ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon is this week’s featured guest. In our conversation, we talk about the unprecedented time we’re in for the ACLU and American politics in general. We also talk about how the ACLU prioritizes its issues, what changes Howard would most like to see in Florida and about the 2018 election year.
Listen to hear us talk about all of these issues and more.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent and Floridian podcast. Featuring the sunshine state’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and it’s millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host, Chris Cate. In this episode brought to you by SalterMitchellPR, I talk to Howard Simon. Executive Director of The ACLU of Florida. In our conversation, we’ll talk about the unprecedented time we’re in for The ACLU and American politics in general. We’ll also talk about how The ACLU prioritizes it’s [00:00:30] issues, what changes he would most like to see in Florida and about the 2018 election year. You can hear it all right now.
Howard thanks so much for being on the show. Is it safe to say that we’re in an unprecedented time for The ACLU and American politics in general?
Howard Simon: Boy, I think that is certainly the case. I’ve been involved in The ACLU for a long, long time. I was a member of The [00:01:00] ACLU. I’ve helped found a chapter of The ACLU and I taught college in Indiana. I was a donor and then I was lucky enough to land a position with The ACLU over four decades ago. I never remember a time where there was such a, I think a threat to such … so many different values of civil liberties. Where so many people look to The ACLU [00:01:30] as, essentially, the essential institution to defend democracy and defend civil liberties. Frankly, I want to say, I never remember a time where The ACLU was so popular with some many people looked in to The ACLU and appreciated The ACLU.
I’ve been with The ACLU in times were we were a reviled and hated organization [00:02:00] that stood up for people and groups that nobody would stand up for, or the rights of people that nobody thought were worth defending. Now, we seem to be cool and popular. Our membership has tripped. Nationwide we’ve gone from 400,000 members to 1.2, the last time I looked. Our membership has tripled, here in Florida. I’m adding staff and adding lawyers to our [00:02:30] program. This is a pretty unique time.
In terms of the threat to civil liberties. In terms of the support that we are receiving from the public and in terms of the growth of our program. Yes, I never remember a time in which I think we were playing such central role in the politics of our country.
Chris Cate: It is, probably, a difficult time to find [00:03:00] a way to lead here too. There is, I don’t know if hatred is the right word but I’ll use it here, there’s so much hatred toward the president. But he is the president for the next fours years. How does The ACLU transform, kind of that hatred, if you will, into something more productive that moves the country forward, rather than keep it in a gridlock?
Howard Simon: I want to get off the hatred of the president stuff. He is, kind of, an enigmatic character, to say the least. [00:03:30] He likes to say “I’m not your usually politician.” Everybody who excuses what he does says, “You have to understand, he’s not a traditional politician.” As if that was an excuse for everything. It’s not the president and it’s not the tweets that he sends out in the middles of the nights. I keep telling people, forget about all that, that’s not what we need to focus on.
What we need to focus [00:04:00] on is his cabinet and the people he’s brought to power and the policies that he has authorized them to pursue. The notion of a Jeff Sessions that will be in charge of voting rights and civil rights in this country. Somebody who’s essentially fought against them, in most of his entire career. Somebody like Betsy DeVos, who will use the power of the federal government to try to privatize education [00:04:30] in America. That’s what we need to focus on. Not the president.
I want to say, we are not motivated by hatred of the president. First of all, we pride ourselves on being a nonpartisan organization. We focus on policies. It’s the policies of the president and it’s the policies of the people that he’s brought to power and the policies that he has authorized them to pursue. Just take voting rights, for example. [00:05:00] I don’t think this was a stronger Department of Justice in, maybe in the history of the country, that has so vigorously defended the right to vote, than the Justice Department under the Obama administration.
We have gone from that, to someone who is going to, essentially, withdraw and try to undo. He’s already filled papers [00:05:30] to switch sides in pending cases. Somebody is going to have to fill that role, that void, created by the appointment of Jeff Sessions, to be the head of the Department of Justice, to be our attorney general. I think, just to take that one example, that role is going to fall to The ACLU.
Chris Cate: I want to go back. You talked about how long you’ve been with The ACLU. You were actually [crosstalk 00:05:57] a part of The ACLU before you even came to Florida. [00:06:00] What is it about Florida that interested you into even coming here? It’s such a unique state when it comes to politics.
Howard Simon: Well, first of all it has to be said in all honesty that when I came here, almost 20 years ago, it’ll be my 20th anniversary towards the end of calendar ’17, I came here because like lots of people from the north and the northeast, [00:06:30] my parents lived here and they were getting elderly. That was certainly a factor. The other factor is, this is Florida. I wake up in the mornings and I say to my wife, “I think we are lucky to live in Florida.” It’s beautiful here. People in the north may not appreciate that. They keep saying to me things like, they say to people down [00:07:00] here a lot, “Oh my god, how can you stand the summers here? Isn’t it hot down here?” Yes it is, but it’s wonderful. I love living in Florida.
It has to be said that, I taught at the University of Minnesota. I went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota. I lived in Michigan for almost 25 years. I feel lucky to live in Florida.
Chris Cate: I agree. You actually taught philosophy. [00:07:30] Is that right?
Howard Simon: Yes. I got a PhD from the university of Minnesota. Taught philosophy at the University of Minnesota and was a member of the department of philosophy and religion at DePauw University in Indiana. Then, started working for The ACLU in Michigan. I was the director of The ACLU in the state of Michigan for 23 years because coming down [00:08:00] to Florida in 1997.
Chris Cate: Do you find that working in philosophy was almost a natural transition to joining The ACLU where you kind of … the act of questioning things is sort of a part of your role?
Howard Simon: It was an easy transition. Look, I have a lot of managerial and administrative responsibilities, philosophy didn’t help with that. But the kind of philosophy that I taught, [00:08:30] I taught legal philosophy to pre law students. I taught political philosophy. I taught law and morality and issues involving abortion and the death penalty and end of life decisions and religious freedom and things like that. Just thinking about that for several decades was a very easy transition to [00:09:00] organizing a civil liberties organization, to act on those issues.
Chris Cate: That make sense. Now with an organization the size of The ACLU, how do you decide which issues to prioritize? I’m sure you have many issues to chose from, a lot of people trying to get you to move into action on some issues but, you only have so much time and resources. How do you prioritize what you’re going to work on?
Howard Simon: That is a very, very good question. [00:09:30] There has been, I think, a real evolution. I’ve been one of those that have forced our organization to change on that. It used to be the case, that what The ACLU did was essentially respond to whatever came in the mail or whatever came in over the telephone. People thought of us as a kind of a legal aid society. You could imagine the general public [00:10:00] has a very expansive notion of what is a violation of their constitutional rights. That’s what the typical ACLU was several decades ago. Volunteer legal panels might meet over lunch once a week and people bring in their email and they go to the mail and it says, “That sounds like a good case. Let’s research that. Let’s look into that.”
We don’t do that anymore. What we do, especially in Florida, I can’t [00:10:30] speak for every other ACLU but I do think this characterizes the organization more and more, is that we really are a public policy watchdog. In that we watch what the legislature does and watch what congress does, watch what local politicians do. We try to make a decision, and we do, I must say, every year, we have internal organizational, begins with the staff, [00:11:00] priority setting session. In which we look at what we think are the most significant problems in Florida and figure out how to use our resources, or staff and other resources to figure out how to address those issues.
In Florida now, it should not come as a secret, to anybody, that what we see as the major problems that we need focusing on is criminal justice and juvenile [00:11:30] justice. We are the state with the third largest prison population. Half of the people in Florida prisons are there for a nonviolent offense. We use prisons in Florida as a substitute for drug addiction treatment and mental health counseling. We have a terrible criminal justice sentencing policy and prison system that cries [00:12:00] out for reform and voting rights.
We are the center of the universe. I mean that literally. Not just the … in the United States. Let me put it this way, no state takes away the right to vote from more people than does the state of Florida. That’s largely because of our system of lifetime felon disfranchisement that stems from [00:12:30] the civil war. That’s a major, major area that we need to work on.
We’ve also been up to our eyeballs in battles to achieve equality, full equality, for the lesbian and gay community in Florida. There are battles defending abortion rights for Florida women. And, I have to say, largely because of what was the first policy [00:13:00] initiatives of the Trump administration. This is the place to defend the rights of the immigrant community.
We always are going to have to respond to somebody who was a civil liberties emergency. We are prepared to do that. We’re equipped to do that. Our staff configuration is ready to do that. We have staffed offices in [00:13:30] four or five different areas of the state. We’ll always do that. What we try to focus on are those areas where we have made the judgment where Florida policies, and Florida institutions, are most challenged and threatened civil liberties and civil rights.
Chris Cate: Although The ACLU can be an attack dog at times, I know that you do reach across the aisle on some issues, criminal justice being [00:14:00] one of them. How do you balance the, I guess it’s kind of almost an art, of criticizing politicians on some issues, but still being able to negotiate with them on other issues?
Howard Simon: I think that’s part of being mature. I think politicians are like that too. Today’s ally may be tomorrows adversary. There are no permanent enemies and no permanent allies. [00:14:30] The ACLU prides itself on being nonpartisan, which means that we have brought lawsuits against democratic governors as well as republican governors. Democratic presidents as well as republican presidents. We have been a major critic of the Obama administration on some things and a major ally on the Obama administration on other things.
I hope [00:15:00] that we can be an ally of the Trump administration on some things, but we’re too new into his term to know that. I have to say, at this point that doesn’t seem to be very likely. We certainly have been a major critic and I have to say, a major opponent of [00:15:30] the Rick Scott administration here in Florida. We have filed a lot of lawsuits in which the state has been on the other side. All from efforts to suppress the right to vote and a major piece of legislation that the legislature enacted in 2011 and the governor championed, that did all sorts of things to make it more difficult to vote or to register to vote, or to allow [00:16:00] volunteer voter registration organizations to register voters.
You remember there was the effort to drug test welfare applicants, the effort to dug test state employees. We certainly battled the state on the right of lesbians and gays to marry. We certainly one the case against the attorney general, spanning two different attorney generals, [00:16:30] on the issue of the right of lesbians and gays to become adoptive parents. I mean, I can go on. We’ve been a major opponent of this administration in Florida.
I think we stood in the way of just an awful amount of bad policies from being implemented. We were involved in, I think, one of the most significant cases, although we were not the lead on this but we were assisting [00:17:00] it in this matter, the striking down the law that prohibited doctors from talking to their patient about the safe storage of guns in the home. I think a very, very dangerous law that certainly with impacts on the suicide rate and the accidental death rate when little kids get their hands on guns at home.
I think I’m wandering from your question. [00:17:30] Who is in office is not the determinant of what we do. We have come to the defense of Rush Limbaugh. We’ve come to the defense of religious organizations. Boy, I remember a case, this goes back may years. This is a case, I think, that may be best summarized as [00:18:00] what The ACLU is all about.
I was the director of The ACLU in Michigan in 1988 when George Bush, the elder, was running against Michael Dukakis. If people can remember, Michael Dukakis was being accused, by George Bush, of being a card carrying member of The ACLU. I got a call late one evening from a woman [00:18:30] who arrived home to find a ticket in her door saying that she was in violation of the city’s sign ordinances. Was a suburban community in the Detroit area. The city only permitted “For Sale,” or “Sold” signs. Unless she removed her sign, she would get a $500 fine or 30 days in jail, whatever.
I asked her what was on her sign and [00:19:00] it said, “Bush for President.” Her candidate was attacking The ACLU but she knew who to call to defend her constitutional rights. Of course, we came to her defense and of course, she never had to remove her sign. I think that little story illustrates the strange role that ACLU plays in the political life of our nation. If we didn’t exist, somebody would have to invent The [00:19:30] ACLU. Governments violate the law and somebody has to sue government, to haul government into court so judges can rule on the constitutionality of what public officials do.
Chris Cate: I love that story because that’s really how it’s supposed to work. What is one change you would really like to see I Florida, before or during the 2018 election cycle?
Howard Simon: Most of [00:20:00] all because this is kind of where I came in as a civil rights activist, as a college student I spent time in, a little bit of time, in the south campaigning for voting rights and the passage of the voting rights act of 1965. Now I live in the state that takes away the right to vote from more people than any other state. If I had to pick one thing that I would like to see, [00:20:30] I’d like to see Florida dragged kicking a screaming into the 21st century. And, the system that is in our constitution, that upon conviction of a felony, people lose their right to vote and their civil rights, for their rest of their life, unless they receive clemency from the governor.
There are only four states in our country that do that, Virginia, Kentucky, [00:21:00] Iowa and Florida. The numbers in Florida are more than all those others combined. It has left us with a situation, in which, as I said earlier, I think that 1.7 million people of our Florida citizens, have lost their right to vote. It doesn’t matter, it could’ve been 25 years ago, they could be model citizens right now, but right now they’ve lost their civil rights and the [00:21:30] right to vote for the rest of their lives.
This started out as a system to try to take the political power and the right to vote away from the freed slaves following the civil war. That’s the origin of all of this. But now, more than 150 years later, more white people than black people are … have lost the right to vote. If I could choose one thing that I would [00:22:00] like to see changed more than anything else, I would like to see Florida become like other states in which, people lose their rights if they’re convicted of a crime, but when they pay their debt to society, and complete all the terms and conditions of their sentence, then like in most other states, they get their rights back.
Chris Cate: Thank you for sharing that. I have four more questions and they’re general questions about Florida that I ask every guest. [00:22:30] Here’s the first one. Who’s a Florida leader you admire? It can be someone from Florida history or someone still active in their work, but who is someone from Florida that you really admire.
Howard Simon: I may regret this but what first comes to mind, I hope I’m not leaving anybody out, but what first comes to mind are great crusading journalists that have uncovered wrongdoing. I think of Martin Dyckman. Long retired from [00:23:00] the, what was then, St. Pete times, now The Tampa Bay Times. But boy, what a great crusading journalist like that. Lucy Morgan, people like that, who are still writing. Both Martin is still writing as well, for newspapers, but I think they’re both retired but people who have uncovered the … so many of the corruption and the wrongdoing [00:23:30] of Florida politicians.
Chris Cate: Yeah, those are great examples because reporters really can do so much when they describe an issue and really educate voters about what is really going on. The second question I have on these questions I ask every guest is, do you have a favorite Florida location to visit? It can be a city, a restaurant, a beach, whatever you like. But, what is a favorite place in Florida for you to go?
Howard Simon: [00:24:00] Wow, that’s a really good question. That is really good. I guess I have several. I live on Florida highways. I have offices in Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Tampa and Miami. I’m based in Miami but I travel quite a bit. As I travel around, I look for, what I call, other people call it too … I love [00:24:30] old Florida. Places where it’s not overdeveloped. I must say, I seem to find more of that on the west coast of Florida. I love St. Petersburg. That’s a great city. I love all the arts and the culture that exist in Sarasota. I love the theater in Sarasota and the great restaurants there.
My parents lived for almost, [00:25:00] they died a few years ago, but I think for the last 27 years of their life, they lived in Delray. There are parts of Delray that are kind of like that. The long Atlantic Ave. which is, although, being heavily developed. I think of Hollywood. The parts of Hollywood between I95 and the Intracoastal is just a little piece of preserved, old Florida that [00:25:30] I think is lovely.
Chris Cate: Several great places. The next question should be a little bit easier. Do you have a favorite Florida sports team that you like to cheer for?
Howard Simon: Even though I’ve lived here for almost 20 years, I’m sorry I brought down all my prejudices and preferences and loyalties from the north. I still root for Michigan football. [00:26:00] God, I’m sure, in a state that’s ridden with loyalties and divisions between the Gators and the Noles and the University of Miami and so on, I’m sure what I just said is heresy. I still root from the University of Michigan football team and I have to confess that even though I was born and raised in New York.
I was born as raised in New York [00:26:30] as someone who … as a Yankee hater. I’ve been a Boston Red Sock fan for probably 60 years. One of the things I love to do, I love to … and one of the joys of living in Florida, is taking advantage of spring training. Going over to little Fenway in Fort Myers, which is kind of like exact replica [00:27:00] of Fenway Park is a joy that I try to do at least twice a year during spring training.
Chris Cate: I love spring training too. Last question, what Florida person, place or thing deserves more positive attention, in your opinion?
Howard Simon: Let me say the thing, I … this voting issue. This voting issue, this is a scandalous situation. We’ve got almost 25% of the adult black [00:27:30] community in Florida, even though as I said earlier, most people who’ve lost their right to vote are white and not black, but almost 10 percent of Florida’s citizens are barred from voting. Now that I think about your question, I think it really is a good question because I think so many people in Florida, come from somewhere else. Either they are immigrants [00:28:00] from Central, South America, or here in Miami where I live, from Cuba. Or, they are retirees from the Midwest, or the northeast. So many people from the Midwest on the west coast of Florida, or the east coast on the east side of Florida.
I think people don’t know the extent to which we are still tied to the Jim Crow rules [00:28:30] that govern Florida that were nailed down in 1868. After Florida, a member of the confederacy had to … what they did when they were forced to rejoin the union and set up a system, a very complex system, of which the principal remaining one is taking away the right to vote for the rest of your life. I think most people [00:29:00] are shocked when they learn about that.
They think that the system is, maybe they think it’s a system that’s governed by federal law. No it’s not governed by federal law, it’s left to the states. Maybe they think Florida is somewhat like their state, where, people go to prison and then they get their rights back when they “pay their debt to society.” But no, it’s not like that in Florida, you lose your civil rights for the rest of your life.
This deserves more attention [00:29:30] because it is a scandalous situation, it’s been maintained by politicians for their own benefit. It’s part of the way in which politicians manipulate who can vote so as to guarantee who can stay in office. I think it is the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. It’s here in Florida.
Chris Cate: I can definitely hear your passion on that issue. I do thank you for sharing that. I do [00:30:00] thank you also for being on this show and taking the time out of your day to talk to us.
Howard Simon: Thank you. Appreciate the opportunity.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent and Floridian podcast. If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, hope you’ll look us up and subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app, like Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or Google Play Music. If you leave a review, that would be great too. Thanks to my team at SalterMitchellPR for making this podcast possible. If you need help telling your Florida story, we’ve got you covered. We offer [00:30:30] issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy and media relations assistance. We also have our own in-house creative and research teams. Look us up at SalterMitchellPR.com. You can also find more information about the Fluent and Floridian podcast at fluentandfloridian.com. Have a great day.