Howard Simon began his career fighting for voting rights, and he’ll end more than four decades of civil-rights advocacy championing the same issue.
Along the way, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has plagued the Republican-dominated Legislature and more than one GOP governor, emerging victorious in court battles involving abortion, gay adoption and drug testing of some of Florida’s neediest people, to name just a few issues.
Simon, 74, will retire from the ACLU post he’s held for 21 years following the November elections, in which voters will have an opportunity to weigh in on a battle he views as significant as the one that ultimately secured the right to vote for black Americans.
“I came in on voting rights. I’m going to retire after this monumental battle on voting rights,” Simon told The News Service of Florida in a lengthy interview Monday.
Simon and the ACLU’s state and national organizations have been instrumental in garnering support for the “Voting Restoration Amendment,” which would automatically restore the right to vote for felons who have completed their sentences, fulfilled probation or parole and paid restitution. The proposal, which excludes felons convicted of murder or sexual offenses, will appear as Amendment 4 on the November ballot.
If approved by 60 percent of voters, the measure could impact an estimated 600,000 Floridians who are now unable to cast ballots.
Under Florida’s current system, felons must wait five to seven years before applying to vote. Just a fraction — about 10 percent — of those who have applied since Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet toughened the process after taking office in 2011 have had their rights restored, according to the state’s Commission on Offender Review. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker recently ruled that the current process is unconstitutional and gave Scott and the Cabinet, who make up the Board of Executive Clemency, until April 26 to revamp the system. The state is appealing the decision.
Simon praised Walker’s ruling but said it didn’t go far enough.
Getting rid of what Simon called an unfair system by altering the Constitution “is going to change Florida,” the former philosophy professor said.
“For me, what Amendment 4 is all about is a moral issue. When do people earn their way back into the community? There is no permanent second-class status. People break the law. They should be punished. But morally, there’s got to be a way in which people earn a right back into the community,” Simon said.
With his thick New York accent and eminently quotable remarks, Simon has been the go-to guy for reporters covering the myriad lawsuits in which his civil-rights organization racked up a series of victories over the years.
Since Simon has been at the helm, the ACLU backed Michael Schiavo in a skirmish over then-Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature’s efforts to keep Schiavo’s wife, Terri, on life support.
The ACLU also successfully challenged Gov. Rick Scott’s attempt to require people applying for temporary assistance — whom a former state official called “the poorest of the poor” — to undergo drug tests. Scott also lost a similar case involving mandatory drug testing of state employees.
The ACLU also participated in or played a major role in numerous lawsuits focused on abortion rights and elections.
Before becoming the ACLU’s chief in Florida, Simon spent more than two decades in the same role in Michigan.
During his tenure there, the civil-rights organization uncovered the FBI’s involvement in a 1961 attack on the Freedom Riders during the civil-rights movement. The Michigan organization’s work led to a federal judge’s finding that the FBI’s informants were responsible for the attack.
Simon said that perhaps the most fulfilling triumphs he’s participated in have come in the arena of gay rights.
The ACLU represented Martin Gill, a gay man raising two foster children with his partner, in a challenge against the state’s ban on gay adoption. In 2010, a judge ruled that the law violated Gill’s equal-protection rights. A state appeals court upheld the decision, and former Gov. Charlie Crist’s administration did not appeal the ruling.
More recently, the ACLU represented couples in a challenge against Florida’s same-sex marriage ban. The court sided with the gay couples, and the decision was later cemented by a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down state prohibitions against same-sex marriages.
“They weren’t just legal victories. What thrills me about this is, we helped create families,” Simon said.
Others might be discouraged about opening and closing a nearly 50-year vocation on the same issue, but not Simon.
“What sustains me personally is that, with progress and human rights and civil liberties in the U.S., it’s always two steps forward and one step back,” said Simon, whose 44 cumulative years as an ACLU state director is the longest in the national organization’s 98-year history.
The country is in the midst of “a big step back” under President Donald Trump, Simon said.
But, unlike when he first got into the civil-rights business, volunteers aren’t being killed as they register people to vote. And advances have been made for blacks, women and the LGBTQ community, Simon said.
“There is progress. We don’t live in racial apartheid,” he said. “Race is a constant issue in America, but we’re not the same country. It’s two steps forward and one step back and we’re much better than we were.”