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.

"When you're outnumbered and outgunned," says Harrell, "you've got to hit with everything you've got right up front. Hope that the enemy recoils, and then come again."

Burned out by the time the war was over, Harrell obtained a fellowship to return to American University. After that, he spent a year in Colorado doing legal services for farmworkers but became disenchanted by all the congressional restrictions he faced.

"You can't represent undocumented workers that make up the majority of the workforce," says Harrell. "You can't bring class actions, can't sue for attorney's fees. So essentially you're just running around the state putting out fires. And all you ultimately get is what the farmworker was owed in the first place."

Houston attorney Greg Gladden took over as ACLU state president three years ago.
Deron Neblett
Houston attorney Greg Gladden took over as ACLU state president three years ago.
Houston attorney David Kahne joined the ACLU state board "to make a difference."
Deron Neblett
Houston attorney David Kahne joined the ACLU state board "to make a difference."

Harrell went on to work for the National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights police accountability project in New York City, where he was working when the Texas ACLU job opened up. Early on in the search, state board president Gladden knew he wanted Harrell as his point man.

"He comes from a very rich background of civil and human rights," says Gladden. With Harrell in place, Gladden became more excited about the ACLU than at any other time since he first got involved in the late 1970s. He points out that the Texas ACLU has been in the doldrums for quite some time. During that period, Gladden himself was one of the group's harshest critics.

In 1992 the national ACLU board rewrote the guidelines that governed the relationship between the national office and the affiliates. The policy called for only one ACLU affiliate per state; other offices in the state would serve as satellites of the main state chapter. That meant that the Houston chapter, which had long been more active and more financially solvent, suddenly faced having its money and legal agenda controlled by the state office in Austin, which was run by Jay Jacobson, the new executive director handpicked by the national board. Houston board members like Gladden were bitter about the changes. It didn't help that, at the time, conservatives like former president George Herbert Walker Bush were railing about "card-carrying members" of the ACLU. Jacobson, in Gladden's mind, didn't do enough to fight that propaganda. "George Bush," he says, "could not have picked a better person to nullify the ACLU in Texas."

Despite those harsh words, or maybe because of them, Gladden now finds himself a major force in trying to turn around the organization. "I thought the ACLU was important and worth saving," he says.

When he took over as board president, Gladden knew what his top priority would be: to oust Jacobson as executive director. He also knew it would be a drawn-out battle, nearly three years in duration, since the state board did not yet have the authority to hire and fire. So more immediately, Gladden devoted his energy to bringing back former members and activists and retiring a substantial portion of the state affiliate's debt. A couple of breach-of-contract lawsuits filed by former employees and a slander suit filed by a couple of East Texas cops who had been called murderers by the then-director of the Dallas chapter cost the national office around $250,000 to settle. Then there were back dues owed to the folks in the national office, dues that they were not about to forgive.

Before granting Texas some autonomy, national ACLU officials wanted at least a partial reduction of that debt. Through a few sizable donations and bequeathals from longtime loyalists, Gladden managed to reduce the amount owed by more than half. In return, Texas got the power to choose its own executive director.

Last spring, when the state board voted to replace Jacobson with Harrell, Gladden says, Jacobson was offered the opportunity to stay on as legal director. Jacobson could not be reached for comment, but given the less than amicable history between himself and Gladden, it is not surprising that he refused the offer. In a gracious farewell letter, Jacobson did wish the organization well and pledged his continued support while in private practice in Austin. Speaking from firsthand experience, he also warned the board against saddling Harrell with too many responsibilities, suggesting instead that board members take over such tasks as fund-raising.

On this one issue, Gladden agrees with Jacobson; the board president has even set a goal to triple the state ACLU's budget to $750,000 within the next three years. It's a figure he believes will make the organization a force to be reckoned with.

Considering that just five years ago the Texas ACLU didn't even have a board of directors, the mere suggestion of such a turnaround is encouraging to new board member David Kahne. Kahne, a tall, slender man with an unruly beard, is the former staff attorney for the Clark Read Foundation, which previously served as the fund-raising arm of the ACLU's Houston chapter, which was formed in the 1950s. (The first ACLU chapter in Texas was established in San Antonio in the 1930s and was one of the first outside New York.) After the trouble with the national office, several disgruntled members of the Houston chapter attempted to continue their work through Clark Read, but the effort never matured. While Gladden credits Harrell with putting the Texas ACLU in a position for a comeback, Kahne believes the credit belongs to Gladden, a Fort Worth native whose father was a force in the ACLU chapter there.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets