NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union announced by far the largest fundraising campaign in its 88-year history Monday, eying a dramatic expansion of its work on social justice issues in relatively conservative states such as Texas and Florida.
The campaign's goal is $335 million, with $258 million already raised through behind-the-scenes solicitations over the past year, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said.
Major donors include billionaire financier George Soros, who gave $12 million through his Open Society Institute.
"The purpose is to build a civil liberties infrastructure in the middle of the country — where battleground states are often under-resourced and our efforts are most needed," Romero said.
He cited issues such as immigrants' rights, gay rights, police brutality and opposition to the death penalty as causes that would be pursued vigorously as the ACLU expanded in heartland states. At present, the ACLU's biggest offices are in the Northeast, the Pacific states and Illinois; targets for expansion include Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico and Tennessee, with even the smallest ACLU affiliates in line to get extra funding to hire new attorneys and launch new advocacy programs.
Romero said the ACLU envisions more than doubling the staffs of its Texas and Florida operations, and its full-time work force nationwide — including its headquarters and state affiliates — would increase from roughly 800 to about 1,000. Numerous new satellite offices would be opened.
"We're going to build these offices into vibrant, muscular civil liberties machines, in places where our issues matter most," he said. "We've done great work in those states, but we've always been the David to the government's Goliath."
Romero said the fundraising campaign was designed to capitalize on a favorable climate for the ACLU. Since he became executive director in 2001, its annual budget has tripled to $107 million, and its membership has nearly doubled to more than 550,000, Romero said.
"It's patently evident that the best fundraiser for the ACLU has been George Bush and his cadre of cronies," Romero said. "If the Republicans loses control of Congress and the White House, we can be sure religious right will be much more active on the state level — our work will be critical there."
Officials of two conservative legal groups often at odds with the ACLU were not pleased by the fundraising announcement, which came during the ACLU's annual membership conference in Washington.
"The most dangerous organization in America is trying to become more dangerous," said Mike Johnson, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund.
Mathew Staver, founder of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, said the ACLU "already has been an antifamily and in some cases anti-religious liberty and anti-life organization."
"Any future expansion would simply increase its destructive presence and be concerning to people of conservative, moral values," Staver said.
The ACLU said its biggest previous fundraising campaign, to expand its endowment, ended in 2002 with a haul of about $52 million.