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Foes of preferences lack cash

The group seeking an anti-affirmative action amendment in Florida has less than $16,000.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 1999


TALLAHASSEE -- A year before Ward Connerly hopes to place an anti-affirmative action amendment before Florida voters, his campaign has less than $16,000 and lacks enough signatures for a preliminary review by the Florida Supreme Court.

The Florida Civil Rights Initiative, a group Connerly formed to campaign for the amendment to the state Constitution, raised $39,673.70 from July through September -- a significant drop from the $77,000 raised in the previous three months.

"We'd be lying to you if we said it didn't concern us whatsoever," said Kevin Nguyen, spokesman for the American Civil Rights Coalition. "We anticipate that the fundraising will pick up once the court gives us the green light."

In the meantime, FCRI also received a $12,000 in-kind donation from its parent organization, the American Civil Rights Coalition based in California.

While the money is coming in more slowly, FCRI officials have said they needed to raise $100,000 for what they call "phase one" of the campaign. Of the $117,325.70 total cash raised, FCRI has spent $101,500.

Nguyen said recent endorsements by the Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida and the state Libertarian Party will generate more contributions.

Before FCRI can begin gathering the 435,000 signatures it needs to get its amendment on the ballot, the Florida Supreme Court must approve the language of the amendment. The court will not review the language until FCRI gathers one-tenth of the total signatures, which must be verified by the Department of State's Division of Elections.

So far, according to Division of Elections statistics, each of the four amendments the Connerly initiative is submitting for review has gathered less than 40,000 signatures, more the 3,500 short of the goal. Nguyen said more signatures have been verified but have not been reported yet.

Nguyen said Connerly also faced difficult odds in California, where in 1996 he led a successful campaign to end race- and gender-based preferences in state contracting, hiring and university admissions.

Connerly, a black businessman, led that campaign while serving as a member of the University of California Board of Regents. When he took over the campaign just after Thanksgiving 1995, the campaign had gathered more than 200,000 signatures and raised about $500,000, according to a 1995 Los Angeles Times story.

By the end of February 1996, the newspaper reported that the campaign had surpassed the required number of signatures needed to get on the ballot -- 694,000.

In Florida, FCRI has focused its initial signature-gathering drive in the Tampa Bay area.

But the overwhelming majority of FCRI's money continues to come from building contractors in more racially diverse South Florida, where contractors complain about local government policies that "set aside" a certain percentage of contracts for minorities.

Most donations to FCRI are from individuals and are less than $100. John Galbraith, a retired St. Petersburg businessman and philanthropist, donated $1,000 to the initiative in July.

If FCRI is behind its goal, at least on paper it is well ahead of its rival, a newly formed political committee called Floridians Representing Equity and Equality. FREE, led by Leon Russel, chief of the Florida National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, became a formal political committee Oct. 7 and will not have to report income until January.

FREE intends to fight the Connerly initiative through a counter-petition drive that could put a pro-affirmative action amendment on the ballot. Miami state Sen. Daryl Jones, a Democrat, is working with FREE and leading an effort to put a pro-affirmative action amendment before the Legislature, which then could place it on the 2000 ballot.

Nguyen said FCRI will need at least $1-million to finance its campaign through next year. "It could be 2- or 4-million," he said. "A lot of that depends on the need to wage a media campaign in Florida's expensive radio and television market."

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