The Great Decolorizer

As a student radical in the late sixties, Ed Blum fought for affirmative action. Now, as a middle- aged neocon, he wants to destroy it.

Blum began calling right-wing think tanks, looking for a law firm to handle the case. Brad Reynolds, who'd served in the Reagan Justice Department, was interested, but his firm wanted a $200,000 retainer and estimated that the eventual bill would likely run over $1 million.

No one in Blum's circle had that kind of money, so he continued his search. He found Paul Hurd, a Monroe, Louisiana, banking lawyer who'd conducted a similar redistricting challenge in his state. Hurd drove to meet Blum in 1994 and took the case. Eventually, the case cost Blum more than $100,000 -- money that he recouped when the Supreme Court required the district's lines to be redrawn.

Blum had won his first battle. At last he'd found a niche, a realm that he could dominate. He'd become the Great Decolorizer.

Blum phones from the PaineWebber office. Business is good for the Campaign for a Color-Blind America. "We just filed another suit," he announces, sounding almost giddy with excitement. "We're taking on the YWCA in Hawaii." The Young Women's Christian Association, operating on a federal grant, offered classes in the ancient language of the islanders -- classes open only to native Hawaiians, who must prove their lineage by presenting birth certificates.

Blum founded the Campaign in 1994, just after his Texas suit triumphed in federal court. It is the only nonprofit organization that aims to eradicate racially gerrymandered congressional districts and race-based government programs.

The Campaign was in the right place at the right time. Public sentiment was souring on affirmative action, and federal courthouses were filled with conservative judges appointed in the Reagan-Bush era. (In the Texas redistricting suit, the three-judge panel that ruled for Blum's side was made up entirely of Republican appointees.) Blum began to rack up a spectacularly successful court record.

"We've litigated a total of seven state congressional plans," he brags, counting his victories. "Four have gone to the Supreme Court and been decided, Georgia's is at the Supreme Court, Virginia has been appealed to the Supreme Court and New York is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court." There's also a challenge currently in South Carolina's state court, and one more state to be sued. Blum won't identify the target.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Dan Troy is a lawyer who represented the Campaign against Texas's unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court in the redistricting suit. He says Blum and the Campaign have developed a high profile among conservatives bent on dismantling affirmative action. "Ed picks his battles wisely," says Troy, "and he has managed to accomplish a great deal, really, with very little."

After the redistricting suits are over, Blum hopes to preempt future attempts at racial gerrymandering. Starting around 1999, when state legislative bodies and redistricting committees hold conventions, the Campaign plans to hand out policy books and otherwise inform legislators of its views.

But that's all in the future. For now, Blum is still engaged in overturning the status quo, fighting the set-asides that already exist. This spring, he took the podium at a redistricting hearing at City Hall. The city proposed a new, barbell-shaped District E, one that would unite Kingwood, a mostly white, affluent area, with Clear Lake, another mostly white, affluent area. The two would be connected only by a 50-mile-long water conduit.

City planners had fashioned the district after Kingwood's annexation, aiming not to fuse the conservative neighborhood with the mostly black, low-income District B just to its south. Had Kingwood been joined with District B, it's likely black activists would have asked the U.S. Justice Department to file suit against the city, since the Voting Rights Act prevents the redrawing of district lines to weaken a minority's voting power.

But by pairing Kingwood with Clear Lake, the city had provoked a suit from the Campaign for a Color-Blind America. From the podium, Blum told councilmembers that the district was drawn for racial purposes, and was as illegal as the congressional district lines he'd already helped erase.

Councilman Jew Don Boney clearly wasn't thinking of Blum as an old friend from UT. Boney likened Blum's dismissal of the long-term economic and educational consequences of racism to an apology by a drunk driver who cripples a pedestrian. In explaining that view, Boney spoke as the driver: "Sure, I was drunk when that happened, but now I'm sober. So you take responsibility for being a cripple by virtue of my running over you, and I take responsibility for being sober, and we just forget about it."

Boney switched back to his own voice to discuss Blum's beliefs further. "Being a minister and a councilmember, I can't say what I'd like to say," he said. "So we'll just say, 'horse hockey.'"

Boney told the councilmembers that he believed the proposed district was a good one, that Kingwood has more in common with Clear Lake than with the low-income neighborhoods of District B. "Kingwood and Clear Lake are master-planned communities, developed with all the amenities that communities in B do not have," he noted. "Their politics are different, based on the different needs of the communities. In Clear Lake, they've got a big struggle over who is going to cut the weeds on the esplanades every two weeks. The big question in District B is, are we going to have esplanades?"

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