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Paul Hillegonds: Affirming Michigan

A top civic, business leader says rebuilding state’s economy requires defeating Proposal 2

October 6, 2006 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Former Republican State Representative and Speaker of the House Paul Hillegonds is now a vice president at DTE Energy in Detroit.

LANSING—During last week’s gubernatorial debate, Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm and her Republican opponent Dick DeVos found little they could agree on about best ways to rebuild Michigan’s economy—other than defeating Proposal 2, the ballot initiative ironically identified as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative.

Two days later, at a Southfield news conference, a group of respected Michigan business leaders picked up where Governor Granholm and Mr. DeVos left off in their very brief discussion about Proposal 2. There a bipartisan group of well-known and well-respected business leaders tied the future of Michigan’s desperately needed economic recovery to the defeat of Proposal 2. The measure proposes a constitutional ban on affirmative action programs in the areas of public employment, education, and contracting.

The session featured an array of top-level business leaders. They included Doug Rothwell, current president of Detroit Renaissance and formerly president of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation during the Engler Administration; Lizabeth Ardisana, chair of the Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and CEO of ASG Renaissance; Jon Barfield, chairman and CEO of the Livonia-based The Bartech Group; Judith A. Latcha, president of the National Association of Women Business Owners of Greater Detroit, and the president of Latcha Design Group; Dennis Archer, chairman of the board of the Detroit Regional Chamber and chairman of the Michigan law firm Dickinson Wright PLLC; and others.

Leading this impressive pack of business and civic leaders was Paul Hillegonds, whose resume includes a rich history of civic, political, foundation, and business service. Currently Mr. Hillegonds is a vice-president for DTE Energy, but he is also serving as one of three co-chairs for One United Michigan, an advocacy group representing more than 200 organizations opposed to Proposal 2. Mr. Hillegonds has used his influence to help unite business interests across the state that are seeking to preserve affirmative action programs at Michigan’s universities and state and local governments.

The list of Proposal 2 opponents includes such well-known corporate leaders as Comerica Bank’s Ralph Babb and Joseph Buttigieg, Daimler-Chrysler’s Frank Fountain, and Steelcase’s Jim Hackett. Joining them are chambers of commerce from, literally, across the state—including Grand Rapids, Holland, Muskegon, Lansing, Flint, West Michigan, and Detroit.

The civic and political engagement that Mr. Hillegonds brings to defeating Proposal 2 is typical of his career path. Before joining DTE, he was president of Detroit Renaissance, a non-profit dedicated to rebuilding Detroit and its chronically depressed economy, from 1997-2005. That followed an 18-year career as a state representative for the 88th District of the Michigan House of Representatives, where he served as House Republican Caucus leader, co-speaker of the House, and, finally, speaker of the House during the 1995-96 term. Today, Mr. Hillegonds, who is 56, oversees DTE Energy's lobbying and governmental relations.

Last year, this minister’s son received the University of Michigan Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Service Award. His many other honors include Governing magazine’s Public Official of the Year award in 1994, and The Detroit News’ Michiganian of the Year award in 1996. 

Recently, Hillegonds spoke with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service about Proposal 2, and Michigan’s economic forecast.

Great Lakes Bulletin News Service: At a time when Michigan’s economy is trailing the rest of the nation, why have so many corporate and business leaders joined the effort to preserve affirmative action in Michigan? 

Paul Hillegonds: Because our economy’s future depends on our ability to compete globally, and to attract a talented workforce in the state.

Both of those goals are connected to a diverse workforce, one that is comfortable working in an economy that reflects diversity and serves an increasingly diverse customer base. In addition, we are finding that the regions that are prospering today have vital core cities that appeal to young professionals who welcome diversity.

Considering the increasing controversy over Proposal 2, why did you accept a leadership role with One United Michigan?  

Hillegonds: My experience in college—where I was introduced to the issues of race— helped shape my own professional career.

In the Legislature, I learned that the best decisions for the state reflected a consensus forged not only by people of different political persuasions; but also those with different life experiences, including people of color who brought a very different perspective to some of the issues we would debate.

Then I moved to Detroit Renaissance, where I learned that one of the greatest obstacles to regional problem-solving was a history of racial divisions that haunt us still today.

And finally as a dad, who with my wife is parenting a 17-year-old daughter and 14-year- old son, I appreciate what affirmative action has meant to opening doors of opportunity for our daughter. I don’t think she would be a varsity tennis player but for affirmative action policies that elevated the importance of sports for women in high schools.

Considering both our daughter and son, we’re like many families today that live in a fairly segregated community. For them to succeed in the changing world today, I believe they will need exposure to diversity—likely to come for them in their college experiences, but only if we continue these affirmative action policies.

Beyond these personal reasons, my view is that affirmative action is an economic issue.  The success of business in our state depends on the ability of employers and employees to compete in an increasingly diverse marketplace.

For all the differences between the two gubernatorial candidates, both have spoken clearly to their respective support for affirmative action. Why do you believe that Governor Granholm and Mr. DeVos agree on this issue?  

Hillegonds: I think they both appreciate the role of affirmative action in our universities, and in state and local government.

Both candidates believe that the passage of Proposal 2 would send a terrible signal to employers in and outside the state, as well as to young people we hope to attract and keep in Michigan. If we as a citizenry decide to ban all affirmative action programs in the public sector, we will in effect, be slamming the door. We won’t be putting out the welcome mat. And in every way today—in our policies, in our symbolism—we need to be a welcoming state.

Many who support affirmative action and oppose Proposal 2 speak of its impact on female and minority-owned businesses. What are the direct implications for these businesses?  

Hillegonds: Well, certainly to the extent that affirmative action programs administered by state and local government have opened doors of opportunity for minority businesses and women, Proposal 2’s passage would roll back progress.

Affirmative action is not only important to women-owned businesses. Initiatives in our universities that encourage women to become engaged in math and science programs are especially important for women pursuing professional careers. We are talking about our state’s economic future, and the future of women as business owners and well-compensated professionals.

When you analyze the history of affirmative action, the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been women. But the fact is that in Michigan, women today earn 67 cents for every dollar men earn. We still have a long way to go before gender equity is achieved.

On the other hand, many who oppose affirmative action often claim that it perpetuates discrimination and racism. How do you respond to such claims? 

Hillegonds: I see affirmative action programs as undoing a long and sad history of racial and gender discrimination in this country. We’re a relatively young country. Perhaps slavery and Jim Crow laws seem like ancient history. But it wasn’t that long ago, in the 1920’s, when mobs in Detroit would force African-American families out of homes they dared to purchase in white neighborhoods. In 1964, there was a citywide referendum to block public policy efforts to end discrimination in the housing market. That referendum passed decisively.

The vestiges of legal discrimination are alive today. By that I mean we are very segregated by race and income in Michigan. And it means that if you grow up, and are a person of color from an urban area, no matter how gifted you are, your chances of getting a top-grade education are more limited than if you are white and attend a suburban school. Affirmative action seeks to address, without disregarding merit, what is still today an unlevel playing field.

In a recent guest column published in the Detroit Free Press, economist David Littmann opposed affirmative action as “looking backward, not forward” and went on to speak of—and I quote—“pre-determined numbers from a bureaucrat’s worksheet.” Is a vote against Proposal 2 a vote in support of quotas, as Mr. Littmann suggests?

Hillegonds: It’s unfair to equate affirmative action with quotas. Those who do that know that quotas have been ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

That is not to say that all affirmative action programs are run well. In the University of Michigan case, the [U.S. Supreme] court upheld affirmative action, but ordered a change in how the university implemented those programs. But this does not justify a constitutional ban. The answer is to fix what isn’t being administered well, and maintain what has been a policy and programs that have opened doors for women and people of color.

Some have questioned whether there is a connection between Smart Growth and affirmative action exists. Is there a connection?  

Hillegonds: I think there is, in the sense that Smart Growth starts with healthy core cities. It is difficult to stop people from moving further out if the core cities are not working well.

How do you rebuild tax base in cities that have struggled? By building on assets such as urban universities and knowledge-based businesses that attract young people who relish the diversity and vitality of core cities. To the extent we send the signal that we’re not interested in encouraging diversity, we undermine our effort to build stronger core cities in the state.

During the deliberations of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council in 2003, it seemed that the matter of race—although seldom mentioned directly—was very much subtext to those discussions. Are racial tensions fueling the controversy over Proposal 2? 

Hillegonds: Yes, I believe the root of at least some of the opposition to affirmative action is race, and a backlash against civil rights policies and initiatives that have opened doors of opportunity for people of color and even women.

I think we live in an age where we as an American society are nervous about the global economy and the changing color of our society. We are afraid that our futures won’t be as secure economically in this increasingly competitive and diverse world.

Race is being elevated in the debate as a reason for doors being shut to the traditional majority. But to say that race or gender should be removed from all consideration in university admission or public programs designed to create opportunity focuses on just one factor among many that determine opportunities for all—and that’s unfair and will roll back progress in the fight against gender and racial discrimination.

When voters go to the polls this November, the decision reached on Proposal 2 and affirmative action will continue to be a national news story. What will be the message that Michigan’s vote will send to the nation, and especially corporations and businesses looking to relocate or expand? Will this electoral decision bring consequences that will either help or hurt Michigan’s economy?

Hillegonds: This is a broader question. Ward Connerly’s California group [American Civil Rights Institute] has succeeded to date in two states, California and Washington. If Proposal 2 passes in Michigan, the momentum will continue elsewhere in the country. If Michigan says no to Proposal 2, I think it will be a significant setback to those who would like to fight the battle elsewhere.

But as it pertains to businesses looking at Michigan, I’m a board member for Michigan Future, which recently issued its report on how we reinvent Michigan’s economy. The core of that report is that, in order to grow a knowledge-based economy in Michigan, the key is talent, talent, talent. We have to attract and retain younger professionals who fuel a knowledge economy, and opening doors to women and people of color is absolutely essential to that.

Too many employers have negative perceptions of Michigan already. But in addition to all of our other challenges, if we shut the door of opportunity to women and people of color, that will be yet another obstacle to reinventing ourselves economically. 

Q: Are there any closing comments you care to add?  

A: Just a reminder that the language of Proposal 2 is very misleading. It is titled the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative and it is not. One United Michigan is asking voters to reject what is an anti-affirmative action proposal.

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