Anthony Romero

One week after starting his new job as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero was in a Hilton conference room in Washington, poised to deliver his debut speech to the group's 80 biggest donors. A staffer approached him at the podium and handed him a note: "Would you please step outside." "Not right now," replied Romero. "You really do want to step outside," the staffer insisted. Romero exited to the hotel lobby and saw the television images of the Twin Towers in flames. It took an instant for him to realize it was a terrorist attack--and an instant more to realize the potentially devastating implications for civil liberties. After breaking the news to the donors, Romero warned them of difficult days ahead. "We will have to take unpopular points of view," he told them. "I implore you to stick with me."

It was Romero's baptism at the helm of the nation's premier civil-liberties group. Soft-spoken and thin as a rake, he isn't exactly the obstreperous type. He certainly cuts a different profile than his legendary predecessor, the gruff and feisty Ira Glasser. But Romero, 36, so impressed the 83-member ACLU board with his youthful vigor and breadth of vision that it decided in a rare unanimous vote to hand him the reins.

Romero has his hands full. He is still settling into his new job (he didn't even have a computer account or business cards when the terrorists struck) as he commands his troops against a zealous government crackdown. The battlelines were sharply drawn, as the administration rounded up hundreds of detainees (most of whose names still haven't been released), won passage of laws authorizing secret searches, approved the use of military tribunals--and began questioning some 5,000 men of Middle Eastern descent. But Romero is already fighting back. His lawyers are representing some of the 5,000 men being questioned, and in early December the ACLU joined other groups to file a suit calling for the release of information on detainees. "We need to defend security and at the same time protect freedom," he says. "The two don't have to be on a collision course."

Romero inherits a 300,000-member organization that Glasser transformed from a disjointed band of idealists into a professionally run powerhouse. Romero will seek to deepen its ranks. "Our membership doesn't reflect the populations that are our major constituency," like people of color and youth, says national president Nadine Strossen. Romero, a gay Latino who has experienced discrimination firsthand, may help energize those groups. He also wants to lead the ACLU to the forefront of cutting-edge legal debates--how, for instance, the human genome will affect civil liberties.

Romero's rise was hardly preordained. The son of Puerto Rican jibaros--rural folk--he grew up in a squalid housing project in the Bronx, N.Y. It never occurred to him that college was an option until universities began trying to recruit him; he ended up studying at Princeton and Stanford Law School. "What I have achieved," says Romero, "is an enormous testament to this country, so I am an incredibly patriotic man." It makes him a zealot about defending civil liberties--what he calls "the ultimate act of patriotism."