The Great Decolorizer
In March, as Ed Blum was maneuvering to dismantle affirmative action in Houston, he made a pilgrimage to California. Accompanying the 45-year-old head of Campaign for a Color-Blind America were two allies "of color": Clear Lake businessman Ed Chen and Bill Calhoun, chairman of the Black Republican Council of Texas. The trio was scheduled to meet Ward Connerly, the black Sacramento businessman who was the most visible supporter of California's Proposition 209, the controversial initiative that abolished affirmative action by the state's government.
For three hours, the Houstonians talked with Connerly. They were riveted as he described how the California initiative evolved, how it faltered, how he turned the fight around and led his movement to victory. He mentioned the death threats he'd received, and the personal vilification they could expect from opponents in their own fight. In the last half hour, Connerly told the three how it felt to be called a traitor to his race.
Calhoun asked Connerly whether the proposition was worth the threats.
"Yes," Connerly replied. "I'd do it again."
After the group left Connerly's office, Blum turned to go to his car, paused, then hugged Calhoun. "There were tears in his eyes," recounts Calhoun. "He said to me, 'I feel about meeting Connerly the same way I felt after finishing my bar mitzvah with my rabbi, the same principles and the same stirrings of idealism and courage.'"
Of course, the idealism of middle age is different from the idealism of youth -- especially in Ed Blum's case. His personal history is not that of a Klan member or a born-and-bred conservative; instead, he's a former civil rights activist who once supported the very racial set-asides he now fights. At his bar mitzvah, he delivered a speech decrying racial prejudice. As an undergraduate, he worked for an organization demanding that the University of Texas set quotas for minority enrollment. And as a grad student, he studied African literature. "He knows more about Africa than most of my African-American friends," notes Calhoun.
Years later, in his neocon incarnation, Blum still claims that he's fighting for racial equality -- only now, he wants to destroy quotas. And now, his allies are chiefly conservative and Republican, and his enemies are chiefly liberal, black and Hispanic.
After visiting Connerly, Blum felt fired up, ready to accomplish large things. This summer alone, through the Campaign for a Color-Blind America, he's simultaneously waging three large fights that involve Houston: a federal suit to eradicate the racial quotas for HISD's Vanguard program; another federal suit charging that the city of Houston gerrymandered council districts on the basis of race; and a petition campaign to force a referendum on affirmative action goals in city contracts.
And Houston is only Ed Blum's starting point. After winning his first case -- a challenge to the shape of Houston's 18th and 29th congressional districts and another majority-minority district in Dallas -- he set his sights on districts in other states. Counting the Texas case, he's won four of those challenges in the Supreme Court; four more are pending. Those high-profile successes have made him the darling of conservative groups across the country. And if he continues his winning streak, he'll make a significant dent in affirmative action.
What that would mean, of course, depends on who you talk to. By his own lights, and as described by his allies, Blum is leading the final battle against racism. Described by his enemies, he's a button-down bigot, the new, more refined face of racism itself.
Racism is a thing of the past, says Ed Blum; that's why affirmative action is no longer needed. Seventy percent of African-Americans are moving up into the middle class, he claims; it's only a small, "intractable" group that lag behind, largely as the result of their own behavior. For that group, Blum prescribes volunteer work by successful people like himself "to inculcate middle-class virtues and values that will eventually get them out of the ghetto."
To put it mildly, that view is controversial. Houston attorney Gene Locke, who is fighting one of Blum's redistricting suits, typifies the response of many blacks. Blum's concept of the black community, Locke says, verges on fantasy.
"Obviously he sees a different black America than I see," remarks Locke. "Maybe he moves in circles of the black community I don't move in. Certainly, in the streets of Fifth Ward, Third Ward and Fourth Ward, and even in the so-called middle-income black America, the specter of racism is an everyday fact.
"I would view Blum's movement not as an attempt to remove color from consideration," says Locke, "but rather an attempt to institutionalize advantages based on skin color that still remain in our society."
Blum's opponents point to the alarming effects of abolishing racial set-asides. After California's Prop 209 was approved, state schools could no longer consider race in admitting new students, and black enrollment in law schools plummeted. When a court decision eliminated similar admissions practices in Texas, minority applications and acceptances fell sharply at state law and medical schools. This year, the University of Texas's incoming law school class contains not a single African-American. Even Ward Connerly, who so championed Prop 209, recently stated that state schools should perhaps make special outreach efforts to minorities.
Blum, though, isn't worried. He characterizes alarmed educators as "Chicken Littles" and says there's no reason educational institutions cannot attract low-income minority candidates by offering financial aid based on income rather than race.
"Why should the daughter of a successful, highly educated black CPA be allowed a preference at a university, or at HISD, or a job contract, over the daughter of a white custodian at Spring Branch Elementary?" he asks. "We have progressed so far in this country that to use skin color as a proxy for economic deprivation is wrong."
Ed Blum himself grew up in a lower-middle-class family of staunch Democrats. His mother, Shirley, was an FDR supporter and during World War II held a government job in Washington, D.C. His father, Joseph, served in the army. At the end of the war, because Joseph spoke Yiddish, he was assigned to supervise the relocation of Holocaust survivors from the Nazi concentration camp at Mannheim.
When Joseph's tour of duty was over, he and Shirley settled in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Joseph worked trade show circuits across the Midwest, looking to buy products in bulk and later sell the items to individuals. Ed was born in 1952, and as a boy, often accompanied his father on the sales expeditions.
"We'd stop at a motel to spend the night on the road," Ed remembers. "The innkeeper would say, '$28 for the room.' Dad would say, 'What size underwear do you wear?' He'd end up swapping out the underwear or whatever else he had in the car instead of money. We'd do tape recorders if it was an electronics show, vases if it was a houseware show."
The Blums moved to Houston in 1961. Shirley and Joseph, both staunch civil rights supporters, picketed Woolworth in support of desegregation, and Ed showed similar convictions. When he enrolled at UT in 1969, he joined the Taskforce for the Improvement of Minority Education.
"I was one of the co-chairs," remembers Blum. "We made a lot of noise. Demands were very big back then, and we demanded that the board of regents implement an aggressive minority outreach undergraduate program. We were pro-quota. Goddamn it, if you can't attract them, well, you gotta get' em."
Decades later, another member of TIME would bitterly oppose Blum. Even so, Blum remembers Jew Don Boney fondly. "Jew Don had a bit of mazich in him," Blum says, using a Yiddish word for a prankster. "He was kind of a mischievous little demon. A good wild side to him, I mean a real good wild side, a broad wild side. But a committed person, too." Both he and Boney wore braces, Blum remembers, and they partied together; Blum says he loaned Boney his sports car a few times.
Boney, however, doesn't share the memory. Told of Blum's recollections of their friendship, Boney replied, "I don't think so," sarcastically stretching the vowels. "I don't recall anybody loaning me a car, much less an Anglo student. We weren't that close. People's minds get real fuzzy after 20 or 30 years."
During his college years, Blum also became friendly with a Nigerian professor, Sunday Inouzie, who taught African literature. With the professor's encouragement, Blum enrolled in graduate school at the State University of New York with a specialty in West African writers such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.
Practicality dictated Blum's choice of specialty: In that tiny field, he could quickly become a major player. "If I determined to make academics my career," he explains, "then this might be an interesting area where I could make myself unique. It was possible back in 1974, '75, to perhaps sit down and read every published novel that came out of West Africa."
After a year of study, and with little money, Blum abandoned academia and returned to Houston. After a series of odd jobs, he became a substitute teacher, then a full-fledged English teacher at predominantly black Yates High School. After two and a half years, he left that job too. "I found I probably wasn't a good enough teacher," he says. "I enjoyed it. But I'm not sure how effective I was."
He then tried his hand as a bookstore owner. Neighborhood Books sold mysteries, thrillers and the like to residents of Braeburn Valley in southwest Houston. There Blum encountered his first conservative mentor: University of Houston political science professor Allan Stone. An espionage-novel junkie, Stone lived a few blocks from the store and soon came to rely on Blum's recommendations. "Right from a very low-level job, you saw this tremendous energy and interest," remembers Stone. "When Ed does something, he tries to do it well."
But Blum's expertise wasn't enough to keep his enterprise afloat. The bookstore business began to sour in the late '70s as national chains such as B. Dalton and Waldenbooks moved into the Houston market, offering discount prices that Blum couldn't match.
Yet again, he launched a completely new career: selling financial products. He joined a Galleria-area branch of the A.G. Edwards brokerage firm, and from there moved to the PaineWebber operation in the same building. He formed a partnership with another broker, advising individual and institutional clients on investments, with a specialty in public finance.
In 1980, Blum met and married the former Lark Pollack, and they bought a house next door to Stone and his wife. The couples became fast friends.
Stone introduced Blum to Commentary magazine, full of the writings of former liberals who moved first to the center and then to the right. "At that point, my politics were still center-left but moving," remembers Blum. "The effect of that magazine moved me further and further to the right and engaged me again in public-policy debate. Engaged me so much I started subscribing to more conservative magazines."
Ed Blum, once a leftist student activist, had been reborn as a Republican investment broker.
Eventually, the Blums moved from Braeburn Valley to an apartment on Bissonnet, inside the Loop. They found themselves part of the 18th Congressional District. Years before, the 18th had been designed to elect a black woman, Barbara Jordan, to Congress. In 1990, it was still considered one of the most liberal districts in Texas.
Even so, when Blum voted that year, he was stunned to find that the Republican Party had not fielded an opponent for incumbent Craig Washington. "That pissed me off," recalls Blum.
On a number of foreign-aid votes, Washington had taken positions that struck Blum as anti-Israel. "Then comes the votes on the supercollider, the space station, and the wacky votes, the Ron Paul-type votes," says Blum. "And then no votes, like, 'I'm not here today.' A lot of these wacky things got on my nerves."
Blum called the county Republican Party headquarters to ask whether anyone intended to run against Washington in '92. Then-county party chair Sherry Johnson tried to explain the facts of political life: Since a Republican was unlikely to win the seat, party leadership didn't want a serious candidate to challenge Washington, lest the competition energize Washington's supporters. "What happens countywide?" asked Johnson rhetorically. "Our county judge, our district judges have a harder time. So leave him alone."
Blum stewed on that advice and rejected it. He filed for the primary, and was shocked to find that a pharmacist from M.D. Anderson Hospital, C.L. Kennedy, had also entered the race as a Republican. The two became companions on the lonely election circuit. "Business is not so great when you're in a primary running against Craig Washington," laughs Blum. "People asked, 'Who is this fool?'" Blum beat Kennedy, then faced Washington in November.
True to Johnson's prediction, Washington roused himself for the campaign and appeared in three debates against Blum, who had little money but found himself with a passel of almost fanatical volunteers. The most memorable moment of the campaign came during a debate before the Heights Chamber of Commerce, when Washington put his head down and pretended to sleep during Blum's closing statement. "That is just quintessential Craig," says Blum.
The campaign put Blum's political theories to the test. First, he block-walked the white precincts of the 18th District, "where you could say, 'I'm running against Craig Washington,' and you're a hero. I could have been a skinhead, and it wouldn't have mattered."
Blum was less prepared to handle black neighborhoods. "You knock on a door, and a 38-year-old woman opens it with a baby on her hip," he remembers. "You introduce yourself as Edward Blum running for congress, and she asks you what you can do to help her grandbaby. I was speechless. I had no idea what to say to her. Probably mumbled some cliche or aphorism and went on to the next door."
As expected, Washington won easily. Blum decided that if he were to change America, it wouldn't be as an elected official.
During the campaign, Blum noticed with increasing frustration the difficulty of campaigning in a district that had been designed by computers to enhance black voting strength at the expense of neighborhood unity. Even armed with maps and lists of registered voters, Blum and his volunteers struggled to determine which houses were in the 18th District and which weren't. "We weren't confused once or twice," Blum says. "We were confused hourly."
Blocks with identical dwellings and income levels were separated strictly on the basis of race. Blum was offended: He believed American political representation should be based on geography, not race.
A few months after the election, a New York Times article reminded Blum of the problem. He read that the Supreme Court had found that a winding, snake-shaped district drawn by North Carolina to elect a black representative might harm voter interest; the court had sent the case back to the state for trial. The article, says Blum, was "the big event, the thing that said, 'Here's your calling, are you going to grab it?'" He figured that the North Carolina district was no more gerrymandered than the 18th.
He considered a lawsuit, and invited over for dinner some political friends he'd made during the campaign. The party included lawyers Doug Marcum and Stephen Katsurinis, insurance salesman Al Vera and businessmen Ed Chen and Bill Calhoun. "We had Ninfa's fajitas, drank tons of beer and wine and talked about this," Blum remembers. Assignments were handed out. Marcum studied case precedents, and Katsurinis got the precinct maps. When the group reassembled a few weeks later, they decided they had grounds for a suit.
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?"
Boney saw little difference between the contortions of the proposed District E and those of the congressional districts redrawn by three Republican-appointed judges. During a question-and-answer period, he tried to maneuver Blum into admitting as much.
"I think the three-judge panel could have done better in reuniting neighborhoods," allowed Blum, "but clearly what they did was 180 degrees improvement to what we had."
Boney persisted: "You feel it is constitutional?"
"Councilman," said Blum, "the Supreme Court has accepted it. So whether I accept it or reject it is rather moot."
"Understand too that in 1896 the Supreme Court sanctioned segregation and American apartheid," Boney replied. "Sometimes, as Martin Luther King said, we have to be guided by a higher law."
Boney had the last word, at least in that hearing, but the larger victory may yet be Blum's. His case against the city is still proceeding, and for the moment, the lower laws of the land -- or at least the federal judiciary -- seem firmly on his side.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.