Former California regent Ward Connerly, a national figure in the battle against affirmative action, spoke Tuesday to a hostile crowd at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Nebraska is one of five states being targeted by the California group Super Tuesday for Equal Rights. Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arizona are the others.
Connerly, who leads the Super Tuesday group, was a key force behind California's successful ballot measure banning considering of race and gender in public hiring, contracting and school admissions in 1996.
Connerly's supporters are gathering signatures for a proposed constitutional amendment in Nebraska that would bar "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."
The crowd of mostly students cheered when a speaker referred to the death of a constitutional amendment (LR233CA) that was pulled Monday by the state senator who introduced it.
Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial said he withdrew the measure because of pressure from other senators who threatened to torpedo his other bills.
"Some people would call it extortion," said Marc Schniederjans, the UNL professor who filed the petition. "Some people would call it blackmail."
Schniederjans said a blatantly discriminatory incident at the university, which he wouldn't describe, convinced him the university was using unfair preferences and he contacted the Nebraska Civil Rights Initiative, which is connected to Connerly's group.
Connerly said his resolution is vital to the nation's competition in a global marketplace. "Our country is falling behind in so many areas. We can't compete. We've made diversity more important than accomplishment. We've gotten soft and we're losing jobs because of it."
Connerly said if the measure makes the November ballot and voters approve it, minority numbers in enrollment and employment could drop at universities in Nebraska, but "I have no doubt they'll come back up."
Connerly said he picked Nebraska because it is one of 23 states with the initiative process. Connerly has championed measures in four states and voters approved measures in California, Michigan and Washington.
In Florida, then-Gov. Jeb Bush implemented his own plan eliminating the use of race or gender in higher education and government hiring.
Connerly said he believes the Supreme Court will decide in his favor eventually. The court ruled in 2003 race could be a limited factor in college admissions, but Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said at the time she thought affirmative action would be no more in 25 years, Connerly said.
Asked if he planned to try to pass the measure in the 19 other states with the initiative process, Connerly said, "I hope we don't have to do that. I don't think I'll live that long."
Students cheered each others' questions and jeered Connerly's responses. One student asked if Connerly was supported or funded by the Ku Klux Klan. Connerly said no and called it "a stupid question."
As to the outrage that seems to follow his measures, he said, "Any time you take something away from a group of people they're going to scream."
Connerly's opponents say the petition initiatives avoid the terms affirmative action and use language that intentionally confuses people.
"If they believe it's synonymous with racial preferences, then just use the words affirmative action," said ReNee Dunham, president of the American Association for Affirmative Action. She and others came to Nebraska to testify against Christensen's amendment and held a rally in Omaha Tuesday evening.
"Then you can be sure the voters know what they're voting against."
Connerly said the measure doesn't ban all affirmative action, but says it cannot be used in hiring, admissions or the awarding of contracts at government institutions.
Dunham said Connerly is playing to people's fears that unqualified minorities are being picked over qualified non-minorities. She said it took the University of California system seven years to rebound in applications from African-American students.
"The impact is greater than just the decision that's before us today," she said.
The proposed amendment has met opposition from the University of Nebraska, with the Board of Regents saying it could eliminate some measures the university now uses to increase and promote diversity.
That includes recruitment of students from other countries, trying to attract more minority candidates for faculty positions and events aimed at minority students.
A group wanting to amend the state constitution must gather about 114,000 signatures, 10% of the state's registered voters, by July 4th to get the issue on the November ballot.