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Shaking Up City Council

By Erica L. Werner

R. Elaine Noble, Cambridge's first openly gay council candidate, is possibly the most sophisticated contender in this year's race. But she has no Cambridge track record and is spurning all the established political slates.

Profile: R. Elaine Noble "What my candidacy does is break up the ballgame."

* 47 years old

* 10-year Cambridge resident

* First openly gay person elected to a state legislature. Noble represented Beacon Hill and Back Bay from 1974 to 1978.

* Helped author first gay and lesbian rights legislation

* Established the Pride Institute, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation clinic for homosexuals in Minnesota

* Served on Cambridge's Human Rights Commission from 1988 to 1989

* Currently runs a health care consulting firm called Noble Associates

* First openly gay candidate for City Council in Cambridge

City politicians here in Cambridge fall almost exclusively into two categories: the traditional, neighborhood-based Independents, and the liberal affiliates of the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA).

Indeed, many longtime Cambridge observers say that one almost has to belong to one of these two groups to have any chance at winning in a municipal election.

This fall, however, an unaffiliated dark horse has entered the race. And this dark horse is a far cry from the traditional unaffiliated candidates--the crackpots and City Hall groupies who run unsuccessfully in every election.

R. Elaine Noble, a Graduate School of Education alumna who in 1974 became the first openly-gay person elected to a state legislature, announced in August that she would run for City Council.

Noble is running against two deeply-rooted municipal parties under an electoral system that favors incumbents and slates. Her strategy, therefore, has been to portray the existing power structure as clannish and badly in need of a shake-up.

The city and its government are "deeply and chronically ill," she says. "I think that the general voting public is embarrassed by its councilpeople's behavior."

What the city needs, Noble says, is some fresh blood--an outsider without party allegiances or private sector obligations who is willing to dismantle the power structure.

And she's the one to do it, she says, declaring, "Maybe what you need is a woman who's 47 years old and has seen it all."

An Experienced Candidate

Noble may indeed have seen more than Cambridge's traditional council candidate, typically born and bred in the city. During her four years as a state representative from Boston's Back Bay, she helped author landmark gay and women's rights legislation and faced threats and hostility because of her sexual orientation.

In 1978, she lost a bid for the U.S. Senate to now-presidential hopeful Paul E. Tsongas. Since that time, she has worked in the State House and in Boston City Hall, and has worked for a plethora of community, gay rights, political and educational organizations.

Her political experience is evident in her manner and her self-assurance. While other local candidates maintain a more folksy, baby-kissing campaign style, Noble has a sophisticated approach to the political race, complete with her own team of personal pollsters.

In addition to traditional door-to-door campaigning, her pollsters survey community opinions. Noble stumps one neighborhood unfavorable to her candidacy for every three favorable ones, whereas her opponents spend most of their time "talking to the converted," she says.

Election Impetus

Recently, Noble was at the forefront of a well-publicized campaign to establish a drug and alcohol rehab center primarily for gays and lesbians in the city.

After neighborhood opposition squelched the plan in Waltham, Noble found a site in East Cambridge. But again, she says, behind-the-scenes, election-year scheming led to the loss of zoning permits for the center. The project is currently underway in Jamaica Plains.

The experience, however, was an impetus behind her decision to run for council, she says. "Cambridge's system is designed to destroy things, and it's not designed to support decent projects," she says.

But Noble's open scorn for Cambridge politicking and "party hacks" may turn her into a fringe candidate by alienating many of the CCA supporters that might otherwise vote for her because of her gay, white liberal image and her support of rent control--always the bottom-line litmus test of Cambridge politics.

Arthur S. Lipkin '68, a gay activist who teaches at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and works with Cambridge's Lavender Alliance gay and lesbian coalition, says he finds "troubling" Noble's avoidance of CCA affiliation, "because I find the CCA a fairly progressive, [although] not sacrosanct, organization."

Later this month, the Lavender Alliance will issue formal endorsements of candidates for City Council. But according to Lipkin, the idea that gays should support gay politicians is "terrifically naive."

That endorsement process could be fiery, he says.

"I don't think it will be done easily whether it's an endorsement [of Noble] or a non-endorsement. It will not be non-contested," he says.

According to Cambridge attorney and Lavender Alliance member Katherine Triantafillou, "everyone was kind of surprised and startled when [Noble] anounced her candidacy, because she has not been active in Cambridge politics and gay groups."

Noble responds that her freshness on the city's political scene gives her an advantage. "The way Cambridge folks attack one another, I consider it an asset to be above the fray," she says. "The wrath of the voter that ushered in [Gov. William F. Weld '66] is still very much alive in Cambridge."

A Field of Incumbents

Not everyone sees it that way, however, and Noble's candidacy is raising eyebrows across the board.

Because of Cambridge's complicated proportional representation vote-casting system, incumbent candidates traditionally are very hard to beat. This year, the ten current councillors are running for reelection, and well-known School Committee member and former mayor Alfred E. Vellucci--in effect, a 10th incumbent--is also in the race.

According to CCA Executive Director Karen L. Corcoran, no one else stands much of a chance. Corcoran adds that "the biggest problem for all of us is getting people interested in the election and out to vote," and that the voters' easy out is to reelect the incumbents, whose names and accomplishments they recognize.

The bottom line may be that the void in Cambridge politics that Noble is campaigning to fill does not exist in the minds of most other politicians and voters.

Radical Change

Noble is advocating change: City Council charter reform, tighter controls on municipal offices, a gay liaison in City Hall, switching from at-large to district-by-district representation. But neither gay activists nor other politicians seem to think the city needs that kind of change.

Noble attributes that attitude to the complacency of the ruling class. "They don't want to shake the wagon because then their little goody train gets broken up," she says. "What my candidacy does is break up the ballgame."

To criticism from the year-old Lavender Alliance, Noble says, "I think it's always interesting when folks who've been here for one year or eight months ask me, who's lived here for 10 years, about a litmus test for what I've done for them."

The City's Gay Vote

Cambridge's gay vote has traditionally gone to incumbent mayor Alice K. Wolf and other CCA candidates, none of whom are openly homosexual. But the city's gay community, of which the Lavender Alliance is currently the only organized arm, does not seem to feel left out in the cold.

Triantafillou of the Lavender Alliance praises Wolf for her role in the creation of Cambridge's Human Rights Commission, and for her support of domestic partnership legislation. And Wolf says she "has a definite sense that issues around gay and lesbian issues are very important to people."

But Noble argues that "if you're just your average straight liberal I don't think you understand these things on an emotional level."

There are too many "people who pay lipservice to the gay community," she says, adding that "elected officials in Cambridge tend to back off when the first level of heat is off."

The opposition she ran up against when trying to establish the gay and lesbian substance abuse treatment center in East Cambridge exemplifies the kind of treatment homosexuals often receive from the mainstream population, and from officials looking to be reelected, Noble says. At the time, all city councillors--including Wolf--opposed the plan for the hospital on the grounds that Noble had not gone through the accepted channels to obtain a permit.

Noble views herself as a free agent of positive change. She wants to serve on the council for as long as it takes to accomplish her agenda, and then get out, as she did as a legislator. Lifetime professional politics, she says, "makes you funny in the head." She does not want to lose the disattached perspective that allows her to see the quirks and flaws in progressive Cambridge that she says the "shadow of Harvard and MIT" tends to obscure.

Noble admits that it's not easy to fix a system that the majority will not admit is broken. But, she says, "People who are doing the right thing always run into opposition. I'm not afraid of running into opposition.

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