5/6/08

Union 'stalkers, thugs' protect racial preferences

A leader of a ballot initiative that would have ended state-based affirmative action programs lashed out at opponents on Monday and vowed to revive the issue in 2010, after failing to meet a weekend deadline to turn in signatures. "So those who are gleeful right now about being able to bully us, you better enjoy your last laugh because it won't last very long," said Ward Connerly, a California businessman who helped spearhead the initiative in Missouri and four other states this year.

Connerly, in a telephone interview, said he believes he would have gathered enough signatures to make the November ballot if organizers had two more weeks. He mostly blamed a long court battle with the Missouri secretary of state's office over the ballot language that delayed signature gathering until January.

But he also pointed fingers at the "despicable" tactics of his opponents, whom he called "stalkers" and "thugs."

Connerly said hordes of adversaries would descend on one petition circulator, call the person a racist, and yell and scream. In some cases, he said, "little old ladies" were harassed.

"We've never encountered anything like that" in any of the other states , he said in a phone interview. "This was a very well orchestrated campaign of harassment and intimidation."

A coalition of labor unions and worker advocates called Working to Empower Community Action Now began organizing last year against the initiative.

They trained more than 100 volunteers and paid workers from Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now to search for petition circulators and then hand out fliers to voters.

Leaders said the work was necessary because petition gatherers sometimes used deceptive practices to get signatures by not fully explaining the petition .

Critics say even the initiative's name — the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative — could have fooled people into thinking it supported affirmative action programs.

Brandon Davis, a Working to Empower Community Action Now spokesman and political director for the Service Employees International Union, rejected Connerly's depiction of their efforts.

"Our voter educators were simply that — voter educators," he said. "Ward Connerly should accept what Missourians said and he should stop with the sore loser talk."

Davis said the failure of the initiative to make it onto the November ballot shows that Missourians believe affirmative action programs based on race and gender are still needed.

"I think Missourians spoke loudly and clearly and rejected this initiative — and rejected the politics that it represents," he said. "And I think this taught us that real grass-roots efforts can yield results even in the face of well-financed, monied interest."

According to campaign finance reports filed by April 15, Connerly's group gave nearly $160,000 to support the initiative. Working to Empower Community Action Now, in turn, had about $77,500 on hand.

The ballot initiative's backers did not pull the plug until the 11th hour, continuing to collect signatures through Saturday.

Tim Asher, who led the Missouri effort while being advised by Connerly, said organizers ended up with more than 170,000 signatures. While they only needed 140,000 to 150,000 valid signatures, Asher said organizers wanted to reach the 200,000 mark because they knew some of those signatures would be thrown out, as always happens with petition drives.

Asher said he was confident the effort would have been successful had the ballot language not been tied up in the courts from July until January. He took a shot at Secretary of State Robin Carnahan for writing ballot language they felt was unfair. A judge agreed and rewrote the wording. Carnahan's appeal is still pending.

In a statement, Carnahan's office said it continues to stand by its wording as accurate and fair.

Despite the initiative's failure, Asher said he was pleased so many Missourians signed their names — a response that will propel efforts in 2010.

"There's too much support in the state to walk away," he said.

Davis said he and his coalition aren't going away either.

"We're here and we'll be preparing," he said.

(stltoday.com)

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