Though the Supreme Court gave the left a series of resounding victories last week, one of the nation’s leading legal groups is increasingly looking beyond Washington and the courts to advance its agenda. Over the last eight months the American Civil Liberties Union has raised $80 million to launch a political-advocacy project with the aim of winning civil-liberties fights by taking them directly to voters at the state level.
To lead the strategic shift the ACLU has hired political consultant Karin Johanson, who most recently served as the campaign manager for the Coalition to Stop Fast Track, an alliance of labor unions and other groups. Johanson helped the Democrats retake the House in 2006 when she was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and she managed Tammy Baldwin’s successful campaign for a Senate seat in 2012.
In the short term the ACLU’s political arm will focus on leveraging bipartisan momentum around criminal-justice reform and LGBT equality, and push for ballot initiatives on those issues in a handful of states. The initiative strategy is what advocates for legalized marijuana have used in recent years to skirt hostile or timid legislatures, with notable success. It also worked last year in California, where voters passed a measure reducing penalties for low-level offenders, which could lead to the resentencing of thousands of people who are already in prison.
On Monday I spoke with ACLU executive director Anthony Romero about how the organization is responding to changes is the political and legal landscape, working with the Koch brothers, and the opportunities for advancing civil liberties in the states. “Litigation in federal courts has become much more challenging over the last 25 or so years,” Romero said. “So you need to diversify the portfolio of strategies, so you’re lobbying state legislators, you’re running ballot initiatives—not just playing defense but going on offense.”
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Zoë Carpenter: Why launch an advocacy project now?
Anthony Romero: It’s not an entirely new departure for us. The ACLU from its founding was always an advocacy organization. Our c(4) [nonprofit] is 95 years old, so it’s the original mothership. It’s always been the role of the ACLU to, with non-tax exempt dollars, roll an agenda forward on civil liberties and civil rights. The tax deductible arm that houses a lot of the litigation came later, in the 70s.
But now we’re doubling down on our political work because of the gridlock in Washington, DC, because we can’t put all of our eggs in the litigation basket, and because there’re real opportunities in the states to move an affirmative agenda forward, and a need to hold a line on certain key civil-liberties issues in the states. This is an important opportunity for us to really build a much more muscular, proactive political game in the states than we’ve ever had before.