A Republican --Just One, I Think---Grows in Brooklyn
New York City has seen battles between political machines for over a century. Nonpartisan elections are more common today, existing in 41 of the 50 most populous cities. Of the ten more populated cities, New York and Philadelphia are the only ones with political party primaries. An effort to change New York to nonpartisan elections was opposed by most liberal leaning columnists. Ironically, nonpartisan elections had been advocated by leading progressives a century ago.
New York City voters in 1790 elected a Common Council, a city legislature, by voice vote out loud to election inspectors. The Tammany Society favored popular elections and allowing non-property owning white males to vote. The Tammany Society denounced President George Washington for suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion. Tammany Club thus became a partisan anti-Federalist society and was supported by many middle class voters. Tammany Hall denied membership to those who disagreed with their political goals. Tammany Hall became the organization that led the city Democratic Party machinery.
In 1834, a Mayor of New York for the first time was directed elected. The three days of balloting were marked by riots, physical attacks, and gun shots.
An Equal Rights movement fought Tammany Hall over corrupt practices of awarding ferry franchise and for opening the city’s election official nomination process. Tammany supporters stopped Equal Rights advocates from nominating Equal Rights candidates, leading to physical fights. The voters elected Equal Rights candidates. Tammany Hall, as it had a few years earlier when a dissident Workingmen movement won elections, adopted some of the dissidents’ positions as their own to regain voter support.
Tammany refused to run Irish American candidates in the 1840s. The Carroll Hall slated elected several candidates who opposed the anti-Catholic positions of Tammany. Tammany began becoming more responsive to Catholic voters, many of whom were recent immigrants from Ireland. Many who took a nativist, anti-immigration position joined the Whig Party.
Tammany controlled Democrats outside Whig control of the Board of Alder5man on an anti-corruption campaign in 1851. Tammany then proven to be corrupt by awarding ferry leases and railroad charters to the politically connected, engaging in corrupt city property sales, and hiring police who did not arrest illegal activities of Tammany friends.
The City Reform League arose in favor of social reforms such as improving tenement living conditions and free nondenominational education. They helped elected Edward Cooper, Abram Hewitt, and Daniel Tiemann as Mayors. They helped replace the 20 member Board of Assistant Aldermen with a 60 member Board of Councilmen, believing it would be too difficult to bribe a larger body. They also adopted sealed bids, replaced lifetime leases with 10 year maximum leases, removed the power of Aldermen to appoint police officers, and required the police to wear uniforms instead of just placing a police star onto regular clothing. Many City Reform supports returned to the Democratic Party in 1854.
Fernando Wood was elected Mayor in 1854 with support from many of the City Reform movement. As Mayor, Wood used patronage, required police officers to contribute to his campaign or face dismissal or 24 hour shifts, and named election inspectors and vote counters who stole votes. The state legislature moved power from the Mayor to state boards and commissions that controlled three fourths of the city budget. The legislature also created a Metropolitan regional police force that fought with the city police over who should perform police duties. The Municipals and state militia arrested Mayor Wood. An Irish American gang, the Dead Rabbits, fought the just disbanded Municipals. The Municipals joined forces with a rival Irish American gang, the Bowery Boys. Over 1,000 gang members fought leaving 12 dead.
In 1857, a new city charter created a Board of Supervisors which regulated city laws and audited city expenses. In 1859, it was given the power to oversee elections and to appoint election inspectors. William Tweed, a member of the Board, bribed his way to control the Board. Tweed thus controlled overseeing the election operations and thus could direct election fraud. Even so, Tweed candidates lost the 1859 and 1861 races for Mayor.
William M. Tweed became the literal Boss of Tammany Hall in the 1860s He adopted many of Wood’s corrupt practices While the M. in his name stood for Magear, the press dubbed it “Marcy” after New York politician William March who had stated “to the victors belong the spoils of the enemy”.
Tweed opened the nominating process to win support from dissident Democrats. Yet he put important powers to a smaller Exectuive Committee whose employment and loyalty were to Tweed.
Tweed led a drive to ease the naturalization process, which included registering those naturalized as voters. Tweed was a partial owner of the company that printed the forms from which 60,000 new voters emerged.
Tammany supported Mayor John Hoffman in being elected Governor in 1868. Tammany supported Sheriff James O’Brien who hired over 1,500 Deputy Sheriffs to arrest political opponents on election day on charges Judges mostly dismissed. The Republican leaning Union League claimed about a third of the votes cast were illegal. Tweed would testify years later the Inspectors of Elections declared vote total without counting ballots.
The U.S. Justice Department was created in 1870. Among their duties were to arrest, try, and penalize election law violators. In that year’s elections, Republican President Ulysses Grant had 6,000 Deputy Marshals and two warships keeping eyes on Tammany’s over 1,000 Deputy Sheriffs. Tammany supporters used the arrival of Federal agents as an argument they were interfering with local politics.
New York state government passed state election laws. Yet the District Attorney and most Judges were supported by Tammany. Enforcement of the election laws would come slowly.
Tweed was arrested in 1871. Voters reacted against Tammany corruption, which included the misuse of tens of millions of dollars, leading to the creation of a reform group known as Apollo Hall winning 30 of 36 Common Council seats, 14 of 20 State Assembly, and 4 of 5 State Senate seats.
Elites who believed property owners were entitled to a greater role in government favored cleaner elections. In 1899, the New York Reform Club called for allowing only taxpayers as voters. Tammany thus appealed more to the masses who opposed elite rule. Many also approved of the patronage which provided entrance into city government for many middle class voters.
In 1886, Democrat Abram Hewitt ran uniting Tammany and reform Democrats. United Labor Party candidate Henry George finished second. Republican Theodore Roosevelt came in third. The United Labor Party organized for government printed ballots cast in secret with government appointed election inspectors. At that time, voters used ballots printed by political groups. Since they were printed on color paper, voters at polls were often asked by electioneers recognizing the color of the paper to switch ballots to their candidates. Ballots printed by the government became the law in 1890. The law also gave party leaders the right to control their portion of the ballots. This thus created official political party organizations. Tammany Hall mostly controlled the Democratic Party ballot from the 1880s through the 1930s. Dissidents thus needed to either gather enough signatures to file as a separate party or run write-in candidates.
A state legislative investigation in 1894 led by Republican State Sen. Charles Lexow produced testimony of Tammany influenced police officers demanding bribes to allow illegal gambling, saloons, and brothels to operate. A reform movement led by city elites organized against this corruption. A Republican, William Strong, was elected Mayor in 1894. Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt closed saloons on Sundays, which upset voting customers.
The Citizens Union reformers allied with the Republican machine, putting aside some fundamental differences to win. Henry George died and with the Tammany Democrats adopting pro-labor stances, many of his supporters then supported the Democrats. Democrat Robert Van Wyck was elected Mayor in 1897. The open corruption of Tweed’s era was over, yet a new type of corruption emerged called “honest graft”. Examples of this was purchasing land before its values increased with advance knowledge that nearby public improvements would later be announced that would increase neighborhood property values. Payoffs from illegal operations continued. Mayor Van Wyck and political friends of Van Wyck and even some opposition Republican leaders owned stock in an ice company that had a city monopoly.
Seth Low, who had the backing of Citizens Union reformers and the Republican organization was elected Mayor in 1901. Tammany returned to power by supporting a candidate who run on an honesty platform, Rep. George McClellan, son of a Civil War General. McClelland at first sided with Tammany in return for their support yet their alliance fell apart. Tammany backed McClelland’s reelection, even though they had split with McClelland, because they more feared his opponent, William Randolph Hearst. McClelland won in a close race which some believe an honest count would have elected Hearst. McClelland continued refusing to give Tammany patronage jobs. He also created a commission that removed Tammany supported Manhattan Borough President John Ahearn from his position for mismanagement, but not due to corrupt practices.
Under New York law then, political parties nominated candidates at announced meetings. The political parties determined voter eligibility. The parties typically controlled the nomination process.
In 1906, New York passed a law requiring political parties to disclose their contributions and expenses as well as disallowing corporate contributions.
In 1908, Republican Charles Evan Hughes was elected Governor over Democrat William Randolph Hearst. Governor Hughes sought to change the regulating of industries from the legislatures to professionally staffed boards. He also supported the nomination of party nominees by direct election. This passed with a requirement that a nominee could only be listed under one party. Thus, a candidate selected by another party would have a notation that its nominee would be found at another party. Many reformers favored this. Tammany used this to their advantage.
Tammany generally supported progressive social policies that were politically popular. Tammany supported State Sen. Robert Wagner and Assemblyman Al Smith among leaders who helped create a workers’ compensation system, minimum wage law, child labor protections, and factory safety standards.
Tammany supported Rep. William Sulzer who was elected Governor in 1912. Sulzer, upon his inauguration, declared his independence from Tammany. Governor Sulzer helped create a compromise primary law. Tammany directed legislators to investigate Sulzer for minor unreported campaign reporting violations. The legislature then impeached the Governor. The legislature then changed election laws by placing a maximum of two parties by the name of any candidate. This ballot structure made it over difficult for nonofficial or fusion organizations and in 1920, none appeared in any citywide election.
Republican Robert Mitchell was elected Mayor with his support for a direct primary being a major issue. Ironically, he would be defeated in the primary he championed.
Governor Franklin Roosevelt had Samuel Seabury conduct a three year look into city government corruption. This led to the resignation of Mayor Jimmy Walker. When Roosevelt became President, he directed patronage and local political matters through state Democratic James Farley and Bronx Democratic leader Edward Flynn.
Rep. Fiorella LaGuardia ran with fusion support and campaign against Tammany. Tammany responded with weapons, shooting, a stabbing, and events leading to 85 arrests. LaGuardia won the election.
Robert Wagner was elected Mayor with the support of Democratic boss Carmine DeSapio. Over time, Wagner embraced reform and spoke against DeSapio.
Republican Rep. John Lindsay was elected Mayor, running as a social reformer. As Mayor, he expanded social programs. Jobs, which Lindsay refused as being patronage, were given to previously excluded Black and Puerto Rican leaders. The reform movement divided. Old reformers wanted more centralized and efficient government. New reformers wanted more government spending and more community-level control.
The Governor, Assembly Speaker, and Senate Majority often were the primary figures in negotiating the state government’s budget. The legislative body was expected to ratify their final deals. From 1997 to 2001, 95% of important bills passed both house without any debate. None of the 308 major bills were floor amended. Legislative leaders had great control over the legislative process. A movement to create a new Constitutional Convention to change this status quo was defeated by the voters.
Most modern “good government” groups in New York City are led primarily by liberal Democrats. Many such groups have no Republicans in their leadership, even though some are nonpartisan.
There is a movement towards adopted nonpartisan elections in New York City. In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported nonpartisan elections that would allow candidates the ability to last a party affiliation. New York City has held nonpartisan election when holding elections to fill vacancies since 1989. This movement has not yet (as of 2010) to be successful.
There is also a movement for campaign finance reform, such as disallowing contributions for anyone who seeks to conduct business with city government.
Political leaders today use ballot access laws to their advantage. They are skilled at knowing the technicalities and in creating legal costs that keep opponents from getting listed on the ballots.
New York state legislators lacked staff and offices in the 1950s. They began gaining staff and funds for improving their operational abilities in the 1970s.
The financial gains of political campaigns have moved from political bosses to political consultants. Campaign organizations often seek funds from candidates for their efforts on behalf of candidates.
Political bosses maintain some modern influence. When they endorse a candidate, often opponents hoping for a future endorsement may withdraw from the race. Successful bosses have access to organizational support in getting candidates the required number of signatures and proper petitions to get on the ballot. They also may have access to people skilled in getting opponents knocked off the ballot. Some basses have access to awarding some patronage jobs.
Over 200 incumbents ran for citywide reelection from 1993 to 2005. All but one won general reelection and five lost in primaries, for a 97% reelection rate. This is a much higher reelection rate than Tammany enjoyed. In contrast, major cities with nonpartisan City Council elections have in recent years had reelection rates from 57% to 77%. They have also seen far more closer elections.
The last time a Republican was elected Comptroller was 1941, Queen Borough President or Bronx Borough President since the 1960s, Manhattan Borough President since 1941, and Brooklyn Borough President since 1913. The last time Republicans on City Council or the prior Board of Aldermen could form a veto proof minority was 1919.
New York has closed Democratic and Republican primaries, meaning independents cannot participate in these primaries. Almost half the states have open primaries that allow independents to vote in major parity primaries. Since New York City primaries are important due to Democratic Party dominance, independents cannot participate in this important facet of the election process.
Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that issues of race have gained significance in New York City elections. The author notes data indicates that candidates belonging to racial minority groups appear to win elections more frequently in nonpartisan elections than in places like New York with partisan elections. The author argues, that most recent immigrants, who are largely Asian in New York City, are more likely to participate in nonpartisan electoral process than partisan ones. Many recent immigrants distrust political parties, especially immigrants who left countries where they distrusted political parties there.
Partisan primaries are more apt to have low voter turnouts that may favor selecting candidates from the extremist wings of the parties, the author argues. In New York City, an extremist who wins the Democratic primary is often assured a general election victory. The author believes nonpartisan elections with reduce the election of extremists to office.
In the 1940s, New York created a law prohibiting a member of a political party from running in another party’s primary. This was passed after a Republican poll watcher was killed by two Tammany supporters in the election of Rep. Vito Marcantonio, a member of the American Labor Party who had also won the Democratic Primary. The result was that the minor parties then negotiated with the major parties for their endorsements.
New York City had voluntary public financing of campaigns. In 2001, Democrat Mark Green was provided $4.5 million in public funds out of $16.4 million he spent. He lost to Michael Bloomberg who spent $73 million of his own money.
Elliot Spitzer was elected as a reformer for Governor in 2006. Yet he was found using police for political reasons, something Tammany used to do. He resigned after hiring prostitutes. Tammany used to protect prostitutes.