minorities.

Connerly initially had offered cautious praise for the plan, while urging the governor to go further and extend One Florida to local governments. Bush declined and, under attack by many black leaders for going too far, eventually scaled back some of his plans to rewrite state affirmative action laws this year.

Connerly now says One Florida has been diluted too much to get his support.

In Tallahassee on Monday to promote a book he has written about his campaigns to end affirmative action, Connerly said Bush had "caved in" under criticism. "What you have right now is basically nothing."

Told of the comments, Bush said: "I respectfully disagree with Mr. Connerly. I believe we'll be successful in achieving in a thoughtful way the objectives that Mr. Connerly purports to have."

Bush said Connerly's plan "provided no reasonable alternative that could expand opportunities for people in fair ways."

By late last summer, Connerly had collected the 43,500 petition signatures necessary to set in motion the court review.

Since Thanksgiving, the court has accepted written briefs and, on March 6, it heard oral arguments on the issue.

But justices have yet to rule on whether the proposed amendments meet requirements that their wording is clear and deals only with a single subject.

In November, Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, wrote a blistering letter to the court claiming the amendments failed to meet both requirements.

Critics have said the amendments could mislead voters into thinking they actually are voting for affirmative action. The amendments would "bar government from treating people differently based on race, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public education, employment, or contracting."

Connerly said Monday that he had been reluctant to call off his drive this year because he kept hoping for a positive ruling, particularly since oral arguments were more than two months ago.

To get the matter on the November ballot, Connerly said, he would have needed a decision from the court before this week. That would have allowed him enough time to gather the necessary signatures and have them certified by the state deadline in early August.

"We still don't know when we're going to hear from them," he said. "In California, we would impeach them."

Florida Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said the court's timeframe is not unusual.

"That's not long at all," he said. "The average (waiting period after arguments) is about six months."

If the court rules the amendments are improperly written, Connerly said he will have lawyers draft new language within a month and that the campaign for 2002 will be under way within 90 days of the ruling.

But the roughly 46,000 signatures Connerly has collected so far would be useless if Connerly proposed new amendments.

Bush said Connerly would be irrelevant by 2002.

"I think Floridians will embrace (One Florida) and will not support an initiative that is not necessary," the governor said.

While the account for the Connerly drive contains only a few thousand dollars, Connerly said he has pledges of $1.2-million and that donors were ready to wire hundreds of thousands of dollars "within five minutes."

Connerly said he never has encountered the delays he has in Florida.

"I don't think he understood the process when he entered Florida," said Leon Russell, the immediate past president of the Florida NAACP and head of a civil rights group opposed to Connerly. "I think he thought it was going to be like California and Washington, where he didn't have to reckon with the court."

Russell said his challenge now is to hold Bush true to his word. "I don't think Connerly will be able to do it in Florida," he said. "This was his shot and he didn't do it."

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