The New Face of the ACLU

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.’

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