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The A.C.L.U. Is Getting Involved in Elections—and Reinventing Itself for the Trump Era

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Earlier this year, radio advertisements began airing in and around Charlotte, North Carolina, criticizing the elected sheriff of Mecklenburg County, a Democrat and retired firefighter named Irwin Carmichael. Normally, only the most politically extreme or publicity-hungry sheriffs attract much public notice, and Carmichael was not one of those. “People weren’t even aware of who the sheriff was,” Mark Mellman, a prominent Washington pollster who worked on the race, told me. Carmichael’s office had maintained an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement that deputized his officers to identify undocumented prisoners and turn them over to federal agents, and the radio ads focussed on this issue. “Sheriff Carmichael works with Trump’s deportation force—detaining people for deportation, tearing families apart,” an announcer intoned. “Carmichael’s challengers? They’ve pledged to stop working with Trump’s deportation force.” The anti-Carmichael ads also carried an interesting concluding line—they had been paid for, an announcer said, by the American Civil Liberties Union. Carmichael had gone into his reëlection year looking like a good bet to win. Before the Democratic primary, he had raised more than twice as much money as had his two challengers—a retired homicide detective, Garry McFadden, and a former suburban police chief, Antoine Ensley—combined. But the A.C.L.U. was spending money on the race, too: the radio ads alone matched Carmichael’s entire budget. On primary day, McFadden won, Ensley came in second, and Carmichael finished third. When he spoke to the press after the results came in, the defeated sheriff criticized the “outside forces” that he believed had contributed to his defeat.

For most of its ninety-eight years of existence, the A.C.L.U. has spent its resources largely on litigation, arguing for civil liberties, and against government excess, in the courts. Part of the organization’s DNA is a Bill of Rights purism—the group, always liberal, has famously defended the rights of neo-Nazis and Klansmen to protest—and it has been fastidiously nonpartisan, so prudish about any alliance with political power that its leadership, in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, declined even to give awards to like-minded legislators for fear that it might give the wrong impression. In this midterm year, however, as progressive groups have mushroomed and grown more active, and as liberal billionaires such as Howard Schultz and Tom Steyer have begun to imagine themselves as political heroes and eye Presidential runs, the A.C.L.U., itself newly flush, has begun to move in step with the times. For the


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