A part-time resident of Maine is leading a high-profile challenge to Harvard University’s admissions policy, alleging that it unfairly turns away qualified Asian-American students.

The case against one of the country’s most prestigious universities is just the latest challenge to admissions policies that are at least partly based on race. A lawsuit filed in federal court this past summer is being pushed by Edward Blum, who lives part time in South Thomaston and heads two foundations – one that targets gerrymandering of election districts on racial grounds and another that seeks to have courts overrule college admissions processes that rely heavily on race to bring diversity to campuses.

Blum, at one time a stockbroker in Houston, said he found his true calling a quarter-century ago, when his fellow Republicans in Texas recruited him to stage a quixotic run for Congress in a heavily Democratic district.

While knocking on doors with his wife, Blum said, he noticed how congressional lines crisscrossed through neighborhoods – predominantly black areas fell in one district, heavily Hispanic streets in another and mostly white stretches were in another.

‘RACIAL GERRYMANDERING’

After losing the election, Blum found a lawyer and launched a legal challenge to what he saw as “racial gerrymandering,” with the Supreme Court ultimately ordering Texas officials to redraw the lines for three districts. The case was so consuming that Blum said he and his partners decided it was time to leave the world of investments behind.

“That led me to my amateur legal career,” said Blum, who has not gone to law school and is not licensed to practice law.

Instead, Blum focuses on finding plaintiffs to challenge what some conservatives have called “reverse discrimination” – policies intended to redress decades of discrimination by favoring minority groups in college admissions or electoral districts, but which critics say harm whites in the process.

“I’m a legal strategist/legal matchmaker,” Blum said. “I see something that I think is wrong, I look for plaintiffs, I find lawyers and we go into federal court. And then I go and beg for money from individuals and foundations to pay the lawyers.”

TWO NONPROFITS HELP WITH FEES

He has set up two nonprofit foundations to help foot the bills for the lawsuits. One, the Project on Fair Representation, took in nearly $1.6 million in donations and grants in 2015, according to tax filings. Blum drew a salary of $110,000 as its executive director.

That organization’s most prominent ongoing case is a challenge to a California state law that would force a small town to set up electoral districts that would likely lead to the election of minorities to the city council. The foundation was also behind an Alabama case over the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which resulted in a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a major provision of that landmark legislation.

His other group is Students for Fair Admissions, which underwrites the suits challenging college admission processes. It had $826,664 in revenue in 2015. Neither Blum, its president, nor the other four directors drew a salary from the group, according to its tax filings.

Blum said a key feature of that organization is that people who donate to the group are also signed up as members, which now number more than 22,000. That gives the foundation legal standing to challenge admission processes directly on behalf of its members without having to name a specific student in legal filings.

Before the group was formed, Blum spearheaded an unsuccessful challenge to the University of Texas’ admission process that he said relied too heavily on race in determining which students got in. The plaintiff was Abigail Fisher, the daughter of a friend of Blum’s who was denied admission to the school. The Supreme Court last year ruled that the University of Texas could consider the race of student applicants in a limited way to build a diverse student body.

COLLEGES DEFEND RACE AS CRITERION

Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges were among the 37 highly selective liberal arts colleges that signed on to a brief supporting the University of Texas and the use of race-conscious admissions, arguing that they cannot create sufficiently inclusive and vibrant environments through race-neutral admissions.

Fisher, Blum said, was subjected to harsh online attacks that led him to try to find a way to challenge the colleges without having an individual bear the burden of being identified with the case.

“She was vilified,” he said. “Social media was very unkind and very cruel to Abby, so we certainly didn’t want that to happen again.”

The nonprofit group is a way to raise money to finance the suits and also to file in court without having to name the individual plaintiffs, he said.

His goal with the lawsuits, Blum said, is a truly race-blind society.

“Race should never be a consideration in whether you’re admitted to college, whether you get a job, whether you’re fired or promoted, whether you’re pulled over by a cop, whether you’re eliminated from a jury pool,” he said. “Race should never be an element to help an individual in life or harm an individual in life. That’s the basis of all this. Using race is unfair, unnecessary and unconstitutional.”

Not surprisingly, there are people who question Blum’s motives.

“During the long struggle for racial equality in this country, there have always been people who fought back against that and Ed Blum is one of those people,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “Mr. Blum is going after the very modest rules that have been established to ensure the progress that has been made on racial equality.”

But Blum said he thinks that colleges should focus on economic disadvantages, not race, among prospective students, in seeking a more diverse student body. A large part of Harvard’s student body still consists of students from wealthy families who attended private schools, and that’s the inequality the school should focus on eliminating, he said.

Taking out race as a factor, he said, and substituting those more diverse backgrounds, would probably result in a less white student body.

FOCUS ON ASIAN-AMERICANS

The legal challenge to Harvard’s admission policies, Blum said, rests on the argument that the school excludes many Asian-American students who qualify for admission.

It’s similar to an approach Harvard used in the 1920s and ’30s, he said, when the school allegedly limited how many Jewish students could attend.

“Harvard is really doing the same thing with Asian applicants,” he said. “They don’t want too many Asians there.”

The legal team has a Maine flavor, Blum said, with Patrick Strawbridge, a Maine native and resident, as one of the key members.

Blum jokes that his lawyers are “grossly overpaid,” although most offer to work for less than their normal rate to take part in high-profile cases likely to end up before the Supreme Court.

“They do give me significant discounts on cases like this,” he said. “This is why kids go to law school. They want cases like this.”

Blum argues that the public agrees with him, pointing to a Gallup poll last year that found that 65 percent of people disagreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Fisher case.

While Blum takes a pragmatic approach to choosing which cases he should pursue, he said his connection to Maine is more emotional.

He and his wife honeymooned in Maine in 1981, he said, and returned to the state almost every summer, for longer and longer stays.

They bought a house in Camden in 2003 and have since moved to South Thomaston, which he said he prizes for its “downtown,” consisting of a store and post office.

They spend less than six months a year in the state, he said, relocating to Florida in the winter to escape the harsh weather and Maine’s income taxes. But if his wife had her way, Blum said, the couple would live in Maine year-round.

For now, he said, that’s one decision on which he holds sway. “Between the weather and the taxes, I’m going to have to trump her desire,” he said.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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