Every Michigander above the age of 6 or so should know of Lansing, and if they don’t it’s guaranteed that the decisions made in the state’s capital have at some point had a direct impact on their lives. Still, as important as this city is for Michigan’s citizens, it’s fair to say that it’s usually not one’s first pick when planning a vacation in the state.
“People would ask me where I was going on vacation and I would say ‘Lansing,’ and they’d say, ‘Who vacations there?'”
Thankfully for the ACLU of Michigan, its newly hired Executive Director Dave Noble does. That’s important because, among a variety of other reasons, it’s partially why he became familiar not only with the state but why he felt comfortable taking on his current role.
“I’d spent some time as a consultant to really figure out [what to do] after the [Obama] administration ended. I knew I wanted to take time to decide where I could make the most difference in the next chapter. Why Michigan? Not only had I done this work in Michigan before — and I had been coming to Michigan to vacation with groups of friends — but over the last 15 years at least once a year I’d find myself in Michigan.”
In fact, though Noble is originally from Rhode Island and spent a large portion of his career in Washington, D.C., Michigan has been a recurring theme for him throughout his career. For example, while he was working with The National Stonewall Democrats and the Obama presidential campaign, Michigan was a fixture in his career.
But beyond his general familiarity and simply liking the state as a travel destination, Noble was particular in his decision to work with the Michigan’s branch of the ACLU after the departure of his predecessor Kary L. Moss.
“I also followed what the ACLU of Michigan did with Prop 3 (expansion of voting rights) and really knew how well-respected, well-regarded the team here was as fighters in so many ways to stand up for civil liberties throughout the state,” he said. “So, I looked at this opportunity as a chance to come to a state where there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done … but also there’s a lot of potential to do good work with an amazing team of staff, board members and supporters who have a proven track record of getting things done.”
On a sunny June morning just months after settling into his new role, Noble took time out of his busy schedule to chat with Between The Lines about his goals at the ACLU, his tips for fighting back against discriminatory policies at the state and national level, and his own political background.
“There are lots of other opportunities for work to get done and I’m excited to work with not just the rest of the LGBTQ community but with elected officials who have said, ‘Yeah, it’s time for us to make progress; let’s see what we can get done.’”
A Burgeoning Interest in Politics
When asked what motivated him to get his start in politics Noble was upfront: “It’s completely connected to me realizing I was gay.”
“I remember still, I grew up in a family that was not very political at all. I grew up in Rhode Island. If we talked about politics at all my parents were what I think is referred to now as New England Republicans, but they weren’t super engaged,” he said.
It really wasn’t until the 1992 presidential election that Noble took an interest in anything related to the political sphere. It was around that time that Noble was coming to terms with his sexuality and he heard Republican candidate Pat Buchanan of Virginia mention the LGBTQ community during a political debate.
“I still remember so clearly the 1992 election, sitting there in my mother’s family room watching Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican convention go on and on about this culture war that he felt we needed to have because of people like me existing,” Noble said. “And I had started to pay more attention to politics that year. I was always a student of history — I thought I wanted to be a history teacher — but it was really that election that crystalized for me the fact that this was something that I wanted to do and that I felt really called to do.”
Fast forward a few years to Noble’s college days and the political interest he’d had before had turned into the majors of political science and communications at Rhode Island College. While taking a summer course one year he bumped into a young state senator who he later befriended and who got him his first job on a political campaign.
“This was in [the] ’96 cycle. From that campaign, I started working with a local candidate who was running for the state senate at the time. She was progressive, running against an incumbent who was not, and I did everything from knocking on doors with her to going over her positions to helping run election day,” Noble said. “And by the end of that election, which we didn’t win, I knew this was the kind of work that I wanted to do.”
Now with a set career path, Noble spent time working on local Rhode Island elections and his first paid political gig involved preventing a for-profit health care system from buying a nonprofit hospital, eventually landing him a position with the AFL-CIO, the state Senate and to founding the Rhode Island Chapter of the Young Democrats of America.
“That is what eventually brought me to D.C. I went to D.C. to run the Young Democrats of America in the 2000 election. In 2002 I left the Young Democrats and went back to Rhode Island to work on a governor’s race, but after that cycle I realized the reason I had gotten involved in politics in the first place was because I was gay and because I knew how important it was for people like me that policymakers were folks who would affirm our existence and were not out to oppress us,” he said.
Knowing that he wanted to get into LGBT-specific work, Noble began to run The National Stonewall Democrats. While there he started a network of campus chapters called The Stonewall Student Network, the first one in Ann Arbor.
“We brought Barney Frank out and had a big event and did that for two years. After the 2004 cycle, I went to what was then called the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and for 3 1/2 years I worked there,” he said. “I lead their faith organizing, I lead their team of legislative lobbyists, I would go and work on different ballot measure campaigns and I did a lot of our trans work there as well, including in 2007 when there was the federal effort to try to move the Federal Non-Discrimination Act. … I’m very proud of the fact that since then no real push with any momentum at the federal level has been made to move non-discrimination language forward without gender identity protections.”
His work on that project resulted in his highest profile job with the Obama campaign where as director of the LGBT vote he was responsible for garnering support from the community to aid Obama’s campaign. After Obama won the 2008 presidential election, Noble stayed on for the full eight years of his two terms, aiding NASA for part of that time, until he transitioned from consulting into his current role at the ACLU. Though not exclusively LGBTQ-specific work, Noble said he’s glad to be working in a space that deals directly with those issues and he feels a sense of responsibility as a prominent, openly LGBTQ political figure.
“I’ll say that I’m very much reminded of my privilege, that I have the opportunity to work at an organization where I’m not worried about being fired from for being gay but I do work in a state surrounded by folks who still are. So I’m reminded of that. I also feel a sense of responsibility as a gay kid growing up and not knowing anyone else in my high school who was gay and not having anyone, no adults who I knew who were gay,” he said. “While things have certainly changed everywhere since the early ‘90s when I was figuring out that I was gay, I do feel a sense of responsibility that those of us with the privilege and opportunity to be out to fill that role.”
Goals for a New Role
As extensive as Noble’s resume is, it’s easy to see how the skills he’s gained in his other positions can transfer into his new role at the ACLU. However, when asked how he hopes to make a lasting impression in his new job, his focus isn’t on his own accomplishments but on helping ACLU supporters across Michigan become a “statewide grassroots mobilized force.”
“So, as we move into election cycles it is important to me in how we measure success based on if city and town clerks are implementing Prop 3 properly, and are we holding folks accountable and holding folks’ feet to the fire who might be dragging their feet on making those changes? And really making sure that this mobilized community here in Michigan – that their voice is heard on all of these issues,” he said.
Besides making sure to address accountability, Noble said he’s focused on expanding on the current progressive groundwork in Michigan that’s been building, especially since the last election, like the triple election of a progressive attorney general, secretary of state and governor — among other politicians.
“I think building upon that amazing groundwork that’s been laid in the last couple of years here is our best way to achieve success on a whole host of issues,” Noble said.
And when trying to tackle the breadth of issues that the ACLU has taken on, it’s clear they are many. At the moment the ACLU is pursuing a variety of cases touching upon topics ranging from immigrants’ rights, women’s rights, education, search and seizure and more. Noble said he avoids burnout himself by taking time to take stock of the fact that even though the current administration is a hostile one toward many issues pertaining to marginalized groups — particularly within the LGBTQ community — there has been significant progress made.
“We are still making a ton of progress. You still see [it] … in politics where you see more and more openly LGBT people running for or getting elected to office. Back in the D.C. suburbs Danica Roem being elected as the first out trans person in the state legislature and then last year eight more folks,” he said, also adding the more than 100 policy wins that happened during the Obama administration. “So, we are still seeing progress even with folks trying to get in the way. In fact, it is because we are seeing so much progress, I think, that this is why people are trying to get in the way. They’re scared. We’ve got them scared.”
Specifically, however, one of the biggest goals regarding LGBTQ issues would undoubtedly would be to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
“It needs to happen. It’s 2019 and it’s going to be 2020 next year and you can still be fired for being LGBTQ and, of course, as we’re very familiar here at the ACLU, we have folks like Aimee Stephens who are,” he said. “I know there are some folks who try to say, ‘Well, we don’t need this bill because discrimination doesn’t actually happen in Michigan.’ Well, you know, we can introduce you to her. Discrimination happens in Michigan.”
Getting Involved in the Fight
As valuable as personal goals are, Noble said that he’s eager to use the community framework to encourage people both newly interested and veterans of the local political scene to take an active role in the upcoming election cycle.
“We now have members — whether they got inspired as Trump became president or whether they’re inspired because they’re upset with their local prosecutor or they’re inspired because they understand what needs to happen when it comes to state legislation — who are working to engage folks who have been mobilized in the last couple of years,” he said. “And we’re gonna use this sort of strong political muscle moving forward to now leverage this mobilized community to make changes on all of our issues.”
As important as that is, that will require the construction of infrastructure he said.
“One thing I’m really excited to do here is to be a coach and cheerleader not just for the team here but to really build infrastructure throughout the state so that we’re focused on all of the ACLU issues and of course all of the ACLU issues impact LGBTQ people,” Noble said. “Our criminal justice reform certainly impacts the parts of our community that are over-policed just like the rest of the state. [And regarding] immigration, I did a ton of work when I came to trans asylum seekers last year and immigration here in Michigan and abuses by the government on immigration and that certainly impacts our community, too.”
And building that infrastructure, legislatively or otherwise, is something that the ACLU can always use supporters to do. He said that the best way for someone to aid the ACLU in its efforts for change is simply to pay attention to the political world around them and then to feel empowered to find opportunities locally to get involved. That could involve speaking with lawmakers, voting and even raising awareness among one’s peers.
“There’s still work that the legislature needs to do and community members and like-minded Michiganders, whether they be LGBTQ or not, who care about equality need to pay attention and weigh in with legislators and pay attention to what legislators are doing with equality,” Noble said. “There are lots of other opportunities for work to get done and I’m excited to work with not just the rest of the LGBTQ community but with elected officials who have said, ‘Yeah, it’s time for us to make progress; let’s see what we can get done.’”