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Connerly, Ward 1939–

Ward Connerly 1939

Activist, businessman, educational administrator

Experienced Racial Discrimination

Established Housing Consulting Firm

Rolled Back Affirmative Action at University

Led Fight for Proposition 209


Ward Connerly, a businessman and Regent of the University of California, is best known as an outspoken, uncompromising critic of affirmative action programs in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, slavery has not been ended. It is alive and well in America. We call it affirmative action, he wrote in Black Enterprise. In Connerlys view, preferential policies merely encourage dependency and failure in the very people they were meant to help.

Connerly is a controversial figure in the black community, harshly criticized by such political leaders as Reverend Jesse Jackson and California State Senator Diane Watson, and often harassed by strangers in public. Connerly told the At/antaJourna/ Constitution that he estimated 85 percent of blacks opposed him. Nevertheless, his ideas seem to be gaining ground in California, which is often a political bellwether for the rest of the nation.

In 1995, as a member of the Board of Regents of the University of California, Connerly proposed that affirmative action in admissions and hiring be abolished. After an acrimonious debate and a relatively close vote, the Board passed Connerlys proposal. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the decision was the most dramatic setback of affirmative action in American higher education since the concept gained favor in the 1970s.

More recently, Connerly was the chairman and main spokesperson for the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), the group responsible for Proposition 209. This proposed amendment to the Califomian constitution aimed to end any kind of preferential treatment based on race, gender, or national origin. In November of 1996, the amendment was passed by the voters of California, but opponents immediately challenged its constitutionality in the courts. Connerly remains a staunch supporter of the amendment.

Experienced Racial Discrimination

Ward Connerly was born on June 15, 1939, in Leesville, Louisiana. His father left home when he was one year old; his mother died a few years later. As a child, he was cared for by various relatives, living first in Washington state and then in Sacramento, California, where he was raised by his grandmother. There were certain rules that had to be followed, Connerly told National Review. One of them was study. Before you go anyplace, study.

Even as a young man, Connerly strongly believed in self-reliance. When he was 13, a woman from the welfare department came to visit the household. She made him feel so ashamed of being on public assistance that he went out and got his first job, which paid just 65 cents an hour, so that he could support the family.

Growing up before the civil rights era, Connerly experienced

At a Glance

Born Ward Connerly, June 15, 1939, Leesville, Louisiana; married llene, 1963; one son, one daughter, two grandchildren. Education: American River Junior College; earned B.A. in political science with honors at Sacramento State College. Politics: Member of Republican party, 1969-.

Held various civil service positions in state housing agencies, 1962-73. President and Chief Executive Officer of Connerly & Associates Inc., 1973-. Member of the Board of Regents, University of California, 1993. Chair and main spokesperson for California Civil Rights Initiative, 1995-.

Member: Board member, California Chamber of Commerce; Chairman of California Governors Foundation.

Addresses: HomeSacramento, CA. Office Connerly & Associates, 2215 21st Street, Sacramento, CA 95818.

the injustice of segregation on many occasions. He remembers waiting in the car while his aunt, who was light-skinned enough to pass as white, went into white-only restaurants to buy food for the family. However, rather than feeling bitter about past discrimination, Connerly has chosen to focus on the times when he was treated kindly. As a young teenager in the fifties, he worked as a janitor downtown after schoolracing home, changing clothes, then sprinting for the bus. Before long, the white driver was pacing his route to make sure that Connerly did not miss his ride. Later, another white man who worked downtown offered him daily lifts in his car. Those are the kind of experiences that made me believe if you take people at face value and give them an opportunity, race is irrelevant, Connerly told U.S. News & World Report.

After graduating from high school, Connerly enrolled at American River Junior College, later transferring to Sacramento State College, where he majored in political science. In 1959, as a student at Sacramento State, he led a campaign against housing discrimination in a nearby community. The effort caught the attention of legislators, who invited Connerly to testify during their debates on a fair-housing bill, which later passed.

While in college, Connerly met his wife, llene, who is white. The couple have a grown son and daughter, and two grandchildren. As a racially mixed couple, weve had a few bad experiences, llene told U.S. News & World Report. When the couple was newly married, and Connerly was looking for an apartment, a string of white landlords told him they had no vacancies. When llene inquired, however, the same landlords suddenly had apartments available.

Established Housing Consulting Firm

After graduating with honorsthe first member of his family to graduate from collegeConnerly took a job at Sacramentos redevelopment agency and later was hired by the state housing department. Through his work and the latter, he met Pete Wilson, who would later become governor of California. At the time, Wilson was a freshman legislator and chairman of the State Assemblys new housing committee. In 1969 he hired Connerly as the committees chief consultant.

The two became close friends, a relationship that has lasted over 28 years. As Connerly told National Review, one particular conversation stuck with him. Wilson asked him what he planned to do with his life; Connerly replied that he would probably return to the housing department. He said, Gee, thats awfully limiting. Havent you ever considered other possibilities? As well as challenging Connerly to raise his aspirations, Wilson also convinced Connerly to join the Republican party.

In 1971, after Wilsons election as mayor of San Diego, Connerly returned to the state housing department as its chief deputy director. In 1973, Connerly left state government so that he and his wife could start their own business, a company involved in land-use planning and consulting. By 1980, Connerly & Associates was a successful small business employing 15 people. Meanwhile, Connerly continued to be active in the Republican party as a fund-raiser and informal adviser to Wilson. When Wilson ran for governor, in 1990 and 1994, Connerly was a major contributor, donating over $110,000 in just five years.

Rolled Back Affirmative Action at University

In 1993, Governor Pete Wilson appointed Connerly to the 25-member Board of Regents for the University of California, which sets policy for the nine-campus system of nearly 170,000 students. Almost immediately, Connerly became known for his strong views. Shortly after his appointment, he wrote a letter to his fellow regents, criticizing them for discouraging dissent and accepting the administrations policy recommendations too easily. Connerly also gained a reputation as the students biggest ally on the board, voting against tuition increases and consulting students often about matters of policy.

As a regent, Connerly began to notice that racial differences played an important role at the University of California: minority students often associated only with other students of the same race; ethnic-studies programs mostly attracted students of that ethnicity; some faculty slots were reserved for minority candidates. The whole notion of race consciousness seeps out of every pore of the university, Connerly told the Chronicle of Higher Education. It was a notion that Connerly deeply opposed.

Then, in the summer of 1994, a white couple named Jerry and Ellen Cook came to see Connerly. Their son had been rejected by the medical school at the University of California-San Diego, although he had been accepted at two other top universities. Jerry Cook, a statistician, gathered admissions information from UC medical schools, and determined that whites and Asians were often turned down, in spite of better grades and test scores than so-called under-represented minorities. The Cooks claimed that the numbers proved racial discrimination. Connerly, who had already publicly questioned affirmative action, agreed. According to his revised proposal, social and economic factors could be considered in admissions, but only in a race-neutral way.

Opponents accused Connerly of being a black spokesperson for Governor Wilson, who was then running for the Republican nomination for president; abolishing affirmative action was a key aspect of his platform. Connerly, however, denied that Wilson set his political agenda, pointing out that he had voted against the tuition increases that Wilson supported and that his involvement with affirmative action preceded Wilsons interest in the issue.

In July of 1995, the Board of Regents met to discuss Connerlys proposal. The meeting involved 13 hours of tumultuous debate, during which protesters, led by Jesse Jackson, forced the panel from its meeting room. Outside, 500 demonstrators marched and chanted, while police in riot gear ringed the building. In the end, the board voted 15-10 to end racial preferences in hiring and contracting by January 1996, and 14-10 to end preferences in admissions by January 1997. Connerlys resolution to end preferences in admissions also included a proposal to increase outreach efforts to attract low-income students. Connerly was jubilant.

Led Fight for Proposition 209

Meanwhile, in 1994, a group of academics had formed the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), which advocated the following ballot initiative, later called Proposition 209: The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting. In essence, what the proposition would change was Californias minority-based quotas and preferences.

By December of 1995, CCRI was floundering, both underfinanced and badly managed. The group needed to collect one million signatures by February 17 of 1996 in order to get the initiative on the ballot. Just over 200,000 had been collected, and signature gathering had been suspended. Earlier, Connerly had declined to join the group, fearing the negative publicity it would bring to his business family. After much reflection about the possible affect CCRIs demise would have on his UC action, Connerly reluctantly agreed to take over at CCRI. With Connerly on board, the group managed to gather the additional 693,230 signatures by the February 17 deadline.

While Connerly was almost unknown in California before he joined CCRI, afterward he endured an onslaught of negative publicity. Some critics pointed out that Connerlys company, which does business with the California state government, had clearly benefited from the strong affirmative action policies that Connerly opposed. In response, Connerly insisted that he steers clear of racial preferences, never actively seeking minority set-asides, work as a minority subcontractor, or inclusion on minority rosters. Other critics alleged that he owed all of his business success to Wilson, but Connerly vehemently denied that he had received any special favors.

Some of the criticism was bitingly personal. Strangers soon began to recognize him in public, calling him Uncle Tom or Angry Oreo. Fred Jordan, a black contractor and chairman of the California Business Council for Equal Opportunity, called Connerly a house-boy and a paid assassin for conservative interests. Hes waltzing with our enemy, trying to disenfranchise us, Jordan told the New York Times. State Senator Diane Watson, who is also black, told the Los Angeles Times, Hes married to a white woman. He wants to be white. He wants a colorless society. He has no ethnic pride. According to the New York Times, Connerly later confronted Watson at a public hearing, countering, Youre a bigot.

In April of 1996, when the initiative qualified for the ballot, opponents of the measure predicted that a coalition of civil rights and womens groups would be able to defeat it. Together, the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie Foundations contributed $1.5 million to the campaign against the initiative. Among major corporations, only Pacific Gas and Electric publicly opposed the measure. Meanwhile, Connerly tirelessly campaigned for the initiative, insisting that racial preferences breed racial resentments, and that minorities do not need them to succeed.

In November of 1996, Proposition 209 passed at the California polls, 54 percent to 46 percent. However, the American Civil Liberties Union immediately filed suit, winning a temporary restraining order which prevented the initiative from taking effect.

On December 21, 1996, the White House announced that it would join the challenge to the constitutionality of Proposition 209, claiming that it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. By joining the lawsuit against Proposition 209, President Clinton has betrayed his commitment to centrist policies, Connerly told the New York Times. He recently said he wanted to forge a coalition of the center, yet by this action he joins the radical left.

While the future of Proposition 209 is in doubt, Connerly is convinced that his decision to support it was correct. Why do I have the position I have? Because it is my duty as an American citizen, Connerly said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation. I am often asked if I would do it over again, knowing what I know now about the loss of privacy, the personal insults and the occasional negative stories. My response is in a heart beat. This is the price of citizenship in a democracy.


Atlanta Journal/Constitution, August 25, 1996, p. B7; April 20, 1996, p. A8; July 24, 1995, p. A6; July 21, 1995, p. A9.

Black Enterprise, November 1995, p. 157.

Chronicle of Higher Education, July 28, 1995, p. A27.

National Review, September 2, 1996, p. 24-26.

New York Times, December 21, 1996, p. 1; April 18, 1996, p. Al.

U.S. News & World Report, March 25, 1996, p. 22.

Carrie Golus

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