Ward Connerly's Income Inequality

I don't want to believe it's true.

The allegations of financial impropriety against veteran conservative activist Ward Connerly are deeply troubling. As someone who spent years defending Connerly's integrity in arguments with progressives who viewed him a self-hating con artist, the thought that something other than ideological conviction might have motivated him is humiliating.

I have a tough time believing Connerly's suggestion that Jennifer Gratz, a fellow conservative activist and former Connerly employee who has publicly accused him of fiscal chicanery, is nothing more than a bitter, disgruntled ex-worker. Is he going to label her a closet liberal next?

Gratz's complaint centers around Connerly's exorbitant salary. For the last three years, Connerly's reported pay has been between $1.2 and $1.5 million -- more than half the institute's annual budget, according to the New York Times... In a letter to the institute's board of directors, Gratz alleges that the institute is guilty of financial 'irregularities' that include knowingly under-reporting what it pays employees in an effort 'designed to facilitate Mr. Connerly's high salary.' She also claims that institute funds have been misappropriated to fund various leases and contracts with close friends and family members of Mr. Connerly.

If these allegations are true, it should be considered yet another sign of the American right's rapidly deteriorating health. Connerly became a conservative hero in the mid-1990s for spearheading California's Proposition 209, which phased out public-sector affirmative action programs. In the face of withering criticism from progressives and civil rights activists, Connerly forcefully argued that benign efforts to remedy past discrimination had morphed into crude quotas that would allow "the son of a black four-star general [to] receive a preference over the daughter of an Asian dishwasher."

A 1996 article by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby chronicled the criticism Connerly received:

The most hideous assaults of all have been aimed at Ward Connerly, the black businessman and University of California regent who chairs the Proposition 209 campaign. 'He's married to a white woman,' spits Diane Watson, a state senator from Los Angeles. 'He wants to be white. He wants a colorless society. He has no ethnic pride. He doesn't want to be black.' In the July 22 Oakland Tribune, columnist Douglas Allen called Connerly 'a lackey . . . no friend of his race . . . a tool of the white elite.' Eight days later, the paper ran an editorial cartoon depicting a dry-cleaning shop as "Connerly & Co. - Ethnic Cleansers.' It showed a hood and sheet hanging in the window.

Connerly won the Prop. 209 fight, and led successful efforts to eliminate public-sector affirmative action programs in several other states. Now, the image of Connerly as the man whose commitment to colorblindness was created by conscience has been credibly challenged.

For years, I admired Connerly for being willing to endure all sorts of ugly insults merely for believing that public-sector efforts to expand opportunities for disadvantaged groups had taken a divisive, constitutionally questionable turn. In a 2006 article on the tenth anniversary of Prop. 209, I lauded Connerly's courage, noting,

The conservative criticism of quotas, set-asides, and preferences is based on the belief that one cannot combat anti-black bias with anti-white or anti-Asian bias, and that the only way to thwart discrimination is through the implementation of color-blind, and not color-conscious, social policy. Conservatives such as Connerly are the opposite of naive; they merely reject the strange logic of the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who insisted in 1978's University of California v. Bakke ruling that '...in order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race.' It is the principled belief of Connerly, Linda Chavez, Thomas Sowell and others that, in the words of the late President John F. Kennedy, 'Race has no place in American life or law.'

If it's true that Connerly opposed public-sector affirmative action merely as a way to line his own pockets, then he has to be considered the right's biggest embarrassment since Armstrong Williams, the conservative pundit who received $240,000 from the President Bush's Department of Education to shill for the No Child Left Behind Act in his column and on his radio show. Williams was another black Republican I admired prior to the revelation of his lack of integrity. What do you do when you realize your heroes might not be heroes?