As a young lawyer in Phoenix nearly a decade ago, Tim Nelson made a modest name for himself on a case that drew national attention and ire from Christian conservatives.
He represented the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona in a lawsuit to stop the mayor of Gilbert from declaring seven days in November as "Bible Week." Nelson and the ACLU argued it violated the separation of church and state.
The case dragged on in federal court for almost a year with big-name Christian lawyers stepping in to defend the town. It ultimately ended in compromise, both sides agreeing the declaration would go forward but with toned-down language.
In recent weeks, as Nelson, now 44, has begun his run for Maricopa County attorney, the case has been resurrected. The campaign staff for Andrew Thomas, a Republican trying to keep the seat, has taken to calling Democrat Nelson a "former ACLU lawyer" in nearly every statement about the race.
Now, Nelson is trying to distance himself from the case.
This week, his campaign released details about two other situations in which Nelson fought against the ACLU.
In one, Nelson helped defend Arizona's monument to the Ten Commandments, which sits in Wesley Bolin Plaza across from the Capitol.
In the other, he defended state police officers against allegations of racial profiling.
Nelson said he has fought against the ACLU more often than he fought for it.
"I'm not the least bit embarrassed of it," Nelson said of the 1998 case against Gilbert. "But it's not reflective of what I've done in the 20 years I've been a lawyer."
When Nelson took the case that year, he was in charge of pro bono work at the Phoenix law firm of Brown and Bain. The ACLU, strapped for cash, came to the firm and asked for someone to represent it for free.
The organization was just one of hundreds of clients Nelson represented in private practice, he said.
Not long after the case ended, Nelson went to work for the state, joining the Attorney General's Office under Janet Napolitano, and later following her to the governor's office.
It was as the governor's chief legal counsel that he later opposed the ACLU.
"That's what happens when attorneys have different clients," said Stephen Lee, current general counsel for the ACLU's Arizona chapter.
The cases of Bible Week and the Ten Commandments monument are perfect examples of that, Lee said.
"He wasn't necessarily expressing his own view, I guess, in either case," Lee said. "He was expressing the opinion of his clients."
Lee pointed to the fact that United StatesChief Justice John Roberts, arguably the most prominent conservative judge in the nation, once worked for the ACLU as a cooperating attorney much as Nelson did.
Roberts' work was advising the organization on a case defending the political rights of gay and lesbian Americans.
The main person driving the talk of the Bible Week case from 10 years ago is Barnett Lotstein, one of Thomas' political aides.
Lotstein has described Nelson as a "former ACLU lawyer" in numerous statements since the race began to heat up last month.
"It is consistent with his other liberal views," Lotstein said. "It shows what kind of guy he may be as county attorney."
"I personally think it's a negative," Lotstein added later. "But some people will think it's a positive."
Indeed, the strategy has been a hit among some Valley conservatives who have begun to anonymously brand Nelson as "ACLU Tim" on various Web sites.
Nelson's campaign manager, Josh Kilroy, likens the strategy to the negative attacks on Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., during his 2004 presidential bid.
"We are not going to stand for the sort of Swift Boat politics," Kilroy said, referring to the attacks on Kerry's military service during the Vietnam War. "It's clearly designed to link Tim with the kind of negative feelings that some Republicans have of that organization."
Nelson himself said Lotstein is just trying to distract people from the criticisms of the County Attorney's Office that have been mounting since Thomas won the post in 2004.
"I think Andrew Thomas is trying to divert attention away from his record, which really is the issue that Maricopa County voters are going to care about in November," Nelson said.
Lotstein, however, said he would continue to use the description to connect Nelson to the ACLU.
"His record is his record," Lotstein said. "It's not a dirty trick to call him an ACLU lawyer."