BEND, Ore. — David Fidanque, outgoing director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, has a message for the state: It’s not as progressive as some say.
“You tell me Oregon is a progressive state? That all depends on the issue,” Fidanque said in an interview after announcing that March 31 is his last day in the position he’s held since 1993.
At the time Fidanque became leader of the Oregon ACLU chapter, the state was engulfed in debate over local ballot measures that would prevent anti-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians. A wave of states would soon pass gay marriage bans, including one that was in place until last year in Oregon. Others remain in place elsewhere.
The Oregon chapter added staff and its budget grew fourfold, to about $1 million, as it continued to be a driving force in civil liberties under Fidanque.
“When you work for the ACLU . there are always issues where we may not win today, or this year, or next year,” he said, “but we are building the foundation to increase public support around those issues for the future.”
Fidanque held the reins when the country faced major decisions on marriage and racial equality. Oregon also took steps toward prison sentencing reforms.
But for every victory under his tenure, there were more setbacks.
Several local anti-discrimination proposals passed in the early 1990s.
But then, the ACLU in 1996 came out strongly against a ballot measure referred from the Legislature to remove a prohibition on vindictive justice from its Constitution, saying Oregon was taking out a 136-year-old ban on vengeance. The measure passed.
“We’re certainly not as progressive as we should be on criminal justice reform, or even as progressive as we were in 1859,” Fidanque said, citing passage of Measure 26.
He also said that although the country has seen large protests and conversation around racism in America, he believes the racism that prevails today, while less blatant than in the past, will persist.
“It’s the unconscious racism and discrimination that is so much more difficult to eliminate,” Fidanque said. “There’s a lot more to be done before we’ll be able to look back and say that racial discrimination” is over.
Fidanque also said the response to 9/11 and the revelations of widespread spying on Americans show what ACLU and other groups view as attacks on the Constitution that they’ll continue to combat.
“The Constitution is a road map to security, not an obstacle,” he said.
Such is the peak-and-valley life of the director of a group devoted to civil rights and civil liberties.
Oregon has been stubborn to change or preserve liberties in some ways, Fidanque said. “On the other hand, we have no restrictions on access to abortion in Oregon. We’re the only state in the nation that can say that.”
Fidanque joined the ACLU in 1982 after working as a reporter for KEZI in Eugene and working for U.S. Rep. Jim Weaver in the 1970s.
He served for four years on the ACLU national steering committee that coordinated work among the group’s executive directors.
The 65-year-old Fidanque said he wanted to retire “before people start wondering when I’m going to retire,” adding that he felt fortunate he was financially able to retire. The group said it will conduct a nationwide search for a replacement.
ACLU of Oregon board President Jennifer Middleton said Fidanque helped lead to victories on free speech, reproductive rights, racial justice and individual privacy, among others.
“Dave is leaving us a vital, strong organization, and we look forward to a smooth transition,” Middleton said in a statement.