WASHINGTON—Jennifer Gratz insists it's not about her. But her life serves as one inspiration for the campaign she's mounting this fall to ban race, gender and other preferences in state hiring, contracts and school admissions in Michigan.
The campaign could be felt in other states. If Michigan approves the ban, sponsors will expand their mission elsewhere. If Michigan defeats it, opponents think they'll have dealt a death blow to the movement started by Californian Ward Connerly.
But first it has to be decided by the people of Michigan, who first got to know Gratz several years ago. An honor roll high school graduate with a 3.8 grade point average, Gratz was denied admission to the University of Michigan in 1995. Two years later, she sued the school, charging that she was unfairly rejected by a system that awarded more points to minorities.
In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the university's undergraduate racial preferences. But in a separate case, it let stand racial preferences at the University of Michigan's law school.
Gratz ended up at the University of Michigan-Dearborn with a degree in mathematics and a job in software.
Today, she's executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, the group pushing the November vote to amend the state constitution to bar preferences in state policies.
"This is not about me," she said. "Michigan has had this debate for almost 10 years now. The people of Michigan believe in fairness."
No doubt they do. But how they define fairness will decide how they vote.
Right now they're split. One recent poll for the Detroit News showed 48 percent supporting the ban, 37 percent opposing it, and 15 percent undecided.
The coming television ad blitz could sway some of the undecided. But Gratz contends that the ads probably will only reinforce what people already think.
"This is a gut issue," she said. "You know how you feel about it. People made up their minds 10 years ago."
The state's entire establishment is lined up against it. That includes big business, unions, small-town Chambers of Commerce, and both Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and her Republican opponent, Dick DeVos.
They call the proposal unfair and discriminatory against women and minorities. They also say it's really meddling from out of state.
They're also fighting anxieties raised by the precarious state of the auto industry. Will people anxious about their jobs side with the automakers and unions—against the proposal—or transfer their anxiety into a vote against preferences for women and minorities?
"The economy is down, and they (advocates of the ban) can prey on people. When things are tough, people start to eat their young," said Dave Waymire, a spokesman for One United Michigan, a coalition opposing the proposal.
"This is not about Michigan. It's not about civil rights," Waymire said. "It's all about Ward Connerly."
Connerly is the former University of California regent who led the successful 1996 ballot initiative to ban preferences in that state. He's been pushing to repeat the success in Michigan.
Waymire said Connerly bankrolled efforts to put the Michigan initiative on the ballot. Waymire contends that Connerly's financing would dry up for other efforts if the Michigan proposal fails. "If this goes down the tubes, he will be without a source of income."
Already, Connerly has said he found contributors backing off after DeVos came out against the initiative. He dismissed as politics a charge from Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., that Connerly's $1 million in salary and expenses from the nonprofit American Civil Rights Institute might violate tax law.
For more from the two sides of the debate, www.oneunitedmichigan.org and www.michigancivilrights.org