“I guarantee, no matter how liberal or how conservative [someone is], I can find probably at least five or six issues that person will agree with us on.”
— Jennifer Rudinger, executive director, ACLU of North Carolina
Jennifer Rudinger is eating hot biscuits at the home of a friend in the beautiful Reems Creek Valley, happy to be back in North Carolina. In between bites, the new executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina is discussing both her current job and her previous one — seven years with the Alaska Civil Liberties Union.
“I think we have a way to go,” says Rudinger, speaking about her mission in North Carolina. “We have a lot more ground to cover,” she notes, contrasting the Tar Heel State’s North Carolina’s 8.4 million people with Alaska’s 640,000.
But her deeper concern is perception, not population.
“One of the challenges that I see — and I’m really looking forward to overcoming — is the perception in North Carolina that [the ACLU is] antireligion,” says Rudinger. “Also overcoming the perception that we’re aligned with the Democratic Party, which we are absolutely not. … There are plenty of issues we take on when the Democratic Party is not really in agreement with us, and I like it that way.”
Then there’s the fact that North Carolina became a state in 1789 — 170 years before Alaska came on board in 1959. The libertarian spirit in the latter state, still fresh and new, produced what Rudinger calls “one of the best constitutions in the world.”
“When you’re in Alaska, there’s Alaska and then there’s Outside, with a capital O,” she explains. That attitude even extends to the national anthem: Alaskans, says Rudinger, sing their state song, “Alaska’s Flag,” instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“People go there to be free, and that works well,” she reports. “I mean, if conservative ideology is all about small government, then it fits very well with the mission of the ACLU, which is about maximizing individual autonomy and individual decision-making.”
That philosophy is reflected in the young state’s constitution — one of only a handful in the country that explicitly state citizens’ right to privacy. “You don’t find that in the Bill of Rights,” Rudinger observes. “The Supreme Court has had to read it into the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment.”
But when Alaska was framing its own constitution in the 1950s, it “could look at what all the other states had done, and they could get it right,” Rudinger says admiringly. That, in turn, created an atmosphere that she found both professionally and personally satisfying when she lived there. “In seven years, I never figured out the right words to describe living there, but it’s truly extraordinary,” she declares.
Last May, however, Carolina beckoned — again. Rudinger had earned her undergraduate degree in political science at Duke University, and she was pleased to return to the South.
Born in Ohio, Rudinger first became aware of the ACLU during law school at Ohio State University. The summer after her second year of law school, she worked for the group, “and that was it. From then on, I was never going to work anywhere else. So many different issues — constantly hundreds of issues you have to always be learning, and that’s what I wanted.”
Telling the feds to go to hell
Rudinger moved to Anchorage in 1997 and to a great extent, her work there also involved battling perceptions. There too, she notes, the ACLU was often considered antireligion and antifamily. But Alaska’s strong libertarian streak meant that many state residents saw eye to eye with the advocacy group on some issues.
“There was common ground on issues such as campaign-finance restrictions; the ACLU does not believe in restricting how much money people can donate to political issues that they’re passionate about,” Rudinger recalls. “We also made great inroads and had agreement with conservatives on issues like Social Security number privacy. Alaskans are very wary of the government.”
And after 9/11, that wariness suddenly made the ACLU a lot more popular. “For some reason, that libertarian streak in Alaska in the conservatives does not extend to the womb or your right to choose who you love, but it does extend to Big Brother reading your personal e-mails, looking into your medical records, your student records, your financial records, your library records. The idea of the PATRIOT Act is repugnant to most Alaskans,” she asserts.