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Houston Votes Again on Race Preferences By: Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, October 27, 1998


THE SUMMER OF '98 WAS NOT A GOOD TIME for journalism in America. The New Republic admitted that their wunderkind Stephen Glass, 25, confected dozens of stories, complete with fake websites, before his bosses noticed. The venerable Boston Globe booted columnist Patricia Smith when she admitted to inventing quotes and fellow columnist Mike Barnicle resigned when his own fakery came to light. Meanwhile, Time magazine and CNN collaborated on a faux exposé of U.S. troops supposedly using nerve gas in Vietnam to eliminate defectors. While these whoppers got plenty of ink, a journalistic sin of omission slipped by most observers. It had to do with affirmative action, something journalists favor more than journalistic ethics. It also had to do with a vote in Houston city elections and with a man named Edward Blum.

Blum grew up speaking Yiddish as a self-described "pink-diaper baby." The U.S. Army used his father’s linguistic skills to help resettle Holocaust victims. Blum never forgot those stories and, though never himself a victim of discrimination, he became troubled about the tendency of the government to prefer one group over another while claiming to be acting for the greater good. In 1993 Blum became chairman of a group called Campaign for a Color Blind America. The group fought for the redrawing of racially gerrymandered congressional districts, and three times the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the changes.

"The idea that we have ‘good’ preferences is antithetical to what we believed," he says. Yet preferences prevailed in Houston, the city where he had worked as a stock broker for Paine Webber for more than 15 years. Texas banned racial preference programs but allowed an exception for cities with more than one million residents. Houston jumped at the opportunity to start its racial set-aside program in 1984 and expanded it in 1995 to "goals" of 17 percent of construction contracts, 11 percent of purchasing, and 24 percent of professional services.

Politicians were comfortable with the situation, but Blum, who was much taken by California’s vote in favor of Proposition 209, wasn’t. Like those he admired, particularly Ward Connerly, Blum thought Houston voters should, for the first time, have their say on the quota issue.

He headed up Houston Civil Rights Initiative, Proposition A on the 1997 ballot targeting racial preferences. The measure used the same language as Proposition 209, drawn from the 1964 Civil Rights Act and barring Houston from discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual group on the basis of race.

The reaction from the race-preference lobby was swift and shrill. Houston mayor Bob Lanier, an LBJ type and champion of the racial-spoils system, mounted the bully pulpit. Only a "redneck" would vote for proposition A, he said, portraying the measure as a test of whether Houston was an international city or a "redneck city."

"He didn’t just play the race card," says Ward Connerly, who supported Houston’s anti-preference measure. "He played the whole deck." Lanier, a Democrat, also leveraged companies doing business with the city. If they supported Proposition A, ran the message, they just might have a hard time keeping or getting contracts from the city of Houston. It worked. No companies came out in favor of Proposition A.

Meanwhile, Edward Blum had been busy exercising his First Amendment rights in speeches and opinion pieces in favor of the measure. Mayor Lanier called Paine Webber CEO Donald Marron to complain about Blum’s activism and threaten the company with loss of its lucrative contracts to underwrite city bonds. For its part, Paine Webber pressured Blum from speaking out against Houston’s preference programs. Company policy only required clearance of investment-related articles, not political speech.

In March, without identifying himself as a Paine Webber employee or clearing the piece with them, Blum wrote an article for Investor’s Business Daily criticizing race quotas in federal highway contracts. For his superiors, it was a thoughtcrime. "You are advised," the company said in a reprimand, "that the firm will not clear for publication articles or other press contracts in which you espouse an anti-affirmative action position such as in the article submitted to the Wall Street Journal or published in the Investor’s Business Daily."

Mayor Lanier, meanwhile, sensed that for all his activism, the anti-preference movement struck a chord with Texans. Imitating foes of California’s proposition 209, he criticized the Houston measure for using "preferences," which voters opposed, for "affirmative action," about which they were less certain. The mayor and the city council, especially councilman Jew Don Boney (sic), a former black radical, unilaterally altered the measure to ask voters whether "affirmative action for women and minorities should be ended in employment and contracting."

In November, 1997, Houston voters rejected Proposition A by a 55-45 margin, to the undisguised delight of Jesse Jackson and other members of the preference cartel who had opposed the measure. The vote came one day after the U.S. Supreme court upheld Proposition 209, which had passed by nearly identical numbers. National media, particularly television, gave the story huge play, portraying the vote as a crucial reversal of a dangerous national trend.

"Houston’s voters have put a surprising brake on a national movement that has often seemed to have the momentum of an unstoppable freight train," crowed the long page-one story in the New York Times. The Houston vote became a huge story in Washington State, itself facing Initiative 200, a vote on racial preferences that will take place this November. The Seattle Times, a hardcore proponent of preferences, ran a front-page story under the headline "Houston rejects bid to repeal affirmative action" and four days later the paper said "Thank you, Houston," editorializing that Houston voters "showed the nation an important lesson in how to head off the anti-affirmative-action assault that is sweeping the country. The lesson: Ask the right question."

Ed Blum, whom Ward Connerly describes as "one of the most decent and informed people on this issue that I have ever met, not a bigoted bone in his body," resigned from Paine Webber, an act he describes as "losing" his job. He wonders what the company would have done had he been writing in favor of racial quotas. His former employer issued a statement that Blum was not fired but asked to refrain from publishing articles with a point of view that reflected negatively on the firm’s reputation and led to client complaints and a loss of business. The preference lobby saw Blum’s troubles as evidence of their power, but they too were in for a surprise.

This past June 26, District Judge Sharolyn Wood threw out the results of the Houston referendum and ordered a new election. Wood, known for fairness but also for opposition to racially gerrymandered voting districts, ruled that opponents of Prop A had used misleading language in changing how the ballot read.

"The petitioners tried to get it on the ballot without saying they wanted to end affirmative action," Lanier said. "To my mind they are the ones who were trying to be deceptive." But others saw it differently. "Let this be an example to all council members that just because the city attorney says something is correct, that doesn’t mean that it is," said councilman Rob Todd.

"Clearly the election was stolen," says Ward Connerly, noting that courts have shot down the same language trickery on three occasions: during the Prop 209 campaign, when I-200 got on the Washington ballot, and now in Houston. "Three strikes and you ought to be out," says Connerly. "That is the story that hardly anyone has really played yet." Indeed, those who were posturing as the conscience of journalism during the epidemic of confabulated news gave scarcely a thought to what had happened in Houston, and, even more importantly, to the way the turn of events in Houston played in their own pages.

The New York Times, which hailed the Houston vote on page one, stuck Judge Wood’s decision on page 13 in the last edition of a Saturday paper, giving it a total of six sentences. Other national media which had seen the original vote as a vindication of affirmative action similarly ignored or downplayed the rebuff to Lanier. Only the Washington Times featured the story and evaluated the significance of the Wood decision.

More to the point, not a single newspaper in Washington State, which is the next electoral battleground for racial preferences, carried a story about the Houston reversal. Seattle Times columnist Michelle Malkin learned about the Houston ruling from friends in California. Ten days later she ripped her own paper for its silence after previously heavy coverage of the Texas election. "Sins of omission can be as aging to the news media’s credibility as sins of commission," she said.

 

Seattle Times executive editor Michael R. Fancher floated a dog-ate-my-homework excuse about how the story had been overlooked in an awkward weekend news cycle. His editors missed the Associated Press report, he said, and the paper only learned of Judge Wood’s action a week after the fact, when I-200 supporters took the paper to task for failing to report it. Most readers, Fancher said, would regard this as "sloppy," but he admitted that failure to provide a complete story about the Houston ruling fed a "perception" of bias.

For Connerly, the pro-preference partisanship and bias are obvious. But he has noted a shift in the way these issues are covered.

For Ed Blum, the lesson of Houston is that the courts are no longer a robed politburo the quota lobby can rely on to bail them out. "Whenever a politically arrogant mayor and his allies decide to thwart the will of the voters, sooner or later courts will take them to task," he says. Blum has a new job with a First Amendment-friendly firm that places no restrictions on his writing. He continues to blast corporate cave-ins as a "new McCarthyism" now spreading to Wall Street.

"This has been an eye-opening experience for me, and should serve as a reminder to everyone of the extent to which the defenders of racial preferences will stoop to further their new agenda. I learned this first-hand. What kind of a business community have we developed when corporations like Paine Webber cynically impose doctrines of political correctness on their employees? Why should the quest for ‘diversity’ in corporate America only apply to skin color—the least important aspect of an individual? Can we no longer tolerate diversity of opinion?"

Lanier has completed his term as mayor. His replacement Lee Brown, a Democrat, is a quota clone and led the charge for an appeal of Judge Wood’s decision. A new election in Houston is unlikely this year, but should eventually take place, whatever the result of a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Lyn N. Hughes on Houston’s affirmative-action program. In an echo of the Supreme Court’s Adarand decision, contractor Robert Kossman recently claimed that the city denied him contracts, even though he was lowest bidder, solely because he was white. He too has threatened legal action.

At a hearing on August 13, Judge Sharolyn Wood said she lacks authority to tell the city what ballot language to use. But she did say: "It’s beyond my concept that a responsible government would once again not use the proper language on the ballot."

Even with the altered language the first vote was close. With the original anti-preference language restored, the result might well be different. Perhaps the next chapter of this what-comes-around-goes-around story will draw the coverage it deserves, even from the New York Times.




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