Kathleen Taylor, who for 30 years has served as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, has a long list of accomplishments and much more to do.

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Kathleen Taylor remembers one thing that really set her off when you ask what drives her to fight for personal freedoms.

When she was in college at the University of Idaho, the dean had said women couldn’t live off-campus until they were 21, but men could when they were 18. Unfair. Unacceptable.

She wasn’t 21 but did it anyway. “I said go ahead and kick me out of school. I’m on the dean’s list.”

They didn’t.

Now she’s pointing to big framed photographs leaning against the wall of the conference room in the ACLU’s new headquarters at 901 Fifth Ave. in downtown Seattle. Instead of naming the people, she names the issues. Two women: marriage equality. A girl in a baseball uniform: sports equality. A Native American woman: the right to engage in her tribe’s religious smoking ritual.

It’s a few days after Taylor was recognized for achieving a milestone pushing back against the unfair and unacceptable: 30 years as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. Big, catered party. Glowing, sometimes tearful testimonials. Reverential recitations of her achievements.

“It was so much like a retirement party or my own wake,” the unaffected 59-year-old said.

Lots accomplished — starting with being the first woman and longest-serving in the job — and lots more to do. Taylor shrugs off questions of battle fatigue, and when asked how long she might stay on the job, she simply answers, “I have no plan.”

No plan, but a consistent pattern. She recalls her dad always thinking of her as “feisty,” and her 1979 work on the ACLU-housed Coalition on Government Spying in Seattle. “It was the first in the country to stop police from collecting information on people not suspected of crimes,” Taylor says at a crowded table in her not-quite-unpacked new office.

Those who know Taylor point out that her professional appearance and unflappable demeanor helped erode the insult connotation of “card-carrying member of the ACLU” and its perceptions as a hippie, radical, pinko outfit. The nonpartisan organization fights for fair treatment and individual freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

Asked to put Taylor’s tenure into perspective, Jan Peterson, an ACLU staff attorney in the early ’70s said, “Remarkable.”

“The ACLU at the time was heavily in debt; it had a dysfunctional board; it had a mountain of debt, a staff of two and a budget of $85,000,” Peterson said. “That’s what she inherited. She now has a staff of 30 and a budget of $2.5 million.

“It’s a nonprofit organization that is constantly in the thick of controversial issues, making it, I think, difficult to raise money. You’re always making someone unhappy. To survive in that environment and build an organization to the extent that she has been able to do is a remarkable achievement.”

Taylor recalls some triumphs from a long list in which she and the ACLU have been instrumental: Initiative 120, which codified Roe v. Wade in Washington; changes in gay rights over the decades; big strides in police accountability.

Anne Levinson has been both an ally and adversary to Taylor. She was legal counsel to mayors Norm Rice and Charles Royer and deputy mayor for Rice — sparring with Taylor over “civility laws” and drug-testing for prospective employees. Now Levinson is one of the Seattle Storm’s owners, serving alongside Taylor on the selection committee for the new police chief, and working with Taylor to support Referendum 71 and gay-marriage protection.

“We’ve worked both across the table and on the same side,” Levinson said. Perhaps even ironically, Levinson has even been appointed civilian police accountability auditor.

“One of the things missing from politics and advocacy work in some circles today,” Levinson said, “is the ability to have robust debate without demonizing the person with whom you’re having the debate, and separating strong views on issues from personal relationships. And one of the things that makes Kathleen so effective is that she is very successful at being collaborative and engages in very effective partnerships. She can be very effective and forceful without alienating folks.”

Taylor points out one of the fundamentals of the ACLU: “We don’t have permanent friends or permanent enemies.” For example, the organization is frequently at odds with the religious right, particularly on issues of church-state separation. “But we defend them when it’s a Constitutional problem,” she said.

“The thing about a job like this is that it’s changed so much since I started,” Taylor said. “Everything has changed about it. No one had ever heard of AIDS in 1980, and now it can be considered a disease one can live with. The issues change, but the underlying experience is the same.”

In some cases, it’s alarmingly the same. More than three decades after the Coalition on Government Spying, there’s warrantless surveillance of citizens and a seemingly endless series of abuses of the Fourth, First and other amendments.

“Racial profiling, the USA Patriot Act,” Taylor enumerates. “We often said that 9/11 doubled our work. Fear really harms a democracy. And the fear we have here in the United States is changing the ways we treat each other.”

Lots accomplished and lots more to do. She continues with the list. Racial bias in the criminal-justice system. Educational equity. Student rights.

“That’s the fun about this job,” Taylor says: “I can wake up and read something in the paper and go, ‘Hey, I don’t like that.’ And then I can go to the office and do something about it.”

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com