New Pecking order
The ACLU’s spirited local chief steps down
Thu, Aug 27, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Mona Shield Payne / Courtesy
After 13 years of hell-raising as executive director of the Las Vegas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Gary Peck is finally calling it quits, in what the ACLU calls an amicable parting. Frannie Forsman, the federal public defender for Nevada, says it’s “gonna be very tough to fill his shoes. The qualities that drive people crazy about Gary are exactly the qualities that Nevada needs and has needed for decades.”
Peck, she says, has been instrumental in helping to halt the discriminatory legacy of the days when the state was known as the Mississippi of the West. “It has a long history of discrimination against the poor, racial problems and a system that’s very difficult to change …”
During his tenure, Peck has taken on numerous battles. He fought for the Strip and Fremont Street as public spaces. He brought together a diverse coalition of community stakeholders to help form a police civilian review board. He pushed for legislation that required race and ethnicity be recorded on police stops, and he also pressured for reform of the UNLV police department after complaints it racially profiled students.
Forsman says it was the “kind of strident, insistent, sometimes obnoxious voice that Gary has that has caused some of these things to get as far as we have.”
The ACLU began in Nevada in 1966 with a chapter in Reno; it expanded to Las Vegas in 1989. After a thorough overhaul of the chapter in the mid-’90s, Peck was brought on board in 1996. He kick-started the ACLU’s litigation program by hiring attorney Allen Lichtenstein.
“His legacy is enormous,” says Lichtenstein. “He took an organization that was pretty much defunct and built it into a major force in Nevada in the fight for civil rights and civil liberties.” Nevadans “owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.”
Peck’s style was aggressive; he was happy to use the media to keep issues on the front page and in the public spotlight. This may be why ACLU of Nevada President Richard Siegel sounds determined to point out that Peck was hardly alone in building the organization into what it was. The chapter’s legal triumphs “were accomplished by our team in general; and probably our legal team in particular. Gary was a leader of that team, but so was Allen, so were the board members.”
This may be Siegel’s attempt to correct media perceptions of Peck as the heroic one-man army running the local ACLU. “Gary made a superb contribution to the development of the affiliate,” Siegel says. “Those contributions were primarily in fundraising, in media relations and in the tenacity with which he carried issues forward …”
Peck and Siegel both stress there were no hard feelings in Peck’s departure. “It was just time to move on,” Peck says; it’s also clear he wants to spend more time with his young daughter. Beyond that he’d like to stay in Nevada and is considering an array of options, including public affairs, political consulting work, media work or teaching, somewhere, he says, “I can make my voice heard.”