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Liberty and Justice, With an Emphasis on All


January 8, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved. 

ANTHONY D. ROMERO, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, bounds into the foyer of his organization's Lower Manhattan headquarters, stopping to hug the receptionist in celebration of the new year. He walks briskly back to his spacious corner office, with its magnificent view of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty.

It's sunset, and Mr. Romero is looking out onto the dark waters, toward the copper lady with her torch held high. "My job is to make sure no one extinguishes her flame," says the 36-year-old lawyer. "So far, so good."

Mr. Romero, a former executive with the Ford Foundation, took office on Sept. 4. He's the kind of boss who likes to roam about the A.C.L.U.'s two floors in a Broad Street high-rise, poking his head into offices, opening donor mail. On this late afternoon, Mr. Romero, who is tall and reed-thin, looks chipper and energetic, even though he was at work until 2 a.m.

In the world of civil liberties, there are advocates who will be heartened to know that someone is burning the midnight oil there. Since Sept. 11, as concern has grown about the detention of foreigners, some of those advocates have questioned whether the A.C.L.U. has made as much noise as it could have. And they say that Mr. Romero has seemed practically invisible.

He insists that his organization has been out front. "We've been very deliberate about what we have done," he says. "We've been very clear to not be drawn into rhetorical polemical debates. We're advocates based on the facts and what is actually happening."

Under his watch, the A.C.L.U. recently began a letter-writing campaign to foreign consulates whose citizens have been detained on immigration charges. By collecting instances of abuse, the group plans to mount a legal challenge to the government's crackdown on terrorism.

"The response has been resoundingly positive," says Mr. Romero, whose organization has also joined with other groups in a lawsuit calling upon the government to release information about the detainees. "People appreciate that we are here to defend the freedom and liberty of everybody, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, religion or nationality."

Mr. Romero knows what's at stake. "What we do and how well we do will very well change American history," he says.

The first Hispanic and openly gay man to head the organization, Mr. Romero succeeds Ira Glasser, who reigned over the A.C.L.U. for 23 years. Mr. Glasser was feisty and combative; a die-hard baseball fan. Mr. Romero, a graduate of Princeton and Stanford Law School, is refined, unfailingly polite. He likes to cook, though he's had little time to bang around pots and pans.

Mr. Romero had worked at the Ford Foundation for nine years, most recently as its director of human rights and international cooperation, doling out $90 million a year in grants.

On Sept. 11, he didn't even have his own A.C.L.U. business cards. He was in a hotel in Washington, giving his debut speech before major donors, when a colleague slipped him a note, telling him to step outside. He says he instantly realized the implications of the attacks.

The A.C.L.U., which has 500 employees and raises $50 million a year, was founded 81 years ago after law enforcement raids against thousands of people, many of them noncitizens. The raids were a reaction to a series of politically motivated bombings that officials said were tied to immigrants.

So, in today's charged climate, what keeps Mr. Romero up at night? "I worry about another attack and the loss of human life, then the repercussions that would follow with a second attack, with a further curtailment of civil liberties and civil rights," he says. "When we tell the American government that we want to keep the American people safe and free, we really mean it."

MR. ROMERO, the son of native Puerto Ricans, describes himself as profoundly patriotic. He sees what he has been able to achieve here. The lawyer was in him even as a kid when he used to argue with nuns over the rules at his Bronx parochial school.

He saw the power of advocacy through the struggles of his father, a janitor, to become a banquet waiter at the Warwick Hotel in Manhattan. The promotion came only after a union representative took up his cause. The family, living in a housing project, was able to move to Little Falls, N.J.

Mr. Romero was the first in his immediate family to graduate from high school and college. He is quick to note that he is a proud beneficiary of affirmative action. As an Ivy Leaguer, he says: "I earned the grades, but affirmative action got me through the door. Very often, it's misunderstood as being about quotas or being unmeritorious. It's about leveling the playing field."

As a gay Latino, Mr. Romero says he is certainly not immune to prejudice. When he was named to the A.C.L.U. post and his sexual orientation was made public, he says, he received hate mail and phone calls from people spouting Bible passages, telling him to repent. He lives in Chelsea with his partner, whom he declined to identify to protect his privacy.

Back at his office, Mr. Romero is reading from a couple of letters that suggest the events of Sept. 11 override the protection of individual rights. The letters make him sit up straight. He feels compelled to write back personally.

Looking up from the mail, he says, "I feel we'll be on the right side of history even if people don't agree with us right now."

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