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Thirty years ago, things were looking good for a Rhode Island Governor by the name of Phil Noel. He was both the chairman of the Democratic Party's National Platform Committee and a prominent member of the National Association of Governors. When his political mentor, Senator John Pastore, announced that he would step down after five terms in the US Senate, Noel immediately announced his candidacy for the seat.

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Noel's background as an Italian-American, statewide popularity and national prominence as a possible Vice-Presidential candidate made him a shoo-in in ethnic, blue collar, heavily Democratic Rhode Island. Republican opposition would come in the form of former Governor John Chafee. Chafee had been tossed out of office after advocating a state income tax and had already lost one Senate campaign in 1972 to Claiborne Pell. Things looked very bright for Noel, indeed.

Then disaster struck. Legendary muckraking columnist Jack Anderson had gotten hold of a taped AP 1975 interview of Noel that contained a very controversial explanation of his opposition to busing. Anderson published the remarks in a April 24 column that received national attention including a May 15, 1976 New York Times article that contained the following paragraphs(sorry, payment req'd):

"The Governor, in a taped interview for The Associated Press last fall, made the following remark in explaining his opposition to court-ordered school busing to curb segregation:
`Take a kid from a black ghetto, bus him across town to a white school, he's there four hours under classroom instruction. Then he's back in the ghetto for the other 18 or 19 hours.
`He's back in that sweathole, or whatever he comes from with a drunken father and a mother that's out peddling (being a prostitute)."

The Times article cleaned up the Governor's characterization of the role of the matriarch in African-American families, but many other publications did not, printing the full sentence which was: "He's back in that sweathole, or whatever he comes from, with a drunken father and a mother that's out peddling her ass on the street." Despite apologies, Noel's reputation took a direct hit and he was forced to resign from his national posts.

Nevertheless, Noel continued on in his effort to win the Democratic nomination for US Senate. Despite the uproar, he faced token opposition from Richard Lorber, a political neophyte. True, Lorber was a very wealthy neophyte, a Cadillac dealer whose money would turn the election into what was, at that time, the most expensive primary in the state's history. But the primary was never really about issues or candidates as Lorber became a kind of Anti-Noel for those who couldn't stomach voting for someone who had expressed such ignorant and racist tendencies.

Whether it was the powerful Democratic organization, the lack of racial sensitivity on the part of the electorate, Lorber's slim political resume or a combination of all three, the race came down to a couple of hundred votes. In the end, Phil Noel wasn't able to overcome a nationally embarrassing moment.

Compared to Richard Lorber, John Chafee seemed like a genuine statesman. Although the contest polled relatively closely, even the heavily Democratic state of Rhode Island just couldn't buy a car salesman in the US Senate. Chafee won convincingly, winning a seat which hadn't been held by a Republican since the twenties.

John Chafee went on to become nationally respected as a bi-partisan, progressive legislator. He won re-election three times in one of the most Democratic states in the country. However, Rhode Island is a state that sets the bar pretty low when it comes to its politicians. During Chafee's tenure at least one governor would do jail time, two Supreme Court justices would resign in disgrace and Providence's Mayor Buddy Cianci would eventually be sent to prison (he's still there). Perhaps this is why, upon John Chafee's death in 1999, a Republican governor decided that the appropriate replacement should be Chafee's son, Lincoln.

Linc had actually spent his first seven years out of college as a blacksmith. Ultimately, he would be elected Mayor of Warwick, Rhode Island (pop. 85,000). Still, respect for his father allowed him an easy re-election in 2000. Having to stand on his own two feet has proved a lot tougher as he faces an uphill re-election campaign. Undoubtedly, Linc Chafee owes his political career to the legacy of his father.

Phil Noel never ran for political office again. He stayed out of the political limelight but remained active in Rhode Island business circles. While Rhode Islanders remember John Chafee as one of the state's most accomplished politicians, had it not been for a bizarre interview, it is a virtual certainty that Noel would have served in the Senate for many, many years.  Who knows, at his current age of seventy five, Noel might well have been contemplating his own successor and Linc Chafee would still be an obscure blacksmith.    

Originally posted to normcash on Thu Sep 21, 2006 at 04:13 PM PDT.

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