With President Donald Trump in a constitutional showdown over his ban on refugees from predominantly Muslim countries, it would hardly seem the time for the voice of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota to bow out.

He realizes it, too.

"This is the fight you want if you join the ACLU," Chuck Samuelson said, sitting at his desk in his small suite of offices in St. Paul last week.

But after 20 years at the helm of the state's best-known civil rights nonprofit, Samuelson will tell stakeholders Thursday he's retiring as executive director, effective Feb. 28.

He's been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that makes it difficult to walk or even type. He leaves during an intense time for the ACLU, which has offices in all 50 states.

The Minnesota affiliate has been deluged by pleas for help from immigrants, and flooded by offers from attorneys who want to help.

Since Trump's election and his executive order on immigration — which has been stayed by a federal judge after a legal challenge from attorneys general from Minnesota and Washington — ACLU membership has surged nationally and locally. Since November, the Minnesota group's size rose from 6,000 members to 14,900.

"Trump is very dangerous; he's surrounded himself with the alt-right," Samuelson said, referring to the movement widely criticized for racism and sexism. "They don't care about the Constitution."

For Samuelson, it's all about the Bill of Rights and free speech. Before he led the state ALCU's charge against Trump's policies, he urged the St. Paul City Council to back off from a 2015 resolution to condemn Trump.

"My advice to the City Council is they should have their speeches and then table it until 2017," he said at the time in opposition then to the a council measure criticizing then-candidate Trump for engaging in "anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant speech."

For all the noise it makes, the ACLU-MN is still a no-frills group, with offices in an industrial park in St. Paul's midway. in a building that was a former foundry. Even with the thermostat turned up, it's chilly inside because the building has no insulation.

Republican household

Samuelson, 63, who lives in Maple Grove with his wife, Janet, grew up in a Republican household in upstate New York where his mother was either mayor or town council member for 30 years.

"She got sued by the ACLU twice," he said. "She was not particularly happy when I took this job 20 years ago."

He went off to Syracuse University in 1971, became an environmental activist, studied medieval history and considered becoming a lawyer, but was turned off watching attorneys in the Nixon administration go to prison for their roles in the Watergate scandal.

Instead he wound up working for a string of nonprofits before joining the ACLU-MN.

When Samuelson took over as executive director in 1997, the organization was at war with itself, split into two factions. It had five executive directors in five years, with Matt Stark a fierce civil libertarian who sometimes rankled people, largely in charge.

"It was a dysfunctional family," said Samuelson, who said they often issued statements in lieu of filing lawsuits, with a frequent focus on separation of church and state. "I was committed to changing the ACLU, to getting its feet on the ground and make it a force in the Twin Cities. I believed I could fix it because I was arrogant."

Samuelson paused and smiled.

"I figured I was going to get fired."

He didn't. Stark went into retirement and Samuelson went to work, attracting diverse voices to the board, upgrading fundraising and wooing lawyers from some of the biggest firms to help on cases. The affiliate staff has grown from three to nine with an annual budget of nearly $1.2 million, compared with $66,000 when he started.

"He is a seminal person," said Vance Opperman, a local businessman, DFL contributor and former board president of the ACLU-MN. "He's organized people. He's raised money. He's inspired a large number of people to join the board. He's infused the organization with a great deal of energy, vision, passion."

Over the past 20 years, Samuelson has broadened the group's scope, pushing for racial and gender equity.

He set up an office in Bemidji called the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Program that, over five years, helped reduce the number of American Indians in the Beltrami County Jail from 80 to 40 percent. That office is now closed, but the ACLU opened an office in Mankato focused on racial injustices against immigrants in southwestern Minnesota. The affiliate has also represented Black Lives Matter supporters and marchers at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

It has gone into court to press for release of videos in the police shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile and worked quietly with the Minneapolis police to re-examine its procedures. It was one of the first groups to come out against both the proposed anti-marriage equality and voter ID amendments in 2012, providing resources that helped get them defeated.

The national ACLU has moved in a similar direction, weighing in more on current issues.

The national ACLU has moved in a similar direction, weighing in more on current issues.

"It was not that I had this brilliant idea," Samuelson said. "I'm not that smart."

Such self-deprecation is typical. At board meetings where debates can be intense, Samuelson often begins by saying, "I'm not a lawyer." according to Raleigh Levine, a law professor at Mitchell-Hamline School of Law and a local ACLU board member.

"Then he launches into some crisp, clear and cogent explanation of whatever we're talking about," said board president and attorney William Pentelovitch. "He has got such a finely tuned sense of what's constitutional and what's not, within civil liberties."

He also has a devoted staff, offering it both leadership and flexibility, said Teresa Nelson, the ACLU-MN's legal director, who will serve as Samuelson's interim replacement. "He gives us the room to do what we have to do."

ACLU board member Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, doesn't mince words about Samuelson.

"Sometimes he drives me nuts; he has that real New York demeanor, aggressive and lots of suggestions about what you should do," Stainbrook said, adding that it's not necessarily a fault. "I look at him as one of the truly committed folks in the nonprofit world. I love working with Chuck."

Geri Rozanski, director of affiliate support and nationwide initiatives for the national ACLU, said Samuelson hustled to help out when other ACLU affiliates were shorthanded.

"Considering all the challenges we're facing with President Trump, I believe it pains him to step down," she said. He's someone who loves a fight, and I am sure if he was able, he would love to be leading the charge in Minnesota."

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224 twitter: @randyfurst