When Anthony Romero took over the A.C.L.U., he was charged with bringing the venerable civil-liberties group into the 21st century. His first day was Sept. 4, 2001. A week later, his first objective had been accomplished. "I thought I'd have to explore new cutting-edge issues and new frontiers," says Romero. "But after 9/11, civil liberties were salient again. I didn't have to make us contemporary."
Romero, 40, the A.C.L.U.'s first Hispanic and also its first openly gay executive director, was raised in housing projects in the Bronx, N.Y. Despite being U.S. citizens, his Puerto Rican parents labored under the sort of stigma illegal immigrants often face. In an era in which many immigrants feel besieged by the Patriot Act, Romero says his background gives him a special empathy. "We bring who we are to our job," he says. "When you've seen prejudice, you understand that we aren't finished, that we're still perfecting this American experiment."
These days it's Romero who's experimenting. He's intentionally courting unconventional allies in hopes of broadening the civil-liberties debate. He has hired deposed Georgia Congressman Bob Barr as a consultant the same Bob Barr who co-authored the Defense of Marriage Act. In March the A.C.L.U. joined with the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, among others, to support the launch of a bipartisan effort to lobby for curbs on the Patriot Act. "Civil liberties are not the property of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party," says Romero. "Or the right wing of the Republican Party."