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

July 10, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

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."

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