Benjamin A. Gilman, a longtime Republican congressman from New York who chaired the House International Relations Committee and who helped arrange prisoner exchanges, died Dec. 17 at a veterans hospital in Wappingers Falls, New York. He was 94.
Richard Garon, a former chief of staff, said he had been in declining health after surgery to repair a damaged hip.
Gilman, a World War II veteran and former state legislator, was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972. He served 15 terms representing a sprawling district north of New York City that included all or parts of Rockland, Orange, Sullivan and Westchester counties.
Sometimes called a Rockefeller Republican, he was known for his moderate and even liberal views on some social issues, before his party’s positions hardened into a more conservative conformity.
He was a founder of the House Human Rights Caucus and worked behind the scenes to help free political prisoners, including Natan Sharansky, from the former Soviet Union and other oppressive regimes. Gilman often traveled to Haiti to observe rebuilding efforts and programs to improve the country’s educational and legal systems.
After the 1994 midterm elections, in which Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, Gilman accomplished a long-held goal by becoming chairman of the House International Relations Committee. He stepped down after six years because of party-imposed term limits.
As an assistant attorney general in New York in the 1950s, Gilman first took note of the social problems associated with drug abuse. It became one of his signature issues in the House, as he worked with congressmen from both parties, notably Democrat Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), to draft anti-drug legislation.
He sometimes bucked the GOP leadership, including the administration of President Ronald Reagan, to secure funding for law enforcement and drug rehabilitation programs and to pressure foreign governments to control the supply of illegal substances crossing their borders.
“Ben is certainly one of the recognized experts and leaders in Congress in the area of substance abuse,” Rep. William Hughes, D-N.J., told the New York Times in 1987. “He’s added a bipartisan perspective to the problem and he does not hesitate to criticize his own administration about its drug policies.”
In 1978, Gilman had a pivotal role in arranging an international prisoner swap in which an Israeli pilot held in Mozambique, an American in East Germany and an East German spy jailed in the United States were freed. A year later, he helped arrange the release of four Americans from Cuba in exchange for four Puerto Rican nationalists who had been imprisoned after an armed attack on the U.S. Capitol in 1954.
Benjamin Arthur Gilman was born Dec. 6, 1922, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. His father, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, ran a dry-cleaning business.
In 1933, Gilman accompanied his father to Berlin to persuade an aunt to come to the United States.
“From her living room windows I saw the stormtroopers marching up the street, painting signs on Jewish shops and houses and bullying people off the sidewalk,” Gilman recalled in 1978. “I was just a boy of 10, but my father made me take it all in. He told my aunt it would get worse and worse, but she wouldn’t leave. So we came back, and my father was very upset. Her letters stopped in 1937 when they took her away. She was never heard from again.”
During World War II, Gilman served in the Army Air Forces and took part in 35 bombing missions over Japan. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1946 and from New York Law School in 1950. After working as an assistant attorney general in New York, he had a private law practice in Middletown, N.Y. He served in the New York state assembly from 1967 to 1972.
In 2002, New York lost two congressional seats because of redistricting after the 2000 Census. Gilman, the oldest member of the House of Representatives at the time, chose to retire.
His marriages to Jane Prizant and Rita Kelhoffer ended in divorce. He was predeceased by two children from his first marriage.
Survivors include his wife of 19 years, the former Georgia Tingus of Greenville, N.Y.; three children from his first marriage; two stepchildren; and 11 grandchildren.
“Any worthwhile politician can see a mountain of trouble in this world, and he is supposed to do something about it,” Gilman told People magazine in 1978. “I think the only way a man can move a mountain is a little bit at a time. Each of us has to start somewhere.”