Left Return

Once burdened by debt and internal politics, a rejuvenated Texas ACLU is back mixing it up with those who dare to trample on the U. S. Constitution.

On a bitterly cold night in December, comedian Paula Poundstone takes the stage at La Zona Rosa, seven blocks south of the Texas Governor's Mansion in Austin where George W. Bush waits -- like most everyone else in the country -- for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether he will be the next president of the United States.

Poundstone is headlining a fund-raiser for the Texas Freedom Network, a group that sees itself as a counterbalance to the religious right in the state. The moment is not lost on the politically savvy comedian: Here she is, performing in front of 200 or so of Austin's liberal elite, in the capital city of the state governed by the man mostly likely to succeed Bill Clinton. She's definitely behind enemy lines.

Early in her act, Poundstone mentions that she's going to miss President Clinton -- and that she doesn't understand why people are so hard on him. She notes that while the two presidents before Clinton had managed to run the economy into the ground, the nation has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity during the Clinton years. What's not to like? asks Poundstone, wearing her trademark long jacket and necktie. Well, of course, she acknowledges, there was all that trouble over Monica Lewinsky.

"But I don't know," says Poundstone wryly, looking down at her feet and sliding one foot in front of the other, "I just thought she was being patriotic."

The punch line hits its mark, and the crowd erupts into laughter. The joke even brings a brief smile to the face of Will Harrell, the new executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Texas who, for much of the evening, has sported a wistful look while gauging the turnout for the TFN benefit.

"I wish all these people would support the ACLU like this," Harrell says.

Harrell's envy is understandable. It is, after all, his job to attract supporters to the ACLU. Last April Harrell was handed the reins to the Texas chapter of the constitutional watchdog with the mandate of returning it to its glory days of the 1970s and 1980s when the ACLU, especially the Houston chapter, developed a reputation as an aggressive defender of an individual's constitutional rights when threatened by overzealous governments or abusive law enforcement agencies. The organization's work earned it a reputation unlike any other's: a group both revered and loathed.

But for most of the past decade, the Texas ACLU has experienced its own constitutional crisis (see "The Life and Death of Houston's ACLU," by Steve McVicker, December 23, 1993). In 1992 the national ACLU board wrestled fund-raising control away from the Houston and Texas chapters, and a civil war ensued. Divisions between former allies became so deep that the former staff attorney for the Houston office branded the national ACLU as nothing more than "a direct-mail fund-raising scam." Membership declined, as did the ACLU's involvement in controversial issues. The local chapter became a shell of its former self.

Then three years ago Houston criminal defense attorney Greg Gladden, who was as bitter as any of the locals after the rift with the national office, decided enough was enough. He ran for, and was elected to, board president of the Texas ACLU. Since then, he has been planting the seeds for the rebirth of the organization. He began by mending political fences and convincing old friends to come back. Last spring he made what he considers his most important move to date: the hiring of Will Harrell, an activist with impressive liberal credentials, to direct the day-to-day operations -- and bring about the comeback -- of the Texas ACLU.

Harrell has wasted no time in his new position. In the past six months he has launched or renewed or co-opted a series of progressive initiatives, which include an effort to abolish the death penalty, a police accountability project, state-supported indigent defense programs and a defense of homeowners' rights. But Harrell knows the obstacles he faces, obstacles that even his considerable abilities and charm may not be able to knock down.

Meeting Will Harrell in person for the first time is a bit startling. On the phone, Harrell's gravelly voice conjures up the mental image of a civil liberties cowboy who has just gotten into several dustups over the Bill of Rights. Instead, a visitor entering the Texas ACLU office on West Oltorf in south Austin is greeted by a man in a T-shirt and jeans, sporting a braided black ponytail and dark male-model looks. But don't be fooled; when it comes to work, he is no pretty boy.

The 35-year-old Harrell is a native Texan who grew up in Katy, where he was an all-district linebacker. His progressive leanings surfaced while he was at the University of Texas in Austin, where he organized the first student chapter of the ACLU and became a protégé of former ACLU staff attorney Jim Harrington, who now heads the Texas Civil Rights Project.

After graduating from UT, Harrell attended law school at American University in Washington, D.C. Armed with his law degree, he worked for a time with the ACLU's national prison project, which monitors conditions at correctional institutions around the country. Later he served as an aide to U.S. Representative Mickey Leland, who Harrell says taught him to be blunt. After the Houston congressman's fatal plane crash in 1989, Harrell took a job teaching at Catholic University in Quito, Ecuador. He then prosecuted human rights cases for the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit during the last four years of the 36-year civil war in Guatemala, which ended with a peace accord in December 1996. It was an experience, he says, that helped him learn what tactics to use when you are outresourced.

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