Ward Connerly is a puzzle. The man is a national hero to conservative activists for leading the fight against affirmative action and race-based preferences. Only a few years ago he was considered a serious candidate for the U.S. Senate, if he had chosen to run. But he cannot seem to get on the same page with the leaders of the California Republican Party. It’s gotten so bad he has now all but given up – in disgust.

I shared breakfast with Connerly the other day expecting to talk about his latest proposed ballot initiative, which would prohibit the government from collecting racial data on its citizens, with limited, narrow exceptions.
Indeed, Connerly spoke passionately about his dream of a colorblind government, and the need for California, a melting pot like none the world has seen before, to lead the way.

But between bites of oatmeal and bananas, the lifelong Republican excoriated his own party for by turns exploiting the race issue and then being afraid to even address it.

Connerly is nearing a decision on whether to go forward with his ballot measure or to pull the plug. He is having some trouble raising the money he needs to collect signatures to qualify the measure for the March 2002 ballot. And while he insists he hasn’t asked the party for its endorsement,
it’s clear he is dumbfounded by the Republican leadership’s utter lack of interest.

“The party says, ‘Geez, this has the word race in it somewhere, this is going to hurt us,'” Connerly said. “They’re stupid. They’re just outright stupid.”

The party, Connerly believes, learned the wrong lessons from Proposition 187, which limited public benefits to illegal immigrants, and Proposition 209, the measure he spearheaded to end government preferences based on race and gender. After cynically using both initiatives as tools to draw white voters to the polls, he says, the party earned a reputation as antiminority.
But he thinks the answer is to approach racial issues intelligently and honestly, not to shun them.

The distancing began with Proposition 227, the 1998 initiative that ended bilingual education in California. Although its author, Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, portrayed the measure as a pro-Latino move to help families break free of a destructive regime imposed on them by school bureaucrats, party elders wanted nothing to do with it. Fearing a Latino backlash, they refused to endorse the measure, which won easily anyway.

Now Connerly’s Racial Privacy Initiative is getting the same treatment.
Connerly has until mid-August to collect nearly 1 million signatures. But California Republican Party Chairman Shawn Steel told me he doesn’t see the party addressing the measure until September, at the next scheduled statewide convention. By then the issue might be moot.

Steel praised Connerly for carrying on the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and said Republicans, from President Bush on down, are bent on attracting more minorities into party ranks. The party of Lincoln wants to reclaim its heritage, he said, “of being in favor of the little guy, of being in favor of all the people.” But for that reason, Steel said,
Republicans need to be sensitive to “perceptions” about their core beliefs.

“We still have old ghosts that haunt us,” he said.

Steel said he hadn’t read Connerly’s initiative and noted that it is “quite lengthy” (it’s three pages) and complicated. He said Connerly was just one of many Republican activists who will be doing their own thing this summer independent of the party structure. Others, he said, are working to improve the schools or are involved in city council races.

Connerly isn’t buying it. He sees Steel’s ambivalence as a reflection of the party leadership’s intellectual laziness. Grasping the significance of racial issues, with all their nuances, is hard work, he says.

“They are unwilling to take the time to really understand the issues,” he said. “There isn’t one Republican who is an elected officeholder who really could hold an intelligent conversation with you about the race issue in California for more than five minutes.”

What Connerly is trying to do is position Republicans as the party of a multiethnic, mixed-race society that believes the government should get out of the business of keeping track of people’s race. Connerly, whose father was black and his mother a mixture of Irish, French-Canadian and American Indian, and who is married to a white woman and has two grandchildren who are part Vietnamese, argues that the little boxes we commonly check on government forms have become obsolete.

“The government,” Connerly says, “should no more ask me about my skin color or my race than it should ask me about my religion.”

Republicans should seize this issue and show they are different from the Democrats, who make no effort to hide the fact that they see minorities as people to be catered to with programs that recognize and preserve their status as members of distinct groups, Connerly says.

“Democrats are way off-base on race issues, but at least they’re consistent,” he said. “Being misguided is not the same as being manipulative. The Republicans really ought to know better.”

The Bee’s Daniel Weintraub can be reached at (916) 321-1914 or at dweintraub@sacbee.com.

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