New York Civic: Best Served Cold By Henry J. Stern

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Stern_Henry J Before Most of You Were Born, Big Fish Swam in State Politics

NOTE: A few of you already know most of this history, but the majority will pick up some information which is no longer widely disseminated in 2011. It helps us to know what happened years ago, and how history sometimes repeats itself and sometimes does not. The dispositive rule in some cases is 25-W: What goes around, comes around, or, put more briefly and crudely, 15-P: Payback is a bitch.

New York City politics has changed considerably in the last half century. For one thing, the characters are of diminished stature. For another, more have been unseated by prosecutors than by electoral rivals.

Perhaps the most important mayoral election in the post-World War II period came in 1961. There was a full-dress, take no prisoners contest between the five Democratic county leaders, and the reform wing of the Democratic Party, whose candidate for Mayor was the two-term incumbent, Robert F. Wagner. Mayor Wagner was the son of the illustrious senator from New York, who as a committee chair, gave his name to the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act) and played a pivotal role in the passage of the Social Security Act, adopted in 1935 in Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term. The Social Security Act of 1965, passed under President Lyndon B. Johnson, created the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Manhattan Borough President Wagner was first elected mayor in 1953, with the support of two Democratic county leaders, Carmine DeSapio of Manhattan and Congressman Charles Buckley of The Bronx. The other three leaders, in Brooklyn, Queens and Richmond, supported the incumbent mayor, Vincent R. Impellitteri, candidate of the Lucchese family, for re-election. Impy lost, by a 2-1 margin.

In 1957 all five leaders supported Wagner for re-election, which he won easily over the New York City postmaster, but by 1961, he had fallen out with DeSapio in particular over a Senate nomination, and had sorely disappointed the other four by not appointing their followers to jobs and judgeships.

The five counties united with a slate for the top three offices in city government. The respected State Comptroller, Arthur Levitt, a Brooklynite, ran for mayor; State Senator (and later Queens District Attorney) Thomas Mackell ran for City Council President, and Joseph DiFede of The Bronx vied for comptroller. The ticket followed the time-honored tradition of recognizing three boroughs and the three most prominent ethnic groups of the era: the Jews, Italians and Irish.

Mayor Wagner, who lived in the Yorkville section of Manhattan and whose ancestry was German and Irish, responded to DeSapio's challenge by building his own ticket, relying on career civil servants, although they did have political ties.  For Comptroller, he chose city Budget Director Abe Beame of Brooklyn, and for Council President, Deputy Mayor and former Sanitation Commissioner Paul Screvane of Queens. As luck would have it, the Wagner slate covered three major boroughs and the same three ethnic groups as the DeSapio ticket represented.

The reformers' campaign featured Eleanor Roosevelt and former Governor and Senator Herbert H. Lehman, who attacked DeSapio and his fellow leaders as bosses. DeSapio was also a crook, and was convicted and served two years in Federal prison for bribery of Mayor John Lindsay's Water Commissioner.

In 1992, Mayor Ed Koch, who had defeated DeSapio three times in races for Greenwich Village district leader, said: "He is a crook, but I like him… He always gets the most applause when he is introduced at Democratic dinners."

In 1955, at the peak of his power, DeSapio was on the cover of Time magazine, was appointed Secretary of State of New York State by his governor, Averell Harriman, and was pushing Harriman, whose family owned the Union Pacific railroad, for President of the United States in 1956. In supporting Harriman for governor, DeSapio pushed aside Congressman Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., whose mother took the slight with extreme prejudice to DeSapio. 

Why, we ask, were those political figures who strode the state a half century ago, so much more memorable than what we have today? The Republican Party has descended into nominating nonentities for governor, such as Pierre Rinfret in 1990 and Carl Paladino in 2010, who dragged down their running mates. The Democratic Party had an unfortunate seizure during the Spitzer and Patterson years, and now appears to be on the road to recovery.

The weakness of governors has led to the relative empowerment of the state legislature, called by the Brennan Center for Justice the "most dysfunctional" in the United States. That was in 2004, before a parade of felons and misdemeanants brought the Senate and Assembly into even further disrepute.


Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic


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