Civil rights warrior takes break from battle Comstock-Gay led ACLU for past decade

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An unrepentant, card-carrying defender of personal freedom leaves his post this month, but his impact on Maryland is unlikely to be forgotten soon.

Lawsuits he initiated made it possible for blacks to win elected office on the Eastern Shore. He is largely responsible for the federal government's efforts to house Baltimore's poor in the suburbs. Almost single-handedly, he revived a flagging civil rights organization, boosting its budget sixfold.

As executive director of the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union for the past decade, Stuart Comstock-Gay made some people very angry. But he also made them aware of their rights and asserted his views, both publicly and privately, without rancor, name-calling or hysterics.

That calm, reasonable manner, say friends and foes alike, made the energetic 36-year-old something special -- a formidable warrior for his cause.

"If you asked for the ACLU's three best directors in this country, he would be on everybody's list," said Ira Glasser, who heads the ACLU nationally. "He's terrific on the issues, but he's also a grown-up. He is widely liked as well as respected."

Next month, Comstock-Gay will travel to Harvard University to "step back from the day-to-day flurry" and pursue a master's degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government's midcareer program.

A successor to his $49,000-a-year ACLU post is expected to be chosen tomorrow.

He or she will have big shoes to fill. Within Maryland, Comstock-Gay was ubiquitous, a man who never met a camera, microphone or reporter's notebook he couldn't accommodate. He also is someone who would drive to the far corner of the Eastern Shore at the drop of a hat, debate any opponent and take up the cause for the state's least powerful, including such unpopular figures as murderer John Thanos and the Ku Klux Klan.

"He has been the pre-eminent spokesman for the Bill of Rights in this state," said C. Christopher Brown, a civil rights lawyer and former state ACLU board president. "He brought an organization from the pits to the top."

Of course, not everyone has welcomed a more active ACLU in Maryland.

Most recently, an ACLU lawsuit caused the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to agree to relocate more than 1,300 former residents of city low-income high-rises into mostly white suburbs. The settlement has infuriated many in Baltimore County.

"I think the agreement makes them tools of a liberal establishment," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. "I think the ACLU's efforts will bring a decrease in property values and put more neighborhoods in Baltimore County at risk."

But even opponents have kind things to say about Comstock-Gay on a personal basis.

"A very bright, articulate spokesman," Ehrlich said of his longtime foe.

After all, this is a man who can surprise. Many who know him assume Comstock-Gay has a law degree (he doesn't) and lives in the city (actually the Stoneleigh area of Towson).

A few more insights: He once spun records for a country music radio station, acted in college plays and taught Sunday school at his church last year.

"We have gone toe to toe, but I respect anyone who believes strongly in their views and presents them fairly," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor, who has frequently debated Comstock-Gay on the death penalty.

"Before he came to town, that was a moribund organization," said Richard J. Dowling of the Maryland Catholic Conference. "It isn't anymore."

Comstock-Gay began life as Stuart Gay. The son of teachers, he was born in Nebraska and raised in suburban Cleveland. He lengthened his surname when he married Lucy Comstock, a high school sweetheart. They have three daughters, ages 8, 6 and 5.

"We did it as an indication of equality," he said of the name merging. "It took a year to get comfortable with it. When the girls get married, I guess they'll just have to decide for themselves what to do next."

A political science major at Bucknell University, from which he graduated cum laude in 1982, Comstock-Gay gravitated to Washington. A newspaper classified ad caught his interest -- administrative assistant in the capital area's ACLU office.

Four years later, he was hired at the age of 26 to run the Baltimore affiliate. At the time, it was little more than a room in a Towson shopping center, a phone that didn't work properly and a single part-time staff member.

"This was an office that wasn't doing much, and they could afford to take a risk with a young director," Comstock-Gay recalled.

Within days, he was on the telephone with a KKK grand dragon and asking himself what he had gotten into.

"We defend minorities -- political, racial, gay or lesbian," he said. "You have to be willing to stand up for the most hated person in society."

That clear vision of the ACLU's mission, an enthusiasm for his work and an ability to speak plainly about the issues proved valuable. Supporters soon discovered he also was an effective fund-raiser, a key skill for any nonprofit.

In ACLU gatherings, Comstock-Gay is fond of recounting the story of Maud Pippin, an elderly Eastern Shore widow who couldn't vote in her town's elections because she didn't own property. When that requirement was dropped by Queen Anne at the ACLU's insistence in 1993, the 83-year-old was overjoyed to finally get a chance to vote.

"Stu was so excited that the ACLU could help this woman. Just to hear this boyish excitement in his voice," said Ellen Callegary, president of the Maryland ACLU. "We use the term 'civil liberties' so loosely. Stu has the ability to make them come alive."

When Comstock-Gay came to Maryland, two ACLU lawsuits were pending. Today, there are about 50. Membership is up by about 1,000 people to 5,700. The staff of 10 occupies a lower Charles Village townhouse. An Eastern Shore office was opened in 1990.

During his tenure, the organization has demonstrated influence. A 1994 ACLU lawsuit is at the heart of efforts to funnel more state money into city schools. During the Comstock-Gay era, the organization also secured better jail conditions and minority voting districts on the Eastern Shore.

It also stood up for the Klan's right to rally in Thurmont, for skinheads who wanted to march through Baltimore and for the right to burn the flag.

Opposition to the ACLU is sometimes passionate. In Comstock-Gay's office, a wall of press clippings includes some choice words used to describe the Maryland executive director.

His favorite is from columnist and presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, who sent him racing to the dictionary to discover that a "Pecksniff" is a hypocritical character from a Charles Dickens novel.

He laughs at the insult, but other attacks have been more troubling.

"It bothers me a lot," he said. "I don't particularly want to be disliked. I'm a nice guy."

Next year, he intends to return to Maryland, perhaps to run a charity or to take a job in government. But his name has become so closely linked to the ACLU and its lawsuits that his friends worry it could prove a difficult transition.

"When we cast our lot with the ACLU, we all know we burn some bridges," said Susan Goering, the chapter's legal director. "But it would be short-sighted for any organization to stereotype Stu."

Pub Date: 7/10/96

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