ACLU chief Howard Simon leaves on the ‘highest note’ — restoring felons’ voting rights

Howard Simon, who helped spearhead the effort to restore voting rights to Florida felons who have served their sentences, is leaving the ACLU after four decades in Michigan and Florida.
Howard Simon, who helped spearhead the effort to restore voting rights to Florida felons who have served their sentences, is leaving the ACLU after four decades in Michigan and Florida. Courtesy of the ACLU

Howard Simon wanted to wait for just a few more minutes.

The executive director of ACLU Florida — at least until he steps down Nov. 30 — had spent years trying to restore voting rights to felons across the state.

“Go out there and call it. We won. We won,” two of his staff members told him at the organization’s watch party. Major news outlets had already declared victory for Amendment 4 — a ballot measure Simon helped craft that would allow formerly incarcerated Floridians (except for murderers and sex offenders) to register to cast ballots.

But Simon, 75, was nervous. He remembered the dinner party in 2000 as the votes were being tallied in the cliffhanger presidential election. He had been sure Al Gore would be the country’s next president.

But on this night, 18 years later, there would be no crushing conclusion. Amendment 4 got the 60 percent of votes required for passage.... and then some. About 15 minutes after his initial reluctance, it sunk in. He told the crowd that they had won.

Two weeks earlier, he said if the measure passed, “We are going to transform Florida forever.” Now, he stands by his words.

After 40 years of leading American Civil Liberties Union chapters in Michigan and Florida, Simon is calling it quits. He’ll remain in Florida, and plans to stay active, but will relocate from Miami to the Gulf Coast. The end of a long career with such a venerable organization might normally elicit polite plaudits from across the political spectrum. But that’s not necessarily true when it’s the ACLU.

The organization, whose mission is to challenge conventions, fight for civil rights and, sometimes, advocate for unpopular causes, has become a lightning rod and a punching bag to some. Once, during a presidential debate, Republican candidate George H.W. Bush, called his Democratic opponent, Mike Dukakis, a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.” It was not a compliment.

terri schiavo_2.JPG
Then-Gov. Jeb Bush clashed with the ACLU and Howard Simon over a right-to-die case involving Terri Schiavo. Miami Herald file photo

The ACLU may not be a Bush family favorite. Asked for his thoughts on Simon’s career and contributions, former Gov. Jeb Bush, George H.W. Bush’s son, responded through a spokesman that he’ll “take a pass.”

Rick Scott — no fan of felon voting rights, based on his eight years of slow-walking individual requests for rights restorations — was asked for a comment on Simon’s departure

“Thanks for the email,” his spokesman responded. “I’ll let you know if we have anything to add.” He didn’t.

download (8).jpeg
Gov. Rick Scott set up a process that extended the time it takes for Florida felons to get their civil rights reinstated. Amendment Four, backed by the ACLU’s Howard Simon, restored those rights. Miami Herald file photo

Others were eager to extol Simon’s achievements and express their admiration.

Dan Gelber, Miami Beach mayor, who has worked with Simon through his law firm, Gelber Schacter & Greenberg, said: “In many respects he’s been the conscience of our community,” adding, “He’s always been on my side and I don’t want him against me.”

Restoration of voting rights has always been a high-priority issue for Simon. But there have been many other causes

During his more than two-decade tenure in Florida, the ACLU has fought off restrictions on abortion access, struck down a gag order on doctors talking to patients and their families about the safe storage of guns, and waged a pitched battle with Gov. Bush over a woman’s right to die.

In the right-to-die case, Terri Schiavo was severely brain-damaged, in a vegetative state, when her husband sought to have her feeding tube removed, believing it would allow her to die a dignified death. He said this was in keeping with her previously stated wishes. Her parents objected and convinced Gov. Bush to intervene.

Bush coaxed the Legislature to pass a hastily drawn statute, Terri’s Law, that allowed him to take action, which he did, having an ambulance with a state police escort remove Schiavo from a nursing home against her husband’s wishes. Bush had her placed in a hospital, where the tube was re-inserted.

Under Simon’s leadership, the ACLU would undertake a successful court fight to have the law declared unconstitutional. Schiavo’s widower remains angry two decades later.

Lillian Tamayo, head of Florida’s Planned Parenthood, said she is grateful for “sharing the foxhole” with Simon. She credited his success, in part, to a quiet tenacity.

Simon and the ACLU have joined forces with Planned Parenthood to oppose efforts to restrict access to abortion.

Tamayo said the two organizations have also worked together to fend off funding for crisis pregnancy centers, which, critics say, operate under the guise of healthcare organizations but actually try to shame women into carrying their pregnancies to term.

“The space the ACLU leans into, is of course, the judicial space, the litigation. We do excellent work together because they can move into that space and we work in the provision of healthcare,” Tamayo said.

Under the stewardship of Simon, who is not a lawyer, the Florida ACLU prevented mandatory drug testing for welfare applicants and state employees — initiatives of Gov. Scott — reversed a ban on same-sex couples adopting children and helped usher in a switch from punch-card ballots to ATM-style paperless voting.

Restoring dignity

For Simon, Amendment 4 wasn’t just about the act of voting. It was about restoring dignity for the formerly incarcerated and ensuring they do not feel like second-class citizens. “Voting is a symbol of being a full person in our society,” Simon said.

Its passage could make a significant difference in future elections. An estimated 1.2 million felons who have completed their terms are currently banned from casting ballots in Florida, the nation’s most populous swing state. In the 2000 presidential election, when the winner of the White House came down to who prevailed in Florida, the gap between candidates was fewer than 1,000 votes.

Even five decades ago, Simon was fighting for voting rights. In 1965, he received a telegram from Martin Luther King Jr.

King had invited students from across the country to join civil rights leaders in a march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. Simon, an undergrad at New York’s City College, wanted to be there.

Not long after, Simon was reporting to King’s chief deputy, the Rev. Andrew Young, in the basement of Brown Chapel, home of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and starting point of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. He was assigned printing duty on the mimeograph — a primitive machine used to create fliers.

“To be a part of a civil rights march like that, to stand there at the steps of the state capitol” was a life-changing experience, he said.

The Terri Schiavo right-to-die case generated headlines and pitted Florida Gov. Jeb Bush against the ACLU and Schiavo’s husband Jeff Greenberg © Jeff Greenberg

Before he joined the ACLU, Simon taught philosophy and religion at DePauw University in Indiana. His students approached him about not being able to vote in their town. They could only vote where they were from, not where they spent most of their year. Simon took up their cause.

He planned to go to law school but found himself drawn to the ACLU, as executive director in Michigan.

Michigan to Florida

In Michigan, he and the ACLU were instrumental in defending a ban on the death penalty, securing equal pensions for men and women and uncovering evidence of FBI collusion with the KKK in an attack on Freedom Riders buses.

Simon remembers when he decided to move to Florida. He was lounging by the Biltmore hotel’s pool in Coral Gables and thinking that this was where he wanted to be. Miami then was what America was becoming: cosmopolitan, multilingual, diverse. The sunshine didn’t hurt. And his parents, who have since passed away, lived in Palm Beach.

“Howard, I hear you play golf. I hear it’s kind of rough playing golf in Michigan winters,” said Randy Berg, now executive director of Florida Justice Institute, who was the president of ACLU Florida at the time, in 1997.

Simon’s co-workers in Michigan sent him off with a putter and a bag of golf balls.

Two years later would come Bush vs. Gore.

Going forward, Simon said, Florida cries out for leadership on criminal justice reform. “We’re using prisons as a substitute for mental health treatment and drug addiction,” he said.

He said Florida is an outlier in the Deep South as surrounding states have made changes that have reduced their prison populations.

Thick skin needed

Simon’s job requires thick skin and the ability to tolerate harsh, emotional criticism. He has always remained clear-headed about where he stands, although he says the history of his family weighs heavily on him. Several of his relatives died in the Holocaust.

Although the ACLU tends to garner more support from the left side of the political spectrum, it has at times been an equal opportunity antagonizer. Some still remember the time it defended the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, a Chicago suburb that is home to many Holocaust survivors. It has supported the First Amendment rights of right-wing provocateurs and fought to keep radio talker Rush Limbaugh’s medical records private.

Simon not only found a mission at the ACLU, he found a partner for life.

Beth Wilson was covering abortion clinic violence as a newspaper reporter in Knoxville, Tennessee. She was frustrated about having to maintain a detached neutrality on topics she did not feel neutral about. She quit her job, got a graduate degree in social work and started working at an abortion clinic. Then, she ended up at a small ACLU affiliate in Kentucky, working on reproductive rights.

Simon hired her in Florida to be deputy director and manage internal affairs — make sure staff members had what they needed. They became good friends while working together.

Long before they got into a relationship and were married, she admired him. “I’ve always seen him as an incredible person who lives his values in ways lot of people don’t,” Wilson said.

“He makes me laugh every day,” Wilson added, describing his humor as dry and sarcastic.

Lasting legacy

In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark Obergefell ruling, guaranteeing same sex couples the right to marry.

Florida, sometimes a laggard, was six months ahead of the court. On April 13, 2014, the ACLU had sued on behalf of eight couples to challenge Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage. A federal judge struck down the ban.

The day the lawsuit was filed was the day that Arlene Goldberg’s wife died. They had married in another state three years earlier, and been together for 47. A grieving Goldberg, whose partner would not be recognized as her wife on her death certificate, read about the ACLU’s case in the newspaper and knew she wanted to reach out. She said she doesn’t believe the timing was a coincidence.

Goldberg’s primary income was through Social Security but because the state did not recognize her marriage she could not qualify as Carol Goldwasser’s widow. As a result, Goldberg could not collect her wife’s monthly Social Security payments, which were $700 more each month than her own.

As a result of the ACLU’s efforts, she was able to collect the additional benefit.

Goldberg’s father told her when she was growing up that the ACLU was a communist organization. That didn’t stop her from reaching out and she makes clear in a book she’s writing now that is not the case.

Simon recalled the judge saying he would issue his opinion in a few weeks, but adding that he was instructing the state — immediately — to order Goldwasser’s death certificate to read “married.” That’s when he knew they would win.

The victory is still fresh in Goldberg’s mind. “I feel the same way every time I go to a wedding or see a [same-sex] couple dancing or holding hands. I’m so proud. I’m very humble but I’m so proud that I was able to be a part of that,” Goldberg said. “If it wasn’t for Howard, I’m not sure this would have happened.”