Louis Rhodes is a tomahto in a tomato world, a conservative who defends liberals, a flag-waver who defends flag-burners. He is the state's pre-eminent defender of people with contrarian views--even when those views are contrary to his own.
For the past eleven-and-a-half years, Rhodes has been executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, a post he will soon leave for an undisclosed new job. Though probably not a household name to most Arizonans, Rhodes has been there whenever the story involves some lone crusader on a mission the rest of us never heard of, may not agree with, or may even hate.
A roundish, rumpled figure with thick eyeglasses, Rhodes can be found standing to the side of the public stage, voicing witty, sometimes outrageous commentary on the progress of individual liberties in an increasingly structured society. These causes frequently diverge from his personal views, but he defends them anyway because they involve constitutional principles. Some examples:
When the Mesa public schools decided to include prayer in its federally funded school-lunch program, Rhodes took up the cudgel for separation of church and state. His own background, as it happens, is Pentecostal, as fundamentalist as Christianity gets. "Most people consider the issue of prayer in school insignificant, but the people who oppose it the strongest are often the most religious--they don't want to be forced to say someone else's prayer," Rhodes says.
Rhodes defends the right of people to burn the flag, although he personally reveres the flag so highly that he "cringes" if he even sees one in disrepair. "People have a right to free expression," Rhodes says. It's either that or get your rights trampled. "I tell people you need me to support the scuzzbags because you surely don't want to get into a situation where I'm having to represent your rights."
He spent most of the Sixties flirting with one ultraright group after another, but thinks many law-and-order programs amount to police-state intrusions into people's privacy. "I never could understand how people who said they were for individual freedom could support such repressive government measures in the name of security," Rhodes says.
Rhodes mounted major efforts to improve prisoner rights during his decade leading the local American Civil Liberties Union affiliate--an ironic quest considering that he is married to a state prison guard. "I tell her any system that doesn't protect prisoners' rights isn't likely to care about employee rights, either," he says.
Rhodes' philosophy, a perfect expression of the ideal behind the ACLU, almost guarantees that he'll be on the unpopular side of a debate. He is not bothered by this role. But he's always been a bit of an odd duck--a Republican who supported George McGovern and, later, a Democrat who thought Ev Mecham was great. (Rhodes grew disenchanted when Mecham began referring to "the good people who support me.")
Though the ACLU is frequently associated with Eastern liberalism, Rhodes is an Arizona native. He is white, but grew up in mostly black-and-Hispanic South Phoenix. "I went to Carl Hayden, the only Republican in a sea of Democrats," he says. "I was wearing a `Goldwater for President' button the day Kennedy was assassinated. I tell people, `At least it was edged in black.'"
Rhodes developed an interest in history and politics as soon as he began to read, and started campaigning door to door for local candidates when he was just twelve. As a high school student, he began attending John Birch Society meetings. "I was the only guy there who thought Earl Warren was a good guy," Rhodes recalls.
Once at Arizona State University, he gravitated toward the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom. "I guess if the time had been twenty years later, I would have been a Libertarian," Rhodes says. "But I never could get totally turned off the system. I always believed it could work."
Rhodes loved to study, but says he drifted through his twenties with no idea what he wanted to do. He worked on various political campaigns and, off and on, for the Arizona State Legislature, but says, "At one time, I thought my headstone would read: `Still not working.'"
After marrying at the age of 31, Rhodes decided it was time to get a steady job. "A member of the ACLU board of directors invited me to apply for this position, and I thought it might be a good fit," he says. "I'd just rejoined the ACLU as a member. This was during the time of the [American Nazi] marches on Skokie [Illinois] and everyone was mad at the ACLU [for defending the Nazis' right to march through predominantly Jewish neighborhoods]."
Rhodes started his ACLU job on September 17, Constitution Day, in 1979. He and a small group of volunteers field 1,200 to 1,500 inquiries a month, most of them discrimination complaints. The group winnows these reports down to those that involve clear-cut Constitutional issues and presents them to a local board of directors for action. Twenty to thirty local lawyers provide free representation of those cases that can't be settled through "sweet reason," Rhodes says.
"People can take the view that we are the oppressed minority, and it's true we're usually representing the unpopular view," Rhodes says. "But we usually prevail because most people recognize the importance of free speech and the other constitutionally guaranteed freedoms."
It's been a busy decade for Rhodes, but he can recall his reaction back in '79 when he saw the ACLU's tiny shop, at the time housed in a decaying building near the Phoenix Public Library. "I was told it was a small organization, with not much money, and I said fine, I was used to that," Rhodes says. "But when they showed me the office, I said, `I understood it was gonna be small, but this looks like they're bombing us.'" -
Rhodes has always been a bit of an odd duck--a Republican who supported George McGovern and, later, a Democrat who thought Ev Mecham was great.