Kingston’s longest serving elected official, Alderman-at-Large James Noble, has announced that he will not seek another four-year term this November.
Noble’s decision marks the end of a political career that’s spanned 22 years and four mayors, and witnessed Kingston’s slow and painful emergence from post-industrial economic blight at the end of the 20th century into a new more hopeful 21st.
“We were always kind of reaching for that golden ring and now it seems like it’s within our reach,” said Noble, 69. “We have a really nice council now, things are moving in the right direction. It just seemed like the right time for me to step down.”
A plumber by trade, Noble began his political career on the Kingston Democratic Committee, where he rose to chairman in 1995. In 1997, he was elected alderman of the sixth ward. At the time, the city was reeling from the loss of the sprawling IBM operation that served as the economic engine for the entire county. Noble said he was motivated to run by concern about the stagnation that was pulling down a city that his family had called home for generations.
Over the next five years, Noble served as head of the Common Council’s Finance Committee during a difficult and sometimes controversial effort to restore Kingston’s vacant and crumbling City Hall at 420 Broadway. Noble also helped shepherd through new zoning laws that allowed conversion of second-floor commercial space in the city’s business district and in the vacant factory buildings that dotted the city.
“He was an active alderman,” said Bill Reynolds, who served on the council from 1994 to 2011. “He was very easy to work with and very focused on getting things done.”
Partnership with Sottile
Noble’s low-key style and work ethic earned him the admiration of then-alderman-at-large James Sottile. In January 2002, when then-mayor T.R. Gallo died, Sottile was elevated to the mayor’s office. Sottile then tapped Noble to take his spot as alderman-at-large. Besides his duties as president of the Common Council, Sottile said he leaned on Noble for advice and support following his unexpected ascension to the city’s top elected office.
“Jimmy was a steady presence and I just felt he would make a great partner as we took the reins from T.R.,” said Sottile, who is now retired and living in Florida. “He had demonstrated great leadership ability as chair of the Finance Committee and he brought the same kind of enthusiasm and ability to being alderman-at-large. He was a great deputy mayor.”
One key to the success of the partnership, Sottile said, was Noble’s genial, easygoing style, which contrasted with Sottile’s more outspoken nature. While Sottile would stake out a position and defend it, sometimes combatively, Noble preferred collaboration and consensus.
“His style was methodical — he’ll take the time with council members and explain both sides of the issue,” said Sottile. “I tend to be more vocal. But I think we complemented each other in that way.”
Noble’s close relationship with the mayor’s office ended in 2012 when Sottile opted not to seek another term and was succeeded by former assistant corporation counsel and fellow Democrat Shayne Gallo, T.R.’s brother. Shayne Gallo quickly pegged Noble as part of a faction on the Democratic Committee opposed to his administration. Gallo frequently lashed out at Noble in the press, accusing him of working to undermine his agenda. Midway through Gallo’s term, Noble admitted that he had not had a face-to-face meeting with the Mayor since shortly after he took office.
A new comprehensive plan
Despite the frosty relationship with the executive branch, Gallo’s tenure saw one of Noble’s passion projects, the development of a new comprehensive plan for the city, get underway. Over the course of four years, Noble oversaw a committee that delved into everything from reworking zoning codes to preparing the city for climate change while drafting the plan. The finalized plan was signed into law in 2016, 55 years after the city’s previous comprehensive plan was adopted.
“The comprehensive plan was something that I always talked about and really pushed for,” said Noble. “Because I think it’s pretty important to think about where the city wants to go.”
Noble took a rare step into the spotlight in October 2012 when Superstorm Sandy lashed the city while Gallo was out of the country on vacation. As acting mayor, Noble took control of the city’s emergency response as floodwaters rose in the Rondout neighborhood and the city’s sewage treatment plant was knocked offline. That experience helped spur Noble’s interest in disaster planning, and enacting new zoning and other policies to help the city cope with more severe weather caused by climate change.
My nephew the mayor
Noble rarely responded to Gallo’s public criticism. But he had a measure of revenge in 2015 when, running alongside his nephew, Steve Noble, he helped unseat the incumbent. While opponents cried nepotism, Jim Noble never resumed the role of chief advisor that he enjoyed under Sottile. Mayor Steve Noble gave his uncle credit for being an early supporter of his candidacy and giving him the confidence to take on an incumbent who was also his boss in city government. But, in a press release announcing Jim Noble’s pending retirement, Steve Noble admitted that their goals diverged at times.
“Even when we’ve had different viewpoints, I’ve always known that Jim was speaking from a place of integrity and commitment to our residents,” wrote Steve Noble. “Our city has truly benefited thanks to Jim’s extensive knowledge, brutal honesty and selfless dedication.”
As president of the Common Council, Noble’s jobs included making committee assignments, presiding at monthly meetings of the council and, critically, guiding rookie aldermen as they learned the ropes and sought to make their campaign promises reality. Aldermen past and present described Noble as a patient tutor and good listener who approached the task of breaking in political neophytes in a nonpartisan way. Noble himself viewed mentoring newcomers to the council as a key part of his job.
“There were times when I thought maybe I wouldn’t run again, then I’d realize we were going to have four or five new faces on the council,” said Noble. “And I just thought I had to stay on to be that stabilizing presence.”
Noble’s patience extended to the monthly Common Council meetings where he routinely suspends time limits on public speaking to allow everyone to have their say. Often, what is said amounts to bitter and repetitive diatribes against the administration and the council, or rambling semi-coherent declarations on subjects well outside the purview of small-city legislators. Regardless of the topic, Noble rarely went further than a gentle reminder about limits on speaking time.
In the years before Democrats took full control of the council Noble also refereed contentious, sometimes loud disagreements among Aldermen with bipartisan equanimity.
“That was the one criticism we had when I was on the council — ‘Why can’t he just cut these people off?’” said Tom Hoffay who represented the Second Ward from 2008 to 2014. “But Jim’s got a lot of patience and that’s just not his style.”