ANTHONY ROMERO, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, has at least one thing in common with George W. Bush: He doesn't have any trouble getting to sleep at night.
And that's probably a good thing, since Romero spends all day, every day battling the president and his Justice Department in a struggle over civil liberties that shows no signs of abating two years after the Twin Towers came down. 'The adrenaline begins to flow as soon as I read the newspaper every morning,' says Romero, 38. 'It's an enormous honor, an enormous thrill to see the issues of the day and know that it's your job to do something about them.'
Two years ago, he was tapped to replace the legendary Ira Glasser as head of the ACLU -- Romero is the first Latino and first openly gay person to head the venerable organization -- and was greeted almost immediately by the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. (He was about to be introduced to a group of the ACLU's most prominent donors in a Washington hotel when the nearby Pentagon was hit.) The attacks threw Romero and the ACLU into a national political turmoil that has transformed the organization from an effective, albeit solidly mainstream, political player into perhaps the nation's most dynamic opponent of the Bush regime.
Much of the credit for that transformation can be attributed to Romero, the Bronx-born son of Puerto Rican immigrants who's built a grassroots network of activists that is extending the ACLU's mission to a broader range of issues than ever before. Some 400,000 new members have joined the organization since 9/11, partly as a result of mounting fears about what U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft might do to our basic rights, and partly as a result of Romero's commitment to street-level mobilization and his ability to connect with young activists.
'Never has the significance of our work been so clear to our staff and board and constituency,' he says. 'It has allowed us to pull together.'
Which is not to say the road has been completely smooth. He's slightly stunned by how aggressive the Bush administration has been after the draconian PATRIOT Act was enacted. 'I thought that Ashcroft and [the] Justice Department's appetite would have been satisfied,' he says. 'What's surprising me has been the continued aggressiveness. The government is really going for broke.'
Perhaps more surprising-and disappointing-has been the 'anemic' political dialogue. 'I thought with so much at stake you would have had a fuller, more robust debate,' he says.
And though Romero senses that the political tide is beginning to turn, he also knows that his job will never really get much easier. That's one of the lessons he's learned from his predecessor, Ira Glasser, who literally handed Romero a baton like the one used by relay runners. 'This is a long-term struggle,' Romero says. 'That's one thing Ira told me when he handed the baton to me. This is a marathon, not a sprint.'