Reviving the grand rhetoric that made him famous, Glasser likens Romero to McCarthy, Nixon, and Rumsfeld, and aligns himself and his fellow dissidents in the pantheon of heroes: Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and the “people who did what they did on Christopher Street in 1969.
“I don’t mean to wrap ourselves in the mantle in those great movements,” he says. “These issues are not that important. But they’re not unimportant, because the ACLU has become the most critical institution in the country for protecting the infrastructure for our system of liberty. If people stop paying attention to us because they think we’re hypocrites, five years from now the organization—I don’t care if it’s five times as big—won’t be as effective as if it was half as big.”
Romero, while admitting to some mistakes early in his tenure, is defiant. “Their remedy is to fire me,” he tells me. “You can pick the very worst days of my life, of which there have been a couple, and you can depict it in a way where you don’t get a sense of what we’ve accomplished and [my] temperament and approach and character.”
The irony is that Ira Glasser created Anthony Romero. After heading the ACLU for 23 years, during which time he earned respect for a firm presence at the rudder and an almost bloodthirsty acumen on television debate programs, Glasser decided to step away in 2000. At the time, Romero was a young executive at the Ford Foundation who oversaw human-rights grants to the ACLU and others totaling $90 million a year. Though Romero had none of Glasser’s telegenic appeal, he is a lawyer by training—Glasser is a mathematician—and had something else going for him: a compelling personal narrative. Being Latino and gay made him a double minority and a trophy in the eyes of a place where diversity is a crucial value.
Glasser personally persuaded Romero to throw in his hat for the job. “I was probably as close to him as I had ever been to anybody in the funding world,” Glasser tells me. “We worked very closely as colleagues in the grantee-grantor sort of co-conspiratorial relationship. And he was always terrific for us. I always had a sense that he was very competent, that he was a good manager, that he understood money, that he managed a big budget, and, above all, that he seemed totally committed on a wide range of issues that were core issues for the ACLU.”
According to Arnie Miller, whose Boston-based search firm Isaacson, Miller headed the recruitment effort, Glasser championed his candidate throughout the selection process, then gave the speech to the selection committee that pushed Romero over the finish line with unanimous support.
“We were so impressed with the ideas that he had for bringing the ACLU to the next level,” says board president Nadine Strossen, an NYU law professor who chaired the screening committee.
Romero’s first day on the job was September 4, 2001, just a week before the events that would change the course of history. Concerned that the Bush administration has been using terror threats to justify a broad assault on freedoms after 9/11, Americans have turned to the ACLU in record numbers. Membership, which had hovered at about 300,000 for decades, has gone up to 573,000 since 9/11. Total donations have exploded to $28 million a year, more than twice the 2001 budget. “This is forehead-slapping sums of money,” one board member tells me. “We got money to burn now.”
Romero has earmarked much of it for growing staff—to 379 from 186 in 2001—and he increased their salaries to industry standards, in some cases doling out 86 percent raises. He built a new Human Rights Program, with four attorneys who have brought some of the agency’s most significant litigation, and another division on high-tech surveillance, with experts in Washington parrying the White House’s every thrust into data-mining and next-generation spying, including in fields like genetics.
But, more fundamental, Romero was determined to place at least one staff attorney in nearly every one of the ACLU’s 53 affiliate offices. When Glasser took over, many offices didn’t even have someone answering the phone. The investments have paid off enormously. Today, the ACLU is by far the world’s largest public-interest law firm. Romero’s teams have fought back against the Patriot Act, litigated the National Security Agency’s domestic-spying program, and brought cases against the torturing, kidnapping, and arbitrary detentions that have been the unfortunate legacy of Washington’s “war on terror.” In addition, ACLU lawyers filed a class-action suit to correct the wildly inaccurate “no-fly” lists of possible terrorists compiled for airlines, and won cases compelling the FBI to make public their files on pacifist groups like United for Peace and Justice and even the ACLU itself. “You can’t underestimate the extraordinary work the ACLU has done over the last five years,” says Leonard Rubenstein, who heads Physicians for Human Rights.