Anthony Romero ’87 is Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, where he has overseen efforts to mobilize grassroots campaigns and pursue litigation and advocacy to defend civil liberties. He spoke at the University event “We the People” on March 4. The Daily Princetonian spoke with Romero the next day. The following is an edited version of the conversation, which has been condensed for clarity.
DP: Can you talk about the impact your father’s experiences fighting discrimination had on you?
AR: I think with my dad it was just observing from afar. My dad never really talked about discrimination, per se, but he would talk about the challenges he confronted in his life and in his career and what he would do to overcome them. What I remember early on is that my dad worked at the Warwick Hotel almost right after he arrived from Puerto Rico and he first started out as a houseman, which is a name for a janitor at a hotel. He was in that job for a long while and wanted to be promoted to a banquet waiter position. And when he first asked to be considered for that promotion, they declined his request because they said that his English wasn’t good enough. And I remember that he was very angry at their response.
So he filed a union grievance and a young lawyer at the union went to bat for him, and they ultimately gave him the job as a banquet waiter, and it fundamentally changed the trajectory of my family’s life. We were able to leave the public housing projects, we were able to afford a smaller, but nicer apartment in a suburb of New York City in Passaic County, we got our first car, I got my first stereo, my mother got her new living room set, and we weren’t struggling financially as we once did when he was a houseman.
I remember that story very distinctly about how one person’s advocacy on my father’s behalf made such a difference. And I think that made a real impression on me, as a student, as a kid, and later on in college or law school. You realize that there are glass ceilings placed on all types of jobs that you don’t normally recognize from the outside. And I think that early story of a lawyer taking my father’s grievance to heart and then fighting for him is what made me want to do the work I’m doing, to advocate on behalf of those people [who] don’t have a voice or don’t have an advocate.
DP: Since you are the first Latino and openly gay executive director of the ACLU, do you feel any added pressure?
AR: It’s a real privilege to be the head of an organization that I consider a national treasure, and I think my appointment had less to say about me as a Latino, gay man and more to do with the ACLU and its understanding of the importance of reaching out and involving people from all walks of life. I think the pressure I feel is not because I’m gay or the first Latino [executive director]. I think the pressure I feel is because I’m the leader of an important organization that’s really needed and valuable and [that] people rely upon.
What we do makes a real difference, and how we do it has a real impact on the trajectory of liberty and freedom in this country. I think I feel more of that pressure than anything coming from my personal life.
DP: Are there any common misconceptions about the ACLU that you would like to correct?
AR: I think a lot of people often think the ACLU is an organization for lawyers, and that is totally not the case. We’re an organization for people who care about freedom and liberty. As many as four of my predecessors were not lawyers, and the bulk of the staff on payroll are not litigators. Making sure that people understand that there’s a role for everyone to play in the defense and advance of liberty and freedom is an important one.
I also think that sometimes ... there’s a misconception that the ACLU is perceived as an organization that is on the left side of the political spectrum. While it is true that a lot of our positions in the context of immigration, or abortion rights, or LGBT rights, or voting rights, are positions that are more often identified with liberals, progressives, or Democrats, we are deeply non-partisan in how we work. Our job is to fight with and work against leaders of both political parties. You work with Democrats when you can and fight them when you must, and you work with Republicans when you can and fight them when you have to.
I think especially in this political environment where we’ve been accurately seen as a line of defense against the worst excesses of the Trump administration, that the reason why we are barreling the Trump administration is not because it’s a Republican administration. It is because of their civil liberties and civil rights policies.
DP: On the ACLU website, it says that “the ACLU released a legal analysis warning that Trump’s policies would amount to a one-man constitutional crisis.” How has this panned out?
AR: We started doing research on candidate Trump even before he [clinched] the Republican nomination for the presidency. You hope for the best and you plan for the worst. You need to be ready for whatever moment. So in summer of 2016, we were analyzing how we would fight a Muslim ban and what would be the challenges we would raise to the rescission of DACA or the deportation of 11 to 13 million undocumented immigrants. We began to do the hard work of what would the work look like if you wanted to impede his ability to follow through on his campaign promises. So then when the election happened, and everyone was surprised, including us, that he was president, we had the real beginnings of a work plan and we could switch and go right to action. So, we were able to hit the ground running.
In many respects, this one-man constitutional crisis has meant that every single one of our top issues is on a front burner, on a high boil. It’s not just one issue at play. It’s immigrant’s rights, it’s reproductive rights, it’s transgender rights, it’s voting rights, it’s challenges to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In many respects, this is a multi-front war for the core freedoms and democratic norms and institutions that we’ve often taken for granted. And that’s why I think the work has never been more important. This is the type of moment that the ACLU was born for.
DP: What do you think that the ACLU’s growing membership signifies, and what do you think is the future of the ACLU?
AR: In the first two years of Donald Trump, the membership grew from 400,000 to 1.875 million. It is younger; the average age has come down more than 20 years. So it’s resonating with the next generation of Americans, and that’s incredibly gratifying. It’s not your grandmother’s ACLU anymore. It’s our ACLU. It’s our generation’s. It’s the organization of the moment. It’s more diverse. Eighteen percent of our members now identify as people of color, and that’s incredibly exciting, because it’s an organization that’s increasingly reflective of the populations we work with and serve. It’s in every state. There’s been big growth in blue states like New York and California, but we’ve seen explosive growth in red states, in deep red states [such as] Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee. That means that we have many more troops to deploy locally.
We have a two-prong strategy in the era of President Trump. We use the courts. We litigate. The second pincer is using our membership base to apply pressure to government officials at all levels of government. We have this growing membership. They’re younger, they’re more diverse, they’re energized. They keep asking us, “What can I do? We gave you $20, what else can we do?” We would find ways to deploy our membership as ground troops with us. The members helped collect the signatures, the members did the door-knocking and text messaging. They did the phone-banking. They turned out voter interest and voter engagement on those issues.
I think we’ve used this “People Power,” which is an online platform for offline activism, to take the membership and deploy them as ground troops so they can amplify our power and really make a difference. I think those two pincers of “sue them and take them to court” and deploy the power of the people is really what’s going to sustain the core rights and liberties that we’re trying to protect.
DP: Is there any accomplishment that you are most proud of in your time at the ACLU?
AR: I’m proud of the work that my colleagues have done, and, in many respects, it’s hard for me to take credit for the work of the organization, because it has been the accomplishments of many people who are involved, including unsung heroes who might not get the recognition or the credit that I often get for the organization’s work.
I think I’m most pleased and most proud that this organization continues to grow and expand and be resonant with newer generations of Americans on different sets of issues. It is the ability of an organization to constantly remake itself and to explore new strategies and to rise to challenging moments, whatever they may be, however unexpected they may be, however challenging they may be.
I think that the organization’s best days are always ahead of it. And I think if I do my job right, there will be no golden age of the ACLU that we can point to. The golden age of the organization will always be in front of us. My biggest accomplishment is that the golden age of the ACLU is ahead of me and not during my tenure.