Ray Duckler: Claire Ebel, executive director of state’s civil liberties union, steps down
Claire Ebel retired after 30 years as executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. She stood for a portrait with her Newfoundland, Lambo, at the Concord offices. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)
Claire Ebel never thought to bring a raincoat.
She never figured on a chair or a blanket or a hat or anything that would have kept her warm and dry that night eight years ago, at the foot of those giant glowing marble steps, beneath those giant glowing marble columns.
By the time Ebel entered the U.S. Supreme Court building that chilly, wet November morning, after waiting 12 hours to show her opposition to government intrusion, her trademark long hair was matted down over her petite shoulders and down her back.
“There were about 10 people in front of us who had lounge chairs and a little tent thing,” said Ebel, who retired this month as executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. “There were also a couple of ACLU-ers with me. We stood and talked all night. I thought I was going to get a ticket that
night and then I could go back to the hotel. I was freezing.”
No one ever said this would be easy. No one ever said fighting for civil rights, which Ebel had done for 30 years before retiring at the age of 70, would be a cushy, 9-to-5 office job.
That day, her office was the Supreme Court, her battle – fought by an attorney representing the state chapter of the ACLU – was to strike down a New Hampshire law that would have required minors to notify their parents before having an abortion.
Kelly Ayotte, then the attorney general, now a U.S. senator, was there to tell the court why this law was a good one. The ACLU was there to explain why it was not. The country was watching, and Ebel’s energy level, never in need of an assist to begin with, was as high as the ceiling in the nation’s highest court.
“I stood on line all night going into the next day, and I got my ticket to get in,” Ebel said. “It was an important experience to be there, and I’m glad I did it.”
For decades at the State House, Ebel’s presence has been everywhere, any time the topic concerned government interference in the bedroom, in the car, in the workplace, any place she and her organization felt it didn’t belong.
For many longtime residents, she’s known only through quotes in the newspaper.
Her close circle is protective, mindful about her loner status, but then Ebel catches you off guard when she says, “I’m a private person, but I’m not secretive. There is a difference.”
So she eats a salad with giant shrimp and tells you that her father, a former machinist at two Boston newspapers, nurtured the spark within her. Ebel saw her mother crying one afternoon, the little black-and-white TV on in the background with some sort of grainy court proceeding going on.
Ebel, at the time a grade-school girl in Melrose, Mass., asked her father why her mother was crying. She learned that Sen. Joseph McCarthy was throwing out accusations of communism and treason, with no proof. Ebel, the civil rights activist in her already bubbling, asked what she could do to help, so her father pointed her toward the ACLU.
“He took me to the bank, and I had a Christmas club account,” Ebel said. “I took out $2.50 and my dad filled something out and I sent it in and I’ve been a member ever since.”
Dad did more to inspire Ebel, like forbidding her to take typing at a time when school girls were often shoehorned into clerical work.
“He told me some day I was going to be a professional woman and some jerk is going to hand me something and tell me to type it,” Ebel said. “He said I’d be able to look that guy right in the eye and say no. He told me I could do anything I wanted to do, could be anything I wanted to be.”
A life dedicated
Ebel graduated from college, worked as an economist, had two children, got divorced, and mourned the deaths of her father, at age 61, and brother, at age 60, both from cancer.
Married for 10 years, she’s been divorced for 35 and lives in Concord with her cat and a 100-pound Newfoundland dog, both of whom sleep with her each night. Although she’s had a few serious relationships since her divorce, she never remarried, furthering the perception that Ebel’s life has been dedicated to protecting civil liberties through the decades.
And, in a sense, it has. Eyes in the State House have rolled more than Vegas dice, thanks to Ebel and her pit-bull passion. She calls herself relentless.
“I think people don’t like that,” Ebel said. “I don’t back down. If someone says something and my response is, ‘That doesn’t make any sense,’ and they’ll ask for an apology, I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. But it doesn’t make them correct. They’re still wrong.’ ”
She argued with knowledge and flair for three decades, bringing color, humor and an obvious energy to the job. She wanted to be judged case by case, outside the political realm, but admits she’s politically liberal – she prefers the term “progressive” – and can’t avoid the fact that she’s viewed as a voice for the left.
Still, while lawmakers on the right often sparred with her, sometimes contentiously, the ones who spoke about her last week had nothing but good – and funny – things to say.
Raymond Republican Jack Barnes spent more than 20 years in the Legislature and first met Ebel in the mid-1980s. He relayed his first conversation with her, near an elevator.
Ebel: “You don’t agree with me on many things.”
Barnes: “That’s right, lady.”
“I gave her credit for being very persistent and knowing what she was doing,” Barnes said. “I thought she was a very capable lobbyist. The two or three times we agreed we both laughed about it after the hearing. I said, ‘My God, I have to go home and take a shower; there’s something wrong with me.’ ”
Hillsboro Republican Rep. Neal Kurk, in his 26th year in the House, said, “I can’t believe Claire Ebel is not going to be haunting the halls of the House. I assumed she’s never going to retire until she died.”
Then, quickly, he turned serious.
“She always appeared at the right place at the right time, and she was extraordinarily well-respected by committees,” Kurk said. “She had a way of explaining her position that made common sense, plus she’d been around so long that she was an institution.”
Kurk and Ebel worked together fighting the Real ID bill, which sought to include personal information, like Social Security numbers, on driver’s licenses.
Her opposition to a law that would force everyone to wear seat belts allied her with libertarians.
Republican Sen. John Reagan of Deerfield said Ebel stuck to the law and the facts when arguing her points and avoided hollow, win-at-all-costs chatter.
“I think Claire understood that in the Legislature you couldn’t always win an argument,” Reagan said. “But she was an effective persuader, and she is such a likable person.”
‘It was worth it’
Not always. Not when you argue that barring a sex offender from living within 2,500 feet of a school violates that person’s constitutional rights. Not when you want a system put in place that assesses a sex offender’s history with an eye toward removing some offenders’ names from the registry.
“This is not what we have in New Hampshire,” Ebel said. “Only then would this not be an unconstitutional infringement on their rights.”
There have been death threats, as many as one a week back in the 1980s, left on her office voice mail. One message targeted her two children, both now in their 30s. To unwind, the tiny woman with the strong voice often took her kids to the old Boston Garden, to watch Larry Bird turn basketball into art.
“When you watched Larry Bird play basketball,” Ebel said, “you didn’t think of civil liberties at all.”
Then Ebel moves into familiar lightning-rod territory, this time with thoughts on her favorite quarterback.
It’s not Tom Brady.
“The sports legend I lived and died with was Joe Montana,” Ebel said. “Is Tom Brady in the same league with Joe Montana? He’s not even on the same planet.”
Ebel is still packing boxes these days, in a storage room near her downtown office, filling them with 30 years of material reflecting stances that often went against the grain.
That night in front of the Supreme Court stands out. Ebel did not believe pregnant teens should be forced to consult with their parents before seeking an abortion.
“People pretend that if you pass a law such as that you will encourage communication between parents and children,” Ebel said. “But the reality is if the communication isn’t there before the pregnancy, it certainly isn’t going to occur afterward. There is sufficient evidence that when they confide in their families they’re thrown out and made homeless with the pregnancy.
“Is it frequent? No. But is it worth the risk? I think no.”
So she stood in line all night, in the rain and the cold, like a Springsteen fan hoping to buy a ticket to see The Boss.
She had no chair, no sleeping bag, no raincoat.
Just her spirit to keep warm.
“I got a terrible cold,” Ebel said. “But it was worth it.”
(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@
cmonitor.com or on Twitter