An otherwise rather bland and boring—though hard-fought—election season has now been enlivened by a rather unusual spectacle. A billionaire heiress from Fort Collins, Colorado has decided to spend millions from her personal fortune funding the most intense political advertising campaign in her state’s history, an advertising campaign focused on the terrible threat that racial desegregation poses to Colorado public schools. Really.
Having never personally met Pat Stryker, grand-daughter of the founder of a medical equipment company, I cannot easily judge her motives. Perhaps, as a friendly puff-piece attached below suggests, she is a Bohemian philanthropist and suburban mom in an SUV concerned with the risk that Amendment 31 threatens her children’s dual-language school. Perhaps, in the words of Rita Montero, leader of the Amendment 31 campaign, she is a “human vampire,” gladly willing to sacrifice the educations of tens of thousands of young Latino children just to ensure that a few of them remain available to act as unpaid Spanish-language tutors to help her own children learn that language.
A powerful column by Linda Chavez analyzing and critiquing Ms. Stryker’s motive is attached below, and this leads to another interesting tale. Ms. Chavez certainly ranks as one of America’s longest-standing critics of bilingual education, and is herself a former Denverite, whose recent autobiography recounts her early years in that city. Her syndicated column normally runs in the Denver Post, and one would suspect that this particular column—dealing as it does with issues of burning political interest to Denver readers—would naturally have run as well, partly counterbalancing the numerous columns and editorials that newspaper had already run on the other side.
But by some remarkable lapse, the Denver Post chose not to run that column critiquing the views of a local billionaire, whose decision to write the largest check in state history had been almost immediately followed by an editorial in that newspaper parroting almost exactly the same line. One might suspect that billionaire philanthropists do not like to read columns in their local newspapers questioning the extraordinarily noble motives behind their actions.
Most likely Pat Stryker has not devoted much thought to the larger issues involved, so might have even gained some enlightenment by reading the Chavez column.
But her able political consultant John Britz has certainly shown a ruthless determination to spend her millions of dollars as effectively as possible, warning the mostly white, mostly conservative voters of Colorado about the terrible threat that Amendment 31 would pose to their children’s education by desegregating Colorado schools and mixing Latino immigrant children together with their own, thereby “creating chaos in the classroom.”
Although the Denver Rocky Mountain News has itself editorialized against our measure (on rather dubious grounds), its own AdWatch column denounced the advertising message of the No on 31 campaign, arguing that “the hint at a swarming immigrant horde threatening the educations of everyone else’s children is inexcusable.”
A lead editorial in Friday’s Wall Street Journal took much the same view and I have attached it below.
Inexcusable, but apparently still quite effective nonetheless when aimed at a white and conservative-leaning Colorado electorate. Two weeks of this harsh message about the dangers of allowing little Jose and little Maria into classrooms with Keith and Heather, backed by the heaviest political advertising buy in Colorado history have shifted the polling numbers enormously, pushing support for Amendment 31 down to just below the 50% margin, as described below. Whether we will win or we lose is very unclear at this point.
This highlights an interesting historical fact, but one seldom acknowledged by conservatives, for whom denunciations of media elites and unelected judicial activists have become the normal bread and butter of political campaign rhetoric.
By all accounts, the most sweeping social change of the last fifty years in America was the widespread desegregation of our society, especially its public schools, a transformation that most Americans today would acknowledge—at least publicly—as a very good thing. Yet this important change occurred not through the normal democratic process, but was instead largely through the activist decisions of unelected federal judges and years of pressure from national media elites upon malleable members of Congress sitting in session inside the Washington Beltway and far from their own voters.
The most recent writings of Robert Caro on the career of Lyndon Johnson have documented in enormous detail the complex strategies that this master politician employed to maneuver Congressional leaders into supporting Civil Rights legislation that they—and especially their constituents—so vehemently opposed.
One reason desegregation and other major elements of the Civil Rights Agenda were never put to any sort of national democratic vote is that they would have almost certainly lost, perhaps by massive landslide majorities, not just in the South and even in the absence of any advertising campaign heightening the fears of white voters.
Even in relatively liberal California, state legislation aimed at removing racial restrictions
on home ownership was quickly overturned by popular referendum in the early 1960s, though soon afterward reinstated by an unelected federal judge on the clear constitutional grounds that the people had chosen wrongly.
Similarly, the most important votes on desegregation issues in America were probably taken around conference tables at the New York Times and CBS News and among the same nine electors who determined the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election.
Few historians of any ideological stripe would fail to admit that the modern Republican Party and the conservative movement that constitutes its core were largely forged in the Southern white backlash to the Civil Rights legislation of the late 1960s. Within just a few years, an almost solidly Democratic South became the strongest regional base of the Republican Party, giving that party five of the next six Presidential elections and ventually
control of Congress as well.
These are the historical facts we must bear in mind as we consider the fascinating spectacle now unfolding in a small, conservative, and overwhelmingly white state nestled high in the Rocky Mountains.
Polls both there and elsewhere throughout America have always indicated that support for “English in the Schools” is astonishingly strong, and our 1998 California initiative won the largest landslide of any contested initiative in 20 years, despite being outspent in advertising by the ratio of 25-to-1.
But the No campaign in Colorado, drawing from the bottomless purse of a billionaire heiress, is spending a vastly greater sum than that relative to the much smaller population and less expensive media markets, beaming visually gripping images of “chaotic” Colorado classrooms endangered by “a swarming immigrant horde” into almost every white household in Colorado.
This message of fear and danger has been heightened by the public denunciations of Amendment 31 by Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who suddenly and unexpectedly repudiated the measure within days of the launch of this massive advertising campaign. And although most of the local newspaper coverage has been fair, balanced, and accurate, visually gripping television images have an electoral impact far greater than calm words in black and white print.
An almost unstoppable political force is attempting to dislodge an almost immovable political object. The eyes of America will stay focused on Colorado through Election Day.
By contrast, our almost identical measure in liberal, well-educated Massachusetts, home to the firebrand Abolitionists of pre-Civil War days, is producing considerable media coverage but much less suspense.
The public positions of the Commonwealth’s elected officials have been almost unanimously negative toward Question 2, from the Republican Governor on down. The vote against “English” was 37-to-1 in the State Senate, and almost as lopsided in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Every member of the Congressional Delegation has now urged a No vote, as have both United States Senators, the mayors of most cities including Boston, the state AFL-CIO, and a list of educational and activist organizations so long it
would be better entered into the Congressional Record rather than read aloud.
And although the local media has been scrupulously fair in its coverage of the measure, the coverage has also been very heavy, and has properly reported the endless denunciations and press conferences of this long list of very influential political opponents.
But Commonwealth voters—who elected Michael Dukakis to three terms and were the only ones in America to back George McGovern in 1972—still support “English” nonetheless. Although our campaign has not yet spent a single dollar on advertising, the latest Boston Globe poll shows our measure ahead by a 28-point margin, and some more recent private polls have hinted at even stronger numbers.
If the liberal voters of Massachusetts do indeed cast a landslide vote for “English” and against racial segregation while an unprecedented advertising barrage preying on white racial fears leads to a different result among the conservative Anglo voters of Colorado, national analysts should draw the appropriate political conclusions.
As a final aside, it now appears that the powerful Santa Ana political machine of Nativo Lopez may be cracking under the strain of a grassroots Latino revolt against his refusal to comply with Proposition 227 and require local schools to teach English.
If this result occurs in America’s most heavily Spanish-speaking city, which is over 75% Latino and overwhelmingly Democratic and immigrant, politicians everywhere should take careful note. I attach a political column analyzing this unfolding situation.
Less than three weeks to go, and American elections have turned exciting.
- Bilingual Balderdash, Editorial
Wall Street Journal, Friday, October 11, 2002
- Billionaire Heiresses and Politics by Linda Chavez
Boston Herald, Thursday, October 3, 2002
- School bilingual ban loses support
Denver Post, Wednesday, October 16, 2002
- \$3 million donation makes big difference
Denver Rocky Mountain News, Saturday, October 12, 2002
- 31 has worthy foe: mom in a minivan
Denver Rocky Mountain News, Saturday, October 12, 2002
- Nativo Lopez’s divisive politics by Steven Greenhut
Orange County Register, Sunday, October 13, 2002