Senior Politics Reporter, HuffPost
On April 6, Anthony Romero, the longtime executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, joined a Zoom call with several dozen employees. He was there to eat crow.
The mood on the call was testy. The employees belonged to the ACLU’s national political advocacy department, a relatively recent addition to the 102-year-old civil liberties organization. Romero, who has led the ACLU since 2001, had made the department central to his ambitions to transform the ACLU from a legal powerhouse into a full-scale electoral and grassroots movement for civil rights.
But a series of internal shake-ups and disastrous choices by leadership had led to the steady attrition of staff and a feeling of despondency among many who remained. There were people on the call who had been exhorting Romero to take action for months, if not years. Romero had finally fired the head of the department, Ronald Newman, just a few weeks earlier.
On the call, Romero told the employees he cared deeply about them and their work.
“How we play a policy and political game has never been more essential for the work and for the future of this organization,” he said, in the deliberate, paternalistic cadence that is his signature. “I’m really grateful and appreciative that you’ve decided to make the world a better place by deploying your energies, your talents, your dreams, your aspirations here.”
“I know, being frank, some of you don’t trust me,” he concluded. “I’m just asking: Give us a chance, because we’re trying to do this differently.”
In fact, the ACLU had been trying to do things differently for years. Over the past decade, it has been Romero’s goal to build the organization — which has historically done most of its fighting in the courtroom — into one that wields as much political and cultural clout for civil rights as the National Rifle Association does for the gun lobby. Romero had even commissioned a study, in 2013, of what made the NRA so powerful.
Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House put the ACLU’s ambitions on rocket boosters. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, millions of stricken Americans opened their wallets to the ACLU or joined its legions of volunteers, giving the organization both the mandate and the money to try to lead the anti-Trump resistance.
But slapping rocket boosters on a century-old ship has consequences. “I’ve never seen a big, legacy liberal institution successfully pivot, and certainly not as quickly as the ACLU was trying to,” a former employee said. And six years later, the damage still shows.
The advocacy department, which was supposed to seed political victories in cities and states across the country, has hemorrhaged staff. Its army of volunteers, which it spent millions to cultivate, is flagging. An organization-wide transformation that started with high energy, high-priced consultants and celebrity-studded launch parties has led to listening sessions, HR investigations and outside counsel. The pandemic and the summer of Black Lives Matter hit the ACLU like any other workplace, prompting employees who say they experienced racism and inequality at the country’s premier civil rights organization to declare: enough.
This article is based on more than 30 interviews with former and current ACLU staffers and internal documents, emails, chat logs, recordings of meetings and legal filings that corroborate their accounts. Most current employees spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, while many former employees requested anonymity because they continue to work in civil rights and don’t want to jeopardize their relationship or their employer’s relationship with the ACLU.
This turmoil is not unique to the ACLU. Nearly all progressive legacy institutions have undergone some kind of gnarly reckoning since 2016. The left writ large is suffering from grassroots malaise. As Sam Adler-Bell recently wrote in New York magazine: “After four years of fever-pitched marching and movement-building by anti-Trump resistors, antifascists, Democratic Socialists, and Black Lives Matter militants, the sudden quiet from the country’s left flank has been deafening. Where, I find myself asking, is the movement?”
But the ACLU is a glimmering star in the progressive universe, with a history stretching back to the Scopes trial — long before most of these groups even existed.
“This is an important inflection point: whether the mission is going to become more balanced, or whether we stay on the current course,” a current employee said. “I still want to believe we’ve got the chance to do it right.”
None of this would have been possible without the “Trump bump.” Prior to 2016, the ACLU typically raised around $6 million a year from online, small-dollar donors. From the morning after Election Day 2016 to the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration 11 weeks later, the ACLU raised a whopping $40 million.
The outpouring of support for the ACLU made sense: Where other groups in the progressive and civil rights spaces seemed to reel in the face of Trump’s election, the ACLU appeared to be battle-ready.
Within hours of Trump signing the first Muslim ban, on Jan. 27, 2017, ACLU lawyers had joined the throngs of protesters at the nation’s major airports, where they were determined to stop deportations. The ACLU had its first client by 9 p.m. and filed its first lawsuit at 5:30 a.m. the next day. That night, as authorities tried to force their client onto a plane bound for Syria, ACLU attorneys persuaded a judge in Brooklyn to issue a nationwide stay of deportations under the Muslim ban.
“When Anthony comes out of the courthouse at Cadman Plaza after a judge blocked the Muslim ban, you can see his eyes dart around in awe at the crowd,” a former staffer said. A huge protest had materialized outside the courthouse, one so large that Romero and an ACLU lawyer on the case could hardly get out the door. The crowd was chanting “A-C-L-U!” “I swear you can see it on the footage: the moment he realizes, ‘Oh shit. We could be a thing.’”
To make these ambitions a reality, Romero selected Faiz Shakir, a former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Shakir would lead the National Political Advocacy Department, which predated Shakir but would now grow by leaps and bounds. (The week it helped defeat the Muslim ban, the ACLU had done record fundraising again, receiving the largest-ever influx of one-time gifts and new recurring donations, according to a 2020 internal document shared with HuffPost.) NPAD would grow to include dozens of staffers, run ballot measure campaigns, advance civil rights legislation at the state and local levels and, significantly, take a position in state and local elections.
On the day after Trump’s inauguration, Shakir gave an “electric” speech to the staff, said Chris Anders, a longtime ACLU policy staffer.
“It was the only staff meeting in my 25 years that was memorable,” Anders recalled. “He said, ‘We are not a public interest law firm, we are not a law firm protecting civil rights. What we are, and what we’re about, is building a movement. A movement for civil liberties and rights that will outlive and outlast us.’”
The ACLU was not entirely new to electoral fights. During the Obama administration, the organization had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in public relations campaigns and ballot measures to legalize same-sex marriage. But there were thorny problems to solve if the ACLU was going to become a full-blown movement. No matter how much its mission had grown in recent years, the ACLU was still known first and foremost as the country’s premier legal advocate for civil liberties. Ira Glasser, Romero’s predecessor, led a group of critics who insisted that the organization could not uphold its core values — including, crucially, defending unpopular speech under the First Amendment — while simultaneously leading a political movement.
“The Trump era calls us in particular to take our fight beyond the courtroom and to try to change the consciousness of the nation,” Shakir said in a recent interview with HuffPost. “You just don’t have many institutions that have 50-plus state affiliates, a footprint on the ground all across the country.”
The ACLU was also a huge, bureaucratic institution with hundreds of national staffers and 53 state and local affiliates who were used to orienting their work primarily around lawsuits and the courts. What’s more, virtually every large progressive organization in the country was competing to tap into the power of the resistance.
The ACLU’s entry into the organizing sweepstakes was called People Power. People Power sought to channel all of that energy into a lasting, nationwide grassroots network the ACLU could deploy to demonstrations and canvassing events. And the energy was genuine. An ACLU employee at the time recalled meeting a group of strangers who oohed like she was a celebrity when she told them she worked on People Power. Shakir brought in several veterans of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign as consultants to build up the ACLU’s digital organizing capabilities. In March 2017, Padma Lakshmi headlined a splashy kickoff event that the ACLU broadcast live to more than 200,000 people at 2,300 house parties.
One of People Power’s first initiatives was to put grassroots pressure on police and sheriff’s departments to end the practice of turning over local residents who were undocumented to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Hundreds of ACLU volunteers protested at local jails and county board meetings, and many blue cities ultimately abandoned their ICE agreements. Its next major campaign was an awareness-raising effort for Amendment 4, a 2018 ballot initiative in Florida to restore voting rights for up to 1.4 million people with prior felony convictions. The measure passed.
To Shakir and to some local activists, these were examples of how the ACLU could offer its superior clout and resources to vital local causes. But many local activists, and even the ACLU’s state and local affiliates, resented the national organization for swooping in at the last minute and taking credit. Immigrant rights groups had been protesting local ICE cooperation agreements for years. Amendment 4 was primarily the fruit of years of local organizing and canvassing led by the very people, formerly incarcerated Floridians, with the most at stake.
But over time, the list of volunteers became more inactive, said one current and two former staffers, who blamed a lack of continuity in between campaigns. The ACLU offered ad hoc training for the mission of the day, such as making calls for the ACLU’s preferred candidates in local sheriff’s races in 2018 and 2020. But it put much less thought into how to keep a successful national organizing effort going, the employees claimed.
“We did not stay in touch with those People Power groups,” one former employee said. “[We] did not invest in long-term organizing. We did not create a base of people who could respond to shit that’s happening in their own state … We didn’t build any lasting power.”
Several organizers hired by the ACLU after People Power launched felt there wasn’t enough for them to do by the time of the 2020 elections, and some quit.
“I was getting the message that [organizing] was politically irrelevant,” another former employee said.
“They wanted People Power to be this group of people we could pull in for one-off actions,” said the first former employee. But “volunteers will not keep volunteering with your organization if there’s not a relationship being built.”
Today, the online bulletin board where the ACLU and People Power groups used to post information about rallies and trainings is mostly empty. Many People Power Facebook groups have gone dormant. The former and current in-house organizers agreed that most of those groups never became self-directed or developed lasting relationships with the ACLU’s local affiliates. They are less activist groups than they are email lists.
The success stories, like Amendment 4, obscured how many wasted hours went into volunteer-focused initiatives that fizzled out, they said, especially once Ronnie Newman took over NPAD in spring 2019.
The organization always expected some volunteers to become less active once Trump left office, Shakir said. While People Power may not exist in its original form, the ACLU’s work still benefits enormously from the work it did to recruit thousands of volunteers, said Kary Moss, the current interim leader of NPAD, and a senior NPAD staffer, both of whom the ACLU made available for questions.
ACLU volunteers were essential to the organization’s efforts in 2018 and 2020 to elect several reformist candidates for local sheriff, they said. People Power made it possible to launch Rights for All, a campaign in which volunteers went to dozens of 2020 Democratic presidential contenders’ campaign events and got them on the record about the ACLU’s core issues. During the 2020 general election, the ACLU identified four counties in Georgia where mail-in voting was severely jeopardized by access issues and mail delays. The ACLU called on its volunteers to pack local online hearings and demand fixes from election officials, said the senior staffer, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly.
In Michigan, where the ACLU is currently working to put a measure on the ballot that would prevent the state from banning abortion, more than 30,000 ACLU volunteers have raised their hands to gather signatures, said Moss.
“Capacity-wise, prior to 2017 we couldn’t have done any of that,” the senior staffer said. NPAD had made it possible.
Growing pains, hiring through your networks, bringing in your own people — these things happen in the C-suite of every organization. That is the view, today, of several of the higher-ups and Shakir acolytes brought in after 2016, who don’t see anything nefarious about hiring a lot of new and ambitious people to help the ACLU achieve new and ambitious things.
“There was a lot of cleaning up broken glass while we were there, breaking things first and asking for forgiveness later,” said one of the newcomers. “And I think for the old guard, that got really old, really quickly.”
There was also the matter of who was doing the cleaning up. Since 2016, the ACLU national staff has ballooned in headcount, from 323 to 544, and has grown more diverse, a spokesperson for the ACLU said. About half of the current staff and half of the current leadership identify as people of color. But turnover among people of color, especially among Black staff, was high during this period. The ACLU recently boasted, in response to a discrimination lawsuit that is still ongoing, that the attrition of Black staff had fallen from 2018 to 2021 by nearly half.
“They had all these fancy ideas but a complete cultural disconnect from social justice conversations that had been going on around them.”
Multiple former Black staffers said they got tired of covering for their white colleagues. “They had all these fancy ideas but a complete cultural disconnect from social justice conversations that had been going on around them,” said one, referring to the many young, white political professionals who flocked to the organization after 2016. “And I just remember having to explain really basic things to them.”
By the time of the 2018 annual staff retreat, there was a nascent unionization effort afoot. (The staff won voluntary recognition in May 2021.) Members of the organizing committee slipped into conference rooms ahead of key panels and left leaflets on the seats highlighting racial disparities inside the ACLU.
But the bigger conversation dominating the conference was about a virtual reality exhibit the ACLU was preparing for the ACLU100 Experience — a 14-city festival in 2019 that featured celebrity performances, guest lectures, music, live art and interactive exhibits to ring in the ACLU’s 100th anniversary. Designed at huge expense by an outside production company, the VR exhibit was staged inside an empty shipping container where attendees could virtually “experience” the United States’ brutal treatment of immigrants throughout history. In one scene, according to the recollections of those who saw it, you’re being searched at Ellis Island. In another, you’re a Japanese American child at an incarceration camp whose father has just been hauled out of sight. In the present day, you can hear children wailing or migrants screaming just beyond your cell.
The staff revolted. “It was the definition of trauma porn,” one former staffer recalled. It was a “theme-parky” take on suffering, insulting to fellow activists who actually had been detained or imprisoned, and obviously designed to impress people who had not. “We were like, absolutely not, for so many reasons, we can’t do this,” another person said.
The uproar caused the ACLU to kill the exhibit. But then a small group, which included a few Black staffers, became responsible for repurposing the shipping container with a fraction of the initial budget and timeline. They opted for decorating the container with portraits of migrants and audio recordings of each person telling their story.
“As we do with many of our activities, staff got a preview of the exhibit in 2019 at our all staff conference before it went to the public,” said an ACLU spokesperson in written responses for this article. “In response to staff concerns, we redesigned the exhibit which received raves.”
One team in particular that hemorrhaged people of color was the newly created analytics department. The team was led by Lucia Tian, who’d worked at McKinsey & Company for many years before she joined the 2016 Clinton campaign, where she was the No. 2 on the team that handled the campaign’s disastrous voter-targeting models. Tian had a more fruitful time at the ACLU, where, starting in 2018, she built out a modern analytics team that provided legal research, streamlined internal operations and gave executives the ability to have detailed donor and fundraising information at their fingertips. The team provided vital research for the ACLU’s lawsuit to stop the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, and for its fights for a fair redistricting process.
But members of the team complained there was a clear pattern as to who thrived under Tian’s leadership and who didn’t. All three managers and the deputy she chose were young and white. And by the time she left, in early 2022, nearly every person of color who’d originally worked on the team had been fired or quit.
A Latina data scientist with a Ph.D. and more than a decade of research experience joined the legal analytics team and wound up reporting to a white woman who lacked managerial experience and, by her own admission, had fewer technical skills than the data scientist. The data scientist found herself not only doing her own work but pointing out her manager’s errors — such as when the manager assigned a task to someone who didn’t have sufficient technical knowledge, or when the manager mistakenly left her out of key meetings with litigators. She was constantly afraid that the team would put out flawed work and give the ACLU’s opponents an opportunity to tear its evidence apart. And at the end of the day, her manager took home the credit, she later wrote in a legal declaration — and the higher salary. (Her manager declined to comment.)
“Set up to fail”: That’s how multiple former employees in interviews and in legal declarations came to describe the way Tian positioned people of color on her team — particularly Black men. One had his direct reports reassigned; Tian demoted and fired another. By mid-2020, members of the team were sounding alarm bells about the lack of equity in hiring and promotions. Amber Hikes, who uses they/them pronouns, is the ACLU’s chief equity and inclusion officer, and mediated several disputes on Tian’s team. They told Sophie Kim Goldmacher, the head of HR, and Terence Dougherty, the ACLU’s general counsel and Tian’s supervisor, in no uncertain terms that Tian was not investing in her staffers of color the way she supported the advancement of her white staff, Hikes later told the data analyst.
Tian and her deputies responded to complaints by acting hurt and defensive, former employees said in interviews and legal declarations.
“Nothing has changed,” read an anonymous letter that eight members, or about three-quarters, of the analytics department sent to Dougherty and KP Trueblood, the ACLU’s chief of staff, in September 2020. “The team managers continue to center the feelings of white managers rather than the effects their actions have on BIPOC on the team.”
The occasion for the letter was Tian’s decision to fire one of the team’s analysts, Robert Jackson, in August 2020.
Jackson, who is Black, contended — at the time and, later, in a lawsuit against the ACLU and Tian — that his firing was related to the 2019 ACLU staff conference in Montgomery, Alabama. At the conference, an ACLU executive, Kary Moss, had snapped a group photo with former U.S. attorney general and civil rights arch-villain Jeff Sessions. Horrified, Jackson and several other Black men made a speech to some 150 ACLU employees demanding that the organization confront its own problems with systemic racism.
The job for which Jackson was hired was not supposed to require a high degree of coding or technical capabilities, according to documents from a lawsuit Jackson later filed, interviews with his former co-workers, and a declaration from a former co-worker on his hiring committee. But when he returned from Alabama more vocal about workplace discrimination, in his telling and according to declarations from a former co-worker, Tian not only shut down those conversations, she began assigning him work requiring advanced technical skills for which he had not been hired.
The ACLU and Tian, in their response to his lawsuit, argue roughly the opposite. They note that after Montgomery, Jackson wrote to Tian to say he felt “safe, welcome and honored” because she and the team had his back. They also say he wasn’t proficient in all the skills he listed on his resume, and they gave examples of Jackson blowing his deadlines.
Tian demoted Jackson in January 2020, which slashed his salary, and fired him in August 2020. On his last day, Jackson sent a series of bittersweet and blistering notes to the entire national staff. “I have a ton of scars and trauma due to how I was managed, mismanaged, and ultimately handled,” he wrote. Tian, distraught, Slacked the analytics team and told them to read between the lines of Jackson’s farewell message for “untruths.” She said she was mainly sorry that dealing with Jackson had consumed so much of her time.
Hearing Tian call their friend and former colleague a liar in so many words was the spark for the anonymous letter to Dougherty and Trueblood. Eight members of her team co-signed it, and six wrote out testimonials. “The undervaluing of BIPOC members of our team is a very real pattern that I wish you could recognize, address and take ownership over even if your intentions are good,” read one representative excerpt.
“My assumption was — about the culture — it’s the ACLU. I’m a Black queer dude, I’m gonna be good, I’m gonna be myself. This place is different because it’s supposed to act like a beacon and a champion for people like me.”
Tian tried to restore the team’s trust. Through a series of mediations, Tian, the team and Hikes agreed on ways to improve the team’s hiring and promotion practices.
But the damage was done. Around this same time, the data scientist complained to HR and Hikes that Tian had not made her manager’s role open for anyone to apply. The ACLU brought in outside counsel who looked at her case in isolation and determined that the decision did not meet the legal standard for discrimination, because her manager’s promotion had already been in the works when she applied for the data scientist role. Hikes, though, told the data analyst that they’d emphasized to Dougherty and Goldmacher that they saw clear bias on the team. Hikes said they warned Dougherty and Goldmacher that if Tian weren’t held accountable, Tian, who is Asian American, might herself be the only person of color left in an otherwise all-white department. (Through the ACLU, Hikes, Dougherty and Goldmacher denied that Hikes said these things.)
The Black man whose direct reports Tian had reassigned quit in late 2020, citing discrimination. “We’ve been significantly better at talking about it, but not at actually putting things into action,” he wrote in a goodbye email. The data scientist quit in late 2021. By then, she had received a promotion, but it materialized slowly and entailed less responsibility than she’d anticipated, she claimed in her legal declaration. Around the time she left, she wrote to the board of directors: “Among current and former employees, and in the circles in which they move, the reputation of the ACLU is already suffering.”
Tian left too, in early 2022. In response to questions for this story, Tian referred HuffPost to the ACLU’s comments about Jackson’s retaliation and discrimination lawsuit, which he filed against her and the ACLU in 2021.
The ACLU highlighted some of these changes in response to HuffPost’s questions about analytics, and said that several of them, like the more equitable hiring practices, apply to the whole organization. It has also invested in career advancement and talent retention with a focus on staffers from underrepresented backgrounds, said the ACLU spokesperson.
“As we stated when the suit was filed,” the spokesperson said, “the organization brokers no tolerance for retaliation and discrimination, and we flatly reject the claims in the complaint.”
Jackson says the whole experience still has him reeling.
“My assumption was — about the culture — it’s the ACLU. I’m good, I’m a Black queer dude, I’m gonna be good, I’m gonna be myself,” he said in a recent interview with HuffPost. “This place is different because it’s supposed to act like a beacon and a champion for people like me, who look like me.” Occasionally, people in his network still ask him if they should apply to work there. “What am I supposed to say?”
What stung most of all, members of the analytics team said, is that they knew better than anyone that the existential threats facing Black and brown communities were generating record off-cycle fundraising for the ACLU ― especially when those threats came from the Trump administration.
The first “Trump bump” was small compared to the outpouring of donations when Trump signed the Muslim ban in January 2017. In June 2018, Trump’s family separation policy, and news footage of kids in cages, resulted in another huge spike in recurring donors.
Nothing else came close until the “police brutality moment” of 2020 — which is how the data team tactfully referred to the five weeks of national protest following the murder of George Floyd that May. According to a slide deck shared with HuffPost, the ACLU raised $21 million in individual donations and added more recurring donors, 25,000, than in any previous crisis. (The ACLU told HuffPost the actual amounts were higher than that, but not a record. The ACLU also noted that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing and a rash of anti-abortion bills in 2019 resulted in fundraising moments; they are the smallest fundraising moments as measured by the analytics team.) A member of the analytics team made a slide deck analyzing the best strategies for getting these new, one-time donors to keep on giving money. The presentation described the police brutality moment as “uniquely valuable to the organization.”
Romero declined to speak to HuffPost for this story, but sent a statement:
The ACLU was fortunate to see an outpouring of support from millions of individuals to help fuel our fight against the Trump administration. This support allowed us to expand our fight across multiple fronts including at the grassroots level and expand the tools to do this work which included investing in people, technology and analytics.
With the Supreme Court on the cusp of rolling back a right to an abortion which has existed for nearly 50 years, it’s increasingly clear that we can’t put all our eggs in the litigation basket, and the initiatives and experiments of the last several years will serve to fuel new types of advocacy in the years to come.
In January 2019, Shakir left NPAD to become campaign manager for Sanders’ second run for president.
Romero named Newman as Shakir’s successor that spring. People recalled he was well-liked, smart and clear-eyed about the country’s state of emergency. Newman was a veteran of Barack Obama’s State Department and National Security Council, where he worked on refugee protection. He’d been overseeing NPAD’s budding electoral work, including its early experiments in electing reformist sheriff candidates.
Current and former staffers say Newman came up with a narrow, unrealistic standard for what kinds of campaigns NPAD ought to run. He demanded high-impact work, but he mainly wanted to launch campaigns that could succeed within a year. He focused on victories at the state and local levels, but he often resisted working with the state affiliates on their existing priorities, or adopting their strategic approaches, if they differed from his own. He loathed what he saw as excessive deliberation. He had little interest in influencing Congress, or even, after Joe Biden’s election, influencing federal policymakers. And even though roughly half of all states were under Republican control, he was disinterested in defeating bad policy, and laser-focused on playing offense, the staffers said.
“Ronnie had way too much emphasis on fights that could be won this year as opposed to fights that are tough but that, whether you win or lose, you can build power and make it more likely that the next item around, you can make it a win,” said an ACLU employee who works closely with members of Newman’s team.
If it was going to take lawmakers more than one legislative cycle to pass a bill — if, for example, some lawmakers were skittish about crossing a powerful lobby, but you could get a bill out of committee as a proof of concept one year, and pass it the next — that was usually a nonstarter, current and former staffers said. Early on in Newman’s tenure, a police killing in a solid blue state was putting pressure on policymakers to pass a first-of-its-kind accountability measure. Newman initially balked at joining the pressure campaign, in part because he felt the killing had taken place too long ago — it had been barely a year — to guarantee the momentum would keep going.
Major issues started to fade from the NPAD portfolio. Defensive work on behalf of AMEMSA communities ― that is, Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian ― fell by the wayside, according to a former employee and complaints raised by employees in meetings with Newman. When Biden was inaugurated, NPAD had no comprehensive plan to lobby the administration on its core issues.
“To be really honest with you, I’m not proud of the work we were doing,” said one current staffer. “I don’t think it was tremendously impactful.”
Few teams struggled with Newman’s definition of success more than the reproductive justice team.
Around the time Newman became head of NPAD, a major donor asked Romero what the ACLU was doing about the Republican assault on abortion rights. So Newman asked his staff to tee up a major win, and quickly.
The problem was, it is nearly impossible to restore decades of lost abortion access in a single motion. There were virtually no states where it would be possible to flip a few legislative seats or the governor’s mansion for the Democrats in order to build a total firewall against abortion restrictions; the GOP’s power ran too deep. A ballot measure that established the right to abortion could result in the judiciary overturning restrictions that were already on the books, but only if such a measure were coupled with legal action. That entailed both too many steps for Newman’s liking and not enough credit for his department.
“No one has a silver bullet on how to win on reproductive rights where it really matters,” one former staffer said. “And he didn’t understand that.”
The team and Newman went back and forth for months. He dismissed some potential campaigns out of hand because he didn’t believe they could win over the median voter, or because he personally approved of certain abortion restrictions, such as laws requiring parental notification or approval before a minor has an abortion.
Newman, for his part, was furious at what he saw as the team’s fatalism and lack of creativity. Longtime members of the team were used to working with attorneys, and would offer long, legalistic explanations without necessarily making a confident recommendation.
Eventually, in late 2019, Newman came around to the idea of supporting a ballot measure in Michigan to establish a constitutional right to abortion. But now the team faced the challenge of getting Planned Parenthood and the ACLU of Michigan on board before the deadline to make the 2020 ballot. Both organizations were nervous about how the ballot question might affect a swing state in a presidential election year, and whether it would pass. When the team asked Newman to make the case to local partners, he fumed and swore. For unclear reasons, the project was put on ice.
“Look, he’s not an idiot, he knows what he’s doing. We can’t just throw money at whatever Planned Parenthood tells us to,” a former employee said in an interview. “He just went way too far in the other direction, trying to be a total cowboy … He gives not two shits about collaborativeness or the ability to bring people along.”
Newman’s strategic choices might not have resulted in a full-blown attrition crisis if they weren’t coupled with the way he treated the staff. He once said he was a fan of forcing prospective hires to quote their own salary to keep salaries low, and that if a new hire would work for peanuts, he didn’t see what use it was to pay them more.
Many of those who worked for Newman believe that he was harsher toward those belonging to or working on behalf of minority communities, the LGBTQ community and the reproductive justice movement. When those employees pitched new campaigns, according to more than half a dozen people who worked for him and emails they supplied, Newman’s default response was to be skeptical if not outright derisive. (“The advocacy team that works on reproductive freedom within NPAD is one of the most constant teams within the department,” the ACLU spokesperson said.)
By early 2020, a group of NPAD staffers were raising alarms over the steady attrition of women of color. Goldmacher, the head of HR, reassured the department in a February 2020 meeting that many employees were leaving for better opportunities, or to go back to school. But the staff knew that the toxic atmosphere at NPAD was what drove them to look for other jobs in the first place.
“The baseline opinion is he was kind of a jerk,” said the employee who works closely with members of Newman’s team. “And the question is whether he was more of a jerk to some people than to others.”
Two moments from early 2020 stood out as examples. On both occasions, employees were raising concerns to Newman that the department was hardly doing any advocacy for AMEMSA communities. In one instance, Newman dismissed those concerns with a joke, several people recalled — something along the lines of, “You got me! I hate Muslims.” Weeks later, at a large meeting between Newman, his staff and HR — this one concerning NPAD’s attrition problem — a young woman many times his junior recalled how his joke had made her feel like shit. Newman responded not by apologizing, but by picking apart her recollection in front of her horrified colleagues.
The moment was classic Newman, people said. Yes, it was his prerogative to pick and choose campaigns — but he didn’t need to embarrass the woman. NPAD no longer has anyone focused on AMEMSA advocacy, although the ACLU continues to work on issues affecting the AMEMSA community, the spokesperson said.
By late 2020, NPAD staffers had started demanding that ACLU leadership take action. Members of the ACLU’s board had noticed tweets from staffers that alluded to the department’s low morale. Romero had no choice but to intervene. “Anthony doesn’t ever, ever, ever want to be pulled into organizational drama, ever, at all,” a former employee said.
Perhaps that explains why Romero’s first attempt to help sounded so hostile. It was October 2020, and the NPAD staff were gathered on a Zoom call. Romero, in his usual deliberate meter, started out on a reassuring note. “I am definitely aware of some of the issues that a bunch of you are raising,” he said. “I am not an absentee landlord who comes around just to collect the rent once a month. I am deeply engaged.” As a next step, he was inviting as many staffers as possible to talk to him one-on-one about what needed to change at NPAD.
But he implicitly warned the staff against taking up too much of his valuable time. “You know, it’s year-end, I bring in a bunch of money at the year-end. You want me to keep my donor appointments, right? Because that’s what helps pay the salaries, the rent.” He also reminded the staff that he’d endured a leadership challenge before. In the mid-2000s, he survived a knock-down, drag-out fight with the ACLU’s board and a vote of no confidence that took place on his birthday. They could go and read about it in The New York Times.
It was an odd, discordant address. Romero closed by repeating his offer to talk one-on-one but cautioning that he had once reduced an NPAD manager to tears. (She was on the call; he mentioned her by name.) “I’m direct,” he said. “I’ve always been. ‘Frank as you are ugly,’ as my grandmother would say to me,” he said, repeating one of his favorite aphorisms.
That was his my-door-is-always-open message. That was his offer to help.
“Some of you will be disappointed by any plan that doesn’t encompass leadership change. While I heard those suggestions, I rejected them in the end.”
More than two dozen members of the NPAD staff met with him anyway. After those conversations, as HuffPost previously reported, Romero sent the staff a jarring memo in which he acknowledged the substance of their complaints — the attrition, the low morale and the lack of long-term thinking — while redoubling his support for Newman.
“Some of you will be disappointed by any plan that doesn’t encompass leadership change,” Romero wrote. “While I heard those suggestions, I rejected them in the end. Ronnie is enormously talented and I value him.”
“For each of you individually, the hard question is: ‘Can I give this another shot and give it my best?’” he continued. “If the answer is honestly ‘no,’ then you owe it to yourself, the organization, and to your colleagues to be real and to make a change that allows you to engage at some other part of the ACLU or at another organization.”
It read to almost everyone like an invitation to quit, which many did. By July 2021, at least 19 more members of the department, including all of the women in senior leadership, had left the ACLU, an employee said in a Zoom meeting between Newman, NPAD staff and the ACLU’s general counsel. Fourteen of those who left were women, 12 of them women of color.
In the meeting, Dougherty, the general counsel, promised staff that the ACLU took their concerns about discrimination “incredibly seriously.” Newman, though, told his staff that their accusations of misogyny had no factual basis, and that he saw them as based on his race. (Newman is Black.) “I am not sure, exactly, what it is about me personally that seems to make the baseless assertions flow a bit more easily. But I do think we ought to be able to do a bit better,” he said. “Especially within a civil liberties organization.”
He added that his wife didn’t think he was sexist. “As a Black man who is married to a Black woman — who is a force of nature, both personally and professionally — I don’t take that kindly to being alleged to be a misogynist,” he said.
HuffPost emailed detailed questions about its reporting to Newman and followed up over the course of several weeks. He never responded.
Newman’s defenders say the ACLU and its fellow legacy organizations have spent too long reacting to attacks on civil liberties, and that Newman was trying to lead them out of a losing cycle. He was obsessed with wins because he felt a moral urgency to offer real protections ― not “grad student lectures,” in the words of one of his defenders, a current ACLU employee ― to the country’s most vulnerable people.
At Newman’s direction, the ACLU played a prominent role in persuading the Food and Drug Administration under Biden to lift restrictions on the abortion-inducing drug mifepristone — a genuine reproductive rights milestone. Those sheriff’s races Newman loved so much? The ACLU’s candidate usually won. As for that Michigan ballot measure, the ACLU, the ACLU of Michigan and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Michigan are gathering signatures to place the Michigan Right to Reproductive Freedom Initiative on the ballot later this year.
“I enjoyed having him as a leader,” a current director at NPAD, who’d been hired by Newman, said in an interview. “I think he provided an enormous amount of guidance. I always felt respected in our disagreements.” Speaking of Newman’s standards and the work he asked them to perform, she said: “At no point had I ever felt it was unnecessary or uncalled for or unattainable or unsupported. I always felt there was an opportunity to have a larger conversation about the work if there were any disagreements.”
“There’s a time and place for building power and building movements, and then there’s exercising the power you have today, to move the people who are in power today, in the world as it exists at this moment,” said the current ACLU staffer who believed in Newman’s vision. “To the extent that there has been attrition in the organization, it’s because Ronnie has expected accountability.”
But the attrition didn’t stop. And so, in October 2021, the ACLU told staff it had hired an outside human resources consultant, Muriel Watkins, to conduct an investigation of NPAD. Romero later said the investigation was the result of three HR complaints received that August accusing Newman of sexism.
Watkins interviewed more than 30 former and current staffers and surveyed almost two dozen others. She didn’t find that Newman targeted people because of their race or gender — notably, either conclusion could have opened up the ACLU to a discrimination lawsuit — but she acknowledged just about every other complaint: Newman’s poor leadership, his my-way-or-the-highway approach, the widespread belief that he reacted to criticism by “placing those who spoke up or spoke out into disfavor.” She gave Romero her final report on Jan. 24.
On Feb. 17, Newman was abruptly fired. That week, the staff was in revolt over an op-ed by one of Newman’s deputies, Vikrum Aiyer, in which he called for enhanced policing in response to San Francisco’s homelessness crisis. HuffPost had also informed the ACLU that it was planning to report on Watkins’ investigation.
“As with most organizations that aim to try something big and new, we didn’t always get things right, but we have built a stronger foundation learning from those growing pains,” Romero said in his statement to HuffPost. “This includes continuing to invest in our most precious resource ― our staff who are the most talented and passionate team I’ve worked with. We are all deeply committed to the approach that it’s the power of people who’ll bring about change.”
Kary Moss, of the Jeff Sessions incident, is taking Newman’s place as the organization searches for a replacement.
“We’re spending a lot of time working on culture,” she said, and making it possible for the team to pick long-term battles and go on the defense. Emphasizing the commitment to reproductive rights, she said the vast majority of the organizing team’s time right now is being spent fighting for the Michigan abortion rights ballot initiative.
Staffers still trade theories about why Newman lasted as long as he did. One theory is that he was extremely good at courting donors, a skill Romero prizes highly. Romero habitually pushes for the children of major political donors to get ACLU internships or entry-level jobs. (“We would take issue with the uses of the term ‘habitually’ and ‘push,’” the ACLU spokesperson said. “As happens with many senior staff here and likely other places, Anthony passes along resumes he receives.”)
Romero tacitly acknowledged many of Newman’s shortcomings in his mea culpa to the NPAD staff this April.
“Write these down,” Romero said. The department’s new leadership was going to respect the staff’s expertise, repair relationships with local affiliates and activists and pursue long-term policy goals, not just short-term wins.
“We want to play offense and defense on the key civil liberties and civil rights battles in the states and in Congress. Congress is important,” he said. “The federal government is important. We can’t abandon the most important player in the field for civil liberties and civil rights.”
Later that afternoon, HR and the equity and diversity officer held a meeting with NPAD staffers, where anger mixed with relief.
“It’s been three years of collective banging and yelling behind a locked door, but it feels like the bolt has been pulled back,” one staffer said in the Zoom chat.
Another staffer asked a question that hung in the air: “For the folks that are no longer here, where is their restitution and their apology?”
“I do appreciate the conversation and the transparency. I feel like this has been the most transparency we’ve had for a while,” this person continued. “But I do think that there has been a culture here where people pass the buck … Once a person’s gone, or that person’s in the hot seat, they bear everything, [not] the people who also had the power and access and privilege to change, and who have said nothing.”
Accountability, transparency — what did those concepts mean to the ACLU? the staffer asked. Were they just buzzwords?
“Because we always do this to the world,” they said ― meaning, tell hard truths and ask hard questions. “But we have an issue doing it with each other.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said that KP Trueblood, not Sophie Kim Goldmacher, was among the people who denied that Amber Hikes had warned them about inequality in the analytics department.
Senior Politics Reporter, HuffPost
Senior Politics Reporter, HuffPost