SOUTH THOMASTON – Sometime in the next few months, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide two cases that could fundamentally reshape the rules of race in America.
In one, a young white woman named Abigail Fisher is suing the University of Texas over affirmative action in college admissions.
In the other, an Alabama county wants to strike down a law that requires certain states to get federal permission to change election rules.
If they win, the names Fisher and Shelby County, Ala., will instantly become synonymous with the elimination of longstanding minority-student preferences and voting-rights laws. But behind them is another name, belonging to a person who is neither a party to the litigation nor even a lawyer, but who is the reason these cases ever came to be.
He is Edward Blum, a little-known 60-year-old former stockbroker.
Working largely on his own, with the financial support of a handful of conservative donors, Blum sought out the plaintiffs in the Fisher and Shelby County cases, persuaded them to file suit, matched them with lawyers, and secured funding to appeal the cases all the way to the high court. Abigail Fisher is the daughter of an old friend of Blum’s — a man who happened to call when Blum was in the midst of a three-year search for a white college applicant who had been rejected despite solid scores.
Blum eventually got Shelby County to file suit after searching government websites and cold-calling a county official.
Blum introduced Fisher’s father and Shelby County officials to the same high-priced but politically sympathetic Washington lawyers, who agreed to work for a cut rate to be billed to Blum’s backers. Neither Fisher nor Shelby County is paying to fight the cases that bear their names.
Over the past 20 years, Blum has similarly launched at least a dozen lawsuits attacking race-based protections.
In addition to the Fisher and Shelby County cases, two other Blum-backed cases reached the Supreme Court. One struck down majority-black and majority-Latino voting districts in Texas.
The other prompted the court to suggest it might eliminate a major portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which the conservative-majority bench may now be poised to do in the Shelby County case.
A self-described former college liberal, Blum says that over time he came to believe that race-based policies violate the very principles of equality they were created to uphold.
Affirmative action, he said, treats whites unfairly and stigmatizes minorities, and the rule that requires certain, mostly Southern, states to obtain special federal permission for electoral changes – Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — unjustly punishes them for long-abandoned racist practices.
“The original vision has been turned upside down,” said Blum.
OPERATING FROM MAINE
Blum, who has a runner’s lean build, operates from a book-lined office in his white two-story frame house on Penobscot Bay. He holds an unpaid fellowship with the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington and in 2005 formed a not-for-profit legal defense foundation, the Project on Fair Representation, of which he is the sole employee. The organization’s website says it devotes “all of its efforts to influencing jurisprudence, public policy, and public attitudes regarding race and ethnicity.”
The Project on Fair Representation, in turn, is fully financed by a tax-exempt charitable group called Donors Trust, which raises money from a variety of benefactors and directs them to conservative foundations and projects.
According to Internal Revenue Service documents, Donors Trust spent about $1.2 million from 2006 to 2011, the most recent information available, on Project on Fair Representation activities. Gifts to charities such as Donors Trust are tax deductible; money given directly to a legal-defense fund that is not a charitable organization generally is not.
Donors Trust, which also handles the administrative side of the Project on Fair Representation, said most of the project’s expenses are for legal fees. Blum said he draws an average annual salary of $50,000, paid by Donors Trust from funds earmarked for his project.
He said he and his wife, Lark, a retired insurance agent, also support themselves with income from savings, investments and Blum’s part-time work as a municipal-bond analyst.
Blum said contributors to his project so far this year have included the conservative Milwaukee, Wis.-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which gave Donors Trust $100,000 to support Blum’s group after Blum wrote them a pitch letter regarding the Fisher case and asking for support with costs. Bradley Foundation president and chief executive Michael Grebe confirmed the gift.
SON OF A SHOE SALESMAN
Blum was born in Benton Harbor, Mich., and moved around as a child. His father, Joseph, was a salesman, mainly of shoes. During a tough time when they were living in Florida, Blum said he drove with his father up to North Carolina textile mills to buy bulk loads of women’s underwear, and peddled the packs along the road back South. “He sold them in motels, coffee shops, wherever blue-collar women would give him four bucks for a pack of underwear he bought for a buck and a half,” Blum recalled.
He speaks in plain-Midwestern tones sprinkling his conversation with the Yiddish word emes, which means “truth.”
A 1973 graduate of the University of Texas, Blum said he started out as a Democrat, but by the early 1980s began reading the neoconservative Commentary magazine and changed his views.
In 1984 he voted for Ronald Reagan. He soon became a successful stockbroker at Paine Webber in Houston. Then, in the early 1990s, came the “acorn that began all my activities,” Blum said.
After noticing that his heavily Democratic district had trouble fielding a Republican congressional candidate in 1990, Blum decided to enter the 1992 Republican primary.
He won it, and in the general election faced an African-American incumbent Democrat. When Blum and Lark walked the district to shake hands with voters, he said, he had to carry a map because the borders zigged and zagged.
“Multi-ethnic neighborhoods were split apart,” he said. “Block by block. Blacks over here. Whites over here. Hispanics over here.”
Blum lost by a wide margin. At the time, court challenges were starting to mount over “majority minority” districts like his that had been gerrymandered to consolidate minorities and maximize their voting power. In 1993, the Supreme Court ruled that districts appearing to segregate voters by race, even if designed to help minorities, violate the Constitution’s guarantee of equality.
Blum decided to sue Texas officials, alleging the districts unlawfully segregated voters by race.
He enlisted five local Republicans to join him, including Al Vera, then a high school government teacher, who became the lead plaintiff. Their complaint went to the Supreme Court. That 1996 case, Bush v. Vera, struck down two majority-black and one majority-Hispanic districts in Texas and ordered the boundaries redrawn.
Now retired, Vera said Blum is “like a bulldog once he attaches onto an issue he believes in.”
Blum says he personally fronted about $100,000 of the legal fees in the case, which eventually rose to about $1 million.
He initially retained regional lawyers, then sought out a large Washington firm whose top partners had served in Republican presidential administrations.
Blum said he and the lawyers eventually recouped virtually all their money, as winners’ legal fees are reimbursed in some civil-rights cases.
Bert Rein, partner at the firm now known as Wiley Rein, said he doesn’t recall specific fees but Blum’s account sounds right.
Blum went to court to watch oral arguments. He felt so vindicated that he decided to devote himself nearly full time to the fight against race-based laws and policies.
“Seeing how the whole thing can be put back together with litigation,” he said, changed his life. “It really is the emes.”