ACLU of TX Finds Common Ground with GOP
As civil liberties activists continue to struggle at the federal level, the ACLU of Texas has had several victories at the state level. In fact, it's one of the only public interest groups nationwide with consistent victories under a Republican-dominated legislature. The organization has developed coalitions comprised of people from all political stripes and played a key role in passing legislation that would have died without Republican support. I recently met with Scott Henson, director of the police accountability project for the ACLU of Texas. Henson has worked on 68 political campaigns in Texas over the past 12 years. He grew up in East TX, the most Conservative part of the state, and spent his childhood attending the First Baptist Church.
How did you end up at the ACLU?
I grew up a small government Republican and it turns out Republicans aren't really very small government. I thought it might be possible to be a small government Democrat, but there aren't many of those either. I've mostly worked in the Democratic party as a consultant.
You spend a lot of time working with, rather than fighting, Republicans?
I have to think about their values and how can I argue for policies based on where our values overlap. Since the ACLU primarily is about defending the Bill of Rights, the truth is, you look at Republican rhetoric and a lot of it is based on the Bill of Rights; it's just that they're worried about the second and tenth, and we're worried about the first, the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth... so it's just a difference of emphasis. We showed up this session and supported a bill to allow anyone who's not a felon to carry a legal handgun in their vehicle. We showed up at a hearing and I testified and actually suggested the language in the bill that wound up being adopted and the National Rifle Association obviously was there strongly supporting it, but oddly enough it was the ACLU that suggested this language that wound up getting in the bill. It basically says, if you're not a crook, you can carry a gun in your car. One of the arguments that I made at the hearing was this is very similar to the situation to consent searches by policy. Police officers search your car looking for guns and drugs. If a gun is legal, the police shouldn't be harassing law abiding citizens over it. A legal gun shouldn't be contraband when it's in the possession
of a law abiding citizen. The act of supporting that bill for those reasons meant that the next week when the consent search bill was up, low and behold the NRA shows up and they're in support of the consent search bill. Why? Because they learned the previous week that the two reasons they're searched are for drugs and guns. That gave that bill legs that it would not have had if ACLU and NAACP were the only endorsing organizations.
Givin' a little love gets you some love. The truth is, the right wing doesn't hate ACLU. The right wing is disappointed in ACLU. The right wing thinks ACLU should be better than we are. They think if we really supported rights, we'd support gun owners' rights. Almost every right winger who's a thoughtful person at all will say, we need the ACLU, but we need them to be better than they are. There's some, the Phyllis Schlafly's of the world that just hate the group, or Bill O'Reilly or whatever, but that's its own extremist breed. The more thoughtful conservatives are really just disappointed in ACLU.
It sounds like you tend to go after issues that are in line with Republican beliefs, rather than go after issues like gay marriage or abortion.
We work on those issues too, but we lose more often. There's really not any way to have a dialog on abortion because of the historical framing and the way it is wrapped in the electoral process. Personally, I'm in favor of Hillary Clinton's efforts to think about what a political compromise would be because we're going to have to have one. Very few on the left, even here, are looking for those strategic wedges. Instead, it's been about rallying the base and electing more Democrats. The truth
is, most of the ideologues on the left and right are fools. We have to figure out how to make all this work and it's not gonna happen if we're just screaming at each other. Usually, if you sit in a room long enough, you figure out where your common ground is. You can do that even with the right wing.
How do you feel about national politics and the Democrats who ignore the so-called Red States?
People in the South are just going to have to suck up and do things themselves. Maybe when some liberal asshole decides what we're doing is worthwhile, they'll come down and kick some money in, but we're sure not gonna wait on 'em.
Progressive communities across the country are having heated debates about where the left needs to go from here. What message would you send them?
I would say as Jon Stewart said on Crossfire: You're hurting America. Please stop hurting America. Saul Alinsky said, "Radicals owe it to their principals to be effective." How many days can you spend waving a sign on the side of the road and go home at night and live with yourself thinking that you've accomplished anything worthwhile? I gave that up a long time ago and don't understand why the left doesn't see it. Protests are a tactic among an array of tactics and it's not the only thing. In
fact, it's not the best thing. It's rarely effective. Same thing with direction action. I've been in politics, more or less professionally for 13 years, and I have been involved in one situation where direct action actually achieved a policy goal. That was where Earth First stopped road construction in time for attorneys to get the court to issue an injunction. They stopped Ross Perot in the early 90's from building a loop around Austin. It's the only direct action in my entire adult life that I have personally witnessed or been around that accomplished a tangible policy goal. I have seen dozens, if not hundreds, that were nothing but group masturbation sessions.
There are a lot of people doing just that in places like San Francisco.
Do something real. Don't just whine and complain. It's not about you. It's not about showing how radical you are. Who cares? The best way to accomplish anything in politics is to give away credit and on the left, people are just concerned about claiming credit for things they had nothing to do with.
Do you feel part of the debate about where to go from here?
We're just going. We've mapped out a strategy for how to work in a red state and have been pursuing it aggressively for five years. We're not waiting for y'all to figure it out and tell us. When the ACLU first showed up, we were laughed out of a lot of offices and not allowed a place at the table. It took some victories and after you've killed a few bills in certain committees, people realize they have to start taking you seriously. Slowly you start to get a place at the table. Now, on most of our main criminal justice issues, we do have a place at the table, but it took time.
How much power do the Democrats have in Texas?
It's about 60/40 in the legislature and actually, that's part of the reason we're able to be effective. If we can retain 80 percent of the Democrat base and then get 30-40 percent of Republicans to support us on an issue, we can pass bills.
What are some of your recent successes?
Our legislative session is once every two years. We are right at a moment where everything is up in the air. There's two weeks left. Everything can pass. Everything can fail. The biggest bill is probation reform that would actually keep Texas from building about 30,000 new prison beds over the next five years and cut the length of probation in half and allow mechanisms for probationers to earn their way off of probation through good behavior.
And you worked with the Republicans on that bill?
Yes. We don't have to pitch our idea in the most radical way and people don't have to vote for them for the reasons that we support them and that's valid. This my main beef about San Francisco liberals. I've never heard more whining about diversity from California liberals and I have never met anyone who was less tolerant of actual diversity of opinion
than from people in San Francisco. It's just as bad in New York. The truth is, they can't handle diversity. Most of us grew up in a racially diverse environment and that isn't that radical anymore. People still say, oh, I have a black friend. Really? Have a conservative friend and then I'll be impressed.
Many progressives in blue states are disenchanted and irritated. How do you deal with your frustrations?
Years ago, when all of my friends went to New York, San Francisco and DC, I made a decision that I was going to stay here in Texas and work on Texas. I'm from here and I'm not going to let my politics run me out. I like state politics 'cause you can go lay your hands on those sons of bitches; you don't have to just send an action alert or an email and hope someone will read it.
Do you enjoy the challenge?
I enjoy success. I don't want to leave you with the impression that my opinions or positions on this are typical of the left in Texas. I think a lot of the left in Texas is wrapped up in the same kind of foolishness that I was criticizing about San Francisco and a lot of them are folks who either went out there to live for a while and came back or came from there and moved here. At ACLU, we're actually trying something that's fairly radical and different and looking for ways to encourage
Republicans when we have common ground and finding ways to work with them.