Mr. Blum Goes to Washington

Anti-affirmative-action crusader hits the road (at least for now)

He first earned local headlines with a quixotic run against then-congressman Craig Washington in 1992. Since then, former liberal firebrand-turned-neoconservative Edward J. Blum has been a continuing thorn in the municipal side of former mayor Bob Lanier and successor Lee P. Brown.

In the '90s, Blum and his supporters launched the unsuccessful Proposition A to eliminate the city's affirmative action program, and they peppered local courts with lawsuits against anything that he deemed race-based -- including city and state redistricting plans and HISD admissions policies for its Vanguard schools.

Now the 48-year-old Blum (pronounced "Bloom") is folding up his local organization and joining the Washington-D.C. based American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI) led by Ward Connerly, the black former University of California regent who campaigned for the controversial Prop 209 to outlaw affirmative action in California government programs.

Blum founded the Campaign for a Color-Blind America in 1994, shortly after winning a federal lawsuit to force the redrawing of Houston congressional districts that had been designed to maximize black and brown voting majorities. The nonprofit organization provided help for plaintiffs challenging racial gerrymandering and affirmative action programs at all levels of government. Blum says the new arrangement with ACRI will provide litigants with the same services.

"We're going to in essence dissolve the Campaign, release the board, and the American Civil Rights Institute will open up a legal defense division," he explains. Blum will become director of legal affairs. He expects to work full-time at setting up the operation over the next year while maintaining a Houston Heights residence for voting purposes.

"We're not moving permanently to Washington," Blum says. "What we hope to do for the first year is get our feet on the ground, and then hire a general counsel to handle most of the responsibility." Blum, who is not an attorney, would like to find a lawyer who can "determine which cases this division takes, determine where it's going to put resources in other lawsuits, etc."

Blum hopes a conservative law firm will donate office space for the new operation in the nation's capital. He's counting on idealistic young volunteers to help launch the effort.

"Part of the cachet of having a Washington office," explains Blum, "is you get a lot of summer interns, a lot of kids who are willing to give you a summer or their first year out of law school just to be able to work in a public-policy arena."

Blum has been a longtime disciple of Connerly's. He credits the Californian with inspiring Houston's Prop A in 1997, which went down in defeat after Lanier and Brown campaigned against it. Referendum supporters claimed Lanier's administrators illegally reworded the ballot language to confuse voters, and they later sued the city to overturn the election. The issue is still on appeal.

"Clearly the most prominent and most effective leader in this movement is Ward Connerly," says Blum. "Ward as chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute brings an enormous amount of experience and wisdom and power to an organization like the Campaign, which really has not been as effective as I think we could be with a better budget, with the kind of leadership and infrastructure that Ward's group can provide us."

The Michigan-born Blum's politics have turned 180 degrees since his days at the University of Texas in the early '70s. He worked alongside other liberal activists like future Houston City Councilman and Mayor Pro-tem Jew Don Boney in the pro-affirmative-action Taskforce for the Improvement of Minority Education. Back then, Blum was an avid reader of African literature and considered becoming a serious academic in that field.

Instead, after drifting through jobs as a high school English teacher and a book dealer, he settled on a career as an investment adviser. He married the former Lark Pollack, who sold insurance until her recent retirement. He also began reading Commentary and other conservative publications, and his politics moved to the right. Where once he believed racism was the nation's most pressing problem, programs that set racial quotas and preferences became his new target.

Some of the financial support for Blum's new venture comes from an unlikely source. Several weeks before the 1997 vote on Prop A, Blum claimed that Lanier intervened with his then-employer, investment firm Paine Webber, to try to get the firm to curb Blum's political activities. Blum resigned from Paine Webber the following year, saying it had been coerced by city officials into muzzling him. Blum went to work for a small Nashville-based investment bank, but he moved on when it was eventually sold to Paine Webber.

Although Blum did not sue Paine Webber for violating his free speech rights, sources say the company paid a sizable settlement to Blum. That left him in a position to pursue his political endeavors on the national scene.

"Now that I don't have a real company to work for," he says, "this is a good time for me to dedicate three to four years to seeing if we can create something that's really effective."

Blum, on a monthlong vacation with his wife in Maine, chuckled when asked whether Lanier and Paine Webber should get partial credit for financing his new career.

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