Ward Connerly Seeks Common Ground with Obama on Affirmative Action

Do the father of anti-affirmative action initiatives and Sen. Barack Obama have more in common than one would think?

According to Ward Connerly, a former regent of the University of California system and the force behind efforts to dismantle public affirmative action programs, Obama’s position on affirmative action is so nuanced that they agree on almost everything.

“I’ve read Mr. Obama’s statement that he believes his daughters should not receive preferential treatment over a poor white child,” said Connerly in an interview from the Sacramento office of his Civil Rights Institute. “I agree with him. In fact, I agree with a lot of the things he says about affirmative action, except his conclusion on the initiatives.”

The ‘initiatives’ that Connerly is referring to are the ballot initiatives Connerly has helped sponsor in Arizona, Nebraska and Colorado to end affirmative action in public university systems and government contracting.

On Sunday, in Chicago, Barack Obama told an audience of journalists attending the Unity Conference that he opposed Connerly’s efforts. (Unity brings Latino, Black, Native American and Asian journalists together every four years.)

Obama called the proposals “designed to be divisive.” He also called McCain a flip flopper for saying that he indeed supports the initiative being pushed by Connerly in his home state of Arizona that same morning on ABC’s This Week.

“Yes, I do”, said McCain to a direct question, adding that he had not seen the details of the proposal. “But I’ve always opposed quotas”.

Problem is, back in 1998, when there was an effort to push a similar initiative in Arizona, McCain said something very similar to what Obama is saying now, that these initiatives were divisive.

“Rather than engage in divisive ballot initiatives, we must have a dialogue and cooperation and mutual efforts together to provide for every child in America to fulfill their expectations,” said McCain in February 1998 in front of an audience of Hispanic leaders.

McCain’s statements might win him favor with the GOP base, but it could be a sticking point with voters overall, especially white women and Latinos who are some of the biggest beneficiaries of public affirmative action programs.

But in an election year, political considerations weigh in on the candidates’ stances on controversial issues. Take Obama, for example, who doesn’t always seem eager to toe the standard Democratic line on affirmative action.

“I’m a strong supporter of affirmative action if properly structured,” Obama said at Unity, pointing out that “if 50 percent of Latino or African American kids are dropping out, affirmative action doesn’t matter: those kids won’t get to college.”

The statement is vague and open to interpretation. What does “properly structured” really mean and whose definition of structure is Obama using? The statement might win him support from some working class white voters who feel that affirmative action programs have been conducted at their expense, but does it reflect Obama’s actual stance on the issue?

For example, Obama appeared in a radio ad opposing ‘Proposal 2’ in 2006, a Michigan ballot initiative that banned the use of racial, ethnic or gender preferences by public colleges, university and state and local agencies. But voters in Michigan voted overwhelmingly in favor of the measure that fall.

On the other hand, if Obama is in favor of opening affirmative action programs to low-income whites or restructuring current programs to reflect socio-economic status as his statement about his daughters seemed to reflect, does he in fact have something in common with Connerly?

For Connerly, who claims his mission is to take race out of the equation, trying to tie himself to Obama’s coattails is also politically advantageous. It makes his proposals appear more mainstream.

Connerly has both praised and condemned Obama, giving money to his campaign and criticizing him for taking a step back on his pledge to move the country past race when he criticized Connerly’s ballot initiatives.

“Every policy issue is divisive, that’s the nature of elections”, Connerly said adding about Obama, “if you listen to all the things he says, we agree on everything leading up to its conclusion…he says all the right things.”

A presidential election is always about saying “all the right things.’” But what would Obama, or McCain for that matter, actually do? It’s the one question that voters might have to puzzle out for themselves.

Pilar Marrero is a political editor and columnist for La Opinion.

Aswini Anburajan contributed reporting to this post.