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Former Rep. Gerry Studds dies at 69

Gerry E. Studds, who championed environmental, maritime, and fisheries issues during 24 years in the US House and lent an eloquent voice to health and human rights matters, died early Saturday.

First elected in 1972, Mr. Studds entered politics as part of a generation emboldened by its opposition to the Vietnam War and turned his focus in Congress to issues close to the hearts of his constituents. A Democrat, Mr. Studds had been re-elected five times when in 1983 he became the first member of Congress to openly acknowledge he was gay.

Subsequently he became the first openly gay candidate elected to Congress and was re-elected five more times before announcing in October 1995 that he would not seek a 13th term representing the 10th Congressional District, which includes New Bedford, the South Shore, Cape Cod, and the Islands.

He publicly disclosed his sexual orientation after a former congressional page, then 27, said in 1983 that he and the congressman had a sexual relationship a decade earlier, when the page was 17. The House censured Mr. Studds for sexual misconduct.

Mr. Studds, 69, had been hospitalized after falling while walking his dog several days ago. He died in Boston Medical Center of complications from vascular disease, according to his husband, Dean T. Hara.

"Gerry's leadership changed Massachusetts forever and we'll never forget him," US Senator Edward M. Kennedy said in a statement. "His work on behalf of our fishing industry and the protection of our waters has guided the fishing industry into the future and ensured that generations to come will have the opportunity to love and learn from the sea. ... Gerry's work in Congress can still be seen in the towns and cities he fought for, in the constituents who became friends, and on the waters he worked tirelessly to protect."

The censure of Mr. Studds and his relationship with a page was revisited in recent weeks when it was revealed that US Representative Mark Foley, a Republican of Florida, had exchanged sexually explicit e-mail and instant messages with a young male congressional page.

As the Foley scandal unfolded and he abruptly resigned from the House, Republicans in Washington accused Democrats of hypocrisy, saying they had not spoken out in 1983 when Mr. Studds was censured. At the time, he called it "a serious error," but refused to resign.

Saturday morning, before news broke that Mr. Studds had died, former House speaker Newt Gingrich invoked his name at a breakfast in Springfield, Va., for Republican candidates.

During 12 terms in the House, Mr. Studds pushed for more funding of AIDS research and worked to repeal the ban on gays and lesbians in the military. In his waning days in Congress, he spoke out on the House floor against the Defense of Marriage Act.

"I have served in this House for 24 years," Mr. Studds said in July 1996. "I have been elected 12 times, the last six times as an openly gay man, and for the last six years I have been in a relationship as loving, caring, as committed, as nurtured and celebrated and sustained by our extended families as any member of this House."

Mr. Studds and Hara married in 2004, a week after gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts.

"Since Gerry's retirement, we have set up our home in Boston, traveled the globe, and, of course, raised our dog, Bonnie," Hara said in a statement Saturday. Mr. Studds was walking their dog when he fell.

"It was a private life and a well-deserved quiet life after Gerry's distinguished career in Congress," Hara said.

US Representative William D. Delahunt, who now represents the 10th district, said that "even now, his legacy is alive and well in the halls of Congress."

"His influence was bipartisan in nature," Delahunt said. "He was sought of for his views, because the depth of his knowledge about the oceans and fisheries was profound."

Among his lasting accomplishments was the Atlantic Striped Bass

Conservation Act of 1984, which Mr. Studds drafted and sponsored. The legislation required the Atlantic Coast states to implement conservation measures under the guidelines of a multi-state commission.

Known for his agile mind and sharp sense of humor, Mr. Studds once quipped to Delahunt that "his pivotal role in the revival of the striped bass was not in legislating a recovering plan, but in his inability to catch any," Delahunt said in a statement.

Mr. Studds also was a key force behind the Marine Mammal Protection Act and sponsored legislation to create the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. In recognition of his work, Congress designated as the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary a large ocean area between Cape Ann and Cape Cod.

Born on Long Island in Mineola, N.Y., Mr. Studds graduated from Yale University with a bachelor's in 1959 and a master's in 1961. He worked in the State Department and in the White House when John F. Kennedy was president, and was an aide to a US senator before leaving Washington to become a teacher at St. Paul's School in New Hampshire.

Mr. Studds worked with the presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy when he upset President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, and was a delegate to the Democratic Convention that year in Chicago.

Living in Cohasset, he first ran for the 10th district seat in 1970 and nearly upset Hastings Keith, the Republican incumbent. For the rematch, he learned Portuguese, the language of many voters in the district, and became fluent in ocean and fisheries issues that affected many constituents.

Mr. Studds won in 1972, as Richard Nixon was posting a landslide victory for president. A dozen years later, in the aftermath of the censure over his relationship with the page, he again handily won, this time as President Ronald Regan coasted to reelection.

Though he was a liberal Democrat, Mr. Studds forged friendships with conservative Republicans, notably Don Young of Alaska, who sponsored an amendment to name the marine sanctuary after his friend.

As an eloquent speaker, Mr. Studds once even drew praise from Helen Chenoweth, then an outspoken conservative Republican from Idaho who was also known for bouffant hair. She died in a car accident earlier this month.

One day after Mr. Studds spoke, "she came off the floor afterward and said, 'I wish I had your mind,' " said a former aide to Mr. Studds. "He looked at her and said, 'I wish I had your hair.' "

Announcing his retirement on Martha's Vineyard on Oct. 28, 1995, Mr. Studds said, "It is time for me to chart a new course. ... You understand things like tides, and seasons, and the natural rhythm of things, and so you will understand that it is time for me and Dean and my family to move on to other challenges."

In addition to Hara, Mr. Studds leaves his brother, Colin, of Cohasset, and his sister, Gaynor Steward, of Buffalo.

The family plans to hold a memorial service next month.

After leaving Congress, Mr. Studds moved to Boston and led a life out of the spotlight. He was more likely to be seen walking his dog in the South End than at political events.

"He was a very formal and reserved guy," US Representative Barney Frank said yesterday. "When he retired, he retired. One of the ironies of his life was that he was one of the most private people I've ever met who was in that kind of public position."

In 1987, Frank became the second member of Congress to publicly acknowledge he was gay. By being the first, Mr. Studds "clearly gave some other people the courage to do that," Frank said. "It probably had a bigger impact on younger people who said, 'You know what, I guess I can think about a political career after all.' "

US Representative James McGovern said Saturday that he and his wife, Lisa, "are deeply saddened to hear of the death of our friend Gerry Studds."

"He was a champion for human rights, particularly in Latin America," McGovern said, "a passionate environmentalist, and a champion for fishermen in New England and across the country."

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