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FEATURE | winter 2008

Ward Connerly Using Deceptive 'Civil Rights' Initiatives to Ban Affirmative Action
Ward Connerly has been well-compensated by the construction industry for his leadership of the anti-affirmative action crusade.

Twelve years have passed since Ward Connerly, a Republican businessman, emerged as the public face of the deceptively named "California Civil Rights Initiative" or Proposition 209, a state constitutional initiative designed to ban affirmative action for women and minorities in public employment, public education and public contracting.

Recruited by campaign organizers, Connerly had the perfect resume for the job: a political pedigree as a regent of the University of California, which automatically focused the debate on education; close ties to large Republican donors; and his race. Better that an African-American man waged battle against affirmative action, not the two white male professors credited with authoring Proposition 209 or the white men who would profit from it.

The passage of Proposition 209 was a critical victory in the ongoing nationwide attack on affirmative action for women and minorities. Now, in what he is calling "Super Tuesday for Equal Rights," Connerly is leading simultaneous efforts in five states to qualify ballot measures for the November election, each claiming to prohibit "discrimination" and "preferential treatment."

These deceptively named "civil rights" initiatives in Missouri, Colorado, Arizona, Nebraska and Oklahoma are actually designed to ban affirmative action for women and minorities in public employment, public education and public contracting. But if Connerly and the initiatives' other proponents have their way, the term "affirmative action" will not appear on the ballot or be talked about in the campaign -- that's because most voters support the concept. The debate will instead focus on whether "unqualified" minorities are admitted to public colleges and universities over "more qualified" (i.e., white) students.

What has never been widely reported in the coverage of Connerly's campaigns are his ties to the large public works contractors and construction industry organizations that stand to benefit tremendously from eliminating programs that help level the playing field for women- and minority-owned businesses. Connerly, in fact, has spent virtually his entire career consulting -- and, through his firm Connerly & Associates, lobbying -- for the "good 'ole boys" in the building and construction industry.

Why have the contractors long opposed affirmative action and come out full swing against it? The simple answer is money. Nationally, hundreds of billions of dollars annually are doled out by the federal, state and local governments to private companies for the purchase of goods and services, including the building of roads and freeways, schools, universities, airports and prisons. Affirmative action helps ensure women- and minority-owned businesses get a fair shake in the bidding.

In the six years before Proposition 209 passed, those firms received 22 percent of all construction contracts awarded by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), one of the largest sources of public contracts in the state. But in the six years after its passage, contracts to women- and minority-owned firms were cut in half, resulting in an estimated loss of $1.4 billion. Having hit an all-time high of 27.7 percent of Caltrans contracts in 1994, women- and minority-owned businesses dropped to just 8.2 percent of those contracts in 2002.

In contrast to this drop in revenues for women- and minority-owned firms, Connerly has been well compensated for his leadership of the anti-affirmative action crusade. An analysis of IRS filings shows that between 1998 and 2006, Connerly and his business Connerly & Associates received a total of $8.3 million from the two nonprofit organizations he founded in the late 1990s to promote his messages and campaigns -- nearly half of the $17.5 million in total revenues reported in that period by the two nonprofits. In addition to salary and benefits, Connerly receives expense accounts and fees for speaking, media interviews and consulting. In the last reported fiscal year, 2006, he received $1.6 million -- 66 percent of the $2.4 million in revenues his nonprofits generated that year.

The amount of money Connerly receives from the nonprofits is not only eye-popping but may be illegal. Under federal tax law, nonprofits are forbidden from enriching individuals or organizations. This provision is meant to ensure tax-exempt organizations serve the public, not private, interest. Violations can result in the loss of an organization's tax-exempt status and monetary penalties.

In fact, Connerly's compensation from his nonprofits has drawn the attention of the U.S. Congress: In August 2006, Reps. John Conyers (D - Mich.) and Charles Rangel (D - N.Y.) asked the IRS to investigate "possible excessive compensation practices ... It appears that [Connerly] may have been paid amounts far greater than the value of any services he may have rendered."

But Connerly is unapologetic, both about his crusade and his compensation. "The attitude most people have is that anyone who works for a nonprofit should not make more than a certain amount, and anyone who makes more than that is enriching themselves," he told Ms. "That doesn't take into account who the person is. I'm not your typical executive."

For a longer version of this article, see the Winter issue of Ms., now available on newsstands and by subscription from www.msmagazine.com .

Read more about Connerly's initiatives in this incisive ColorLines piece

Stay up-to-date with weekly initiative news at DiversityInc