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Affirmative action opponent faces hostile crowd in Neb.

Anna Jo Bratton

LINCOLN, Neb. — A hostile crowd of mostly students jeered as a national figure battling affirmative action stated his case for barring race and gender as factors in public hiring and college admissions decisions.

Ward Connerly, a former University of California regent, spoke in Lincoln last week to about 200 people at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL).

Connerly said the Democratic presidential primary contest between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton shows that “institutional racism and institutional sexism are no more.”

And he said his resolution is vital to the nation’s competition in a global marketplace.

“Our country is falling behind in so many areas,” he said in an interview before his speech. “We can’t compete. We’ve made diversity more important than accomplishment. We’ve gotten soft, and we’re losing jobs because of it.”

Students cheered each other’s questions to Connerly after his speech and booed his responses.

Among the questions was one about how much he earned as chairman of the American Civil Rights Coalition, which fights affirmative action policies.

He said he earned $300,000 from the group, but said it wasn’t about money.

“Before I got into this, my salary from my company was over $2 million a year,” Connerly said.

One student asked whether Connerly was supported or funded by the Ku Klux Klan. Connerly said no and called it “a stupid question.”

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 1996 ballot initiative banning the consideration of race and gender in public hiring, contracting and school admissions.

A similar petition drive aimed at the November ballot is under way in Nebraska. The proposed constitutional amendment 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.”

Connerly’s opponents say he is playing to people’s fears that unqualified minorities are being picked over qualified non-minorities.

ReNee Dunham, president of the American Association for Affirmative Action, said affirmative action isn’t about preferences. She said such policies ensure good-faith efforts to recruit minority candidates and keep people accountable for their hiring decisions.

That helps to ensure everyone is given an equal shot at jobs, she said.

“We have an obligation to create a pipeline that is going to be diverse,” Dunham said. “Let’s cast it so that we reach the ocean so everyone who is qualified is scooped in that particular net.”

The crowd at the Feb. 26 speech cheered when a speaker referred to the death of a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution. It was pulled from consideration in the Legislature the previous day by the state senator who introduced it. It mirrored the separate Nebraska initiative being circulated.

State Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, Neb., said he withdrew the measure because of pressure from other senators who threatened to torpedo his other bills.

Marc Schniederjans, the UNL professor who filed the petition, said the initiative drive will continue.

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 has championed similar measures in three states besides California, with voters approving them in 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.

Groups wanting to amend the Nebraska Constitution must gather about 114,000 signatures — 10 percent of the state’s registered voters — by July 4 to get the issue on the November ballot.

(Associated Press)