Wednesday, June 19, 1996


The Democratic Reform Movement on the East Side I:

LOOKING BACK by Wally Dobelis

County Leadership - The Power of Tammany Hall is Broken

While browsing through the Encyclopedia of New York City, it came to mind that important portions of New York City's history need documenting - the system of political clubs, District Leaders, and the reform movement that broke the hold of Tammany Hall over Democratic politics. This is a largely anecdotal eyewitness history in six parts, some remembered from my own younger days as a member of the late maverick Murray Hill Reform Democratic Club, but by far the most assembled from the recollections of such important participants as Charles Kinsolving, Lou Sepersky, Ken Mills, Bea Dolan, Maureen Lynch, Irene Shea, Louise Dankberg and others (more being added as we go on), along with snatches from published memoirs and histories. Be sure to write to T&V, or call me with additions and corrections, before memories fade.
* * *
The early bloom of reform in New York politics may be dated to 1946, the beginning of the Mayoralty of William O'Dwyer (1890-1964). More concretely, it ties to 1949, when Lexington, the first Reform Democratic club, was organized. As Charles Kinsolving describes it, that was the year when Courtlandt Nicoll ran for the Assembly in the Silk Stocking 9th District, with the aid of various mainstream Penn and Columbia Law graduates, and when Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. was elected to Congress from the Upper West Side district of the late Sol Bloom, against the opposition of the regular old line Democratic organization. Nicoll had no help from the Grover Cleveland Club regulars, and his supporters, the reformers, started their own organization. Of the Lex club more later.

Reform grew stronger in 1951, when Vincent M. Impellitteri (1900-1987) was Mayor and Carmine DeSapio (1908-) chaired the New York County Democratic organization, still known as Tammany Hall, even though the 17th Street wigwam had been sold to the ILGWU in 1943, to pay off debts. Impellitteri became acting Mayor upon the resignation of William O'Dwyer, who had been tainted by evidence during the prosecution of Brooklyn bookmaker Harry Gross, and opted out, in favor of an Ambassadorship to Mexico. The Democratic organization was slowly recovering from the lean Laguardia mayorality years (1933-45), and DeSapio became friendly with the reformers, a loose group of war veterans interested in participatory politics and Fair Deal Democrats. [Fair Deal was President Harry S. Truman's social program that included aid to education, slum clearance, low-cost public housing and an unsuccessful attempt to repeal the Taft-Hartley Labor Act.] DeSapio himself was a sort of reformer, having been elected County Leader in 1949, after years of battling the Irish establishment. He took over the city-wide leadership when Edward J. Flynn, the respected Bronx County Leader, died in 1953.

In 1951, the reform groundswell managed to elect several of their district leaders. With DeSapio's help, in 1953 the reformers also managed to change the election rules, from indirect election of Distict Leaders (who were until then elected by county committeemen), to direct, through the ballot box. DeSapio gained Reform credentials when in 1953 he, the first Italian county leader, tried eliminating Tammany stalwart Bert Stand, an important member of the largely Irish leadership group, long-time Treasurer of the Democratic County Executive Committee. The story is that DeSapio was material in the founding of the reformers' Tilden (now Tilden Midtown Democratic) Club. In 1954 he actually selected several Liberal progressives - Robert F. Wagner Jr. (1910-91) for Mayor, who beat Impellitteri, and W.Averell Harriman (1891-1986) for Governor, who beat Republican Kenneth B. Keating from Rochester (but lost in 1958 to Nelson A. Rockefeller, because Harriman would not return calls from Dorothy Schiff, the then most powerful Reform Democrat and New York Post owner/publisher. In anger, she endorsed his opponent).

In 1957 the Reform candidates campaigned in 20 of Manhattan's 33 districts, and elected several leaders. The reformers broke with DeSapio in 1958, when former Gov., then Sen. Herbert H. Lehman (1878-1963) became too sick to continue running for Senate, and DeSapio at the Buffalo Democratic Convention selected New York City's District Attorney Frank Hogan, over both Thomas E. Murray, of the Atomic Energy Commission, and Thomas K. Finletter, former Secretary of the Air Force and the Reformers' choice. Julius C.C.Edelstein, Lehman's team leader, saw it as treason (Edelstein had been staff director of the Liberal caucus in the US Senate). Hogan was a bad campaigner and lost the 1958 Sematorial race to the Republican Keating, who subsequently lost to Robert F. Kennedy, in 1964. DeSapio further angered Lehman and Mrs. Roosevelt (a staunch Stevenson supporter) by backing Lyndon B. Johnson for President in the 1960 Democratic convention in L.A. Mayor Wagner, who needed the support of the Lehman group in the upcoming 1961 Democratic primaries, also turned against DeSapio, and the combined strength of this group helped the new Reform club in DeSapio's territory, the Village Independent Democrats, gain its first victory against Tammany, in 1960. That year, on his home grounds, Greenwich Village, DeSapio tried to counter the VIDs revolt against his Tamawa Club, by running two genuine Reformers, Charles Kinsolving and Eleanor Clark French, as his candidates for the Democratic State Committe, but they lost against the Greenwich Village Independents James Lanigan and Sarah Schoenkopf (later m. Kovner). Predictably, DeSapio backed Arthur Levitt against Wagner for Mayor in the 1961 primary, but lost to the Reform wave. The VIDs' revenge was to destroy DeSapio's political base, by electing James Lanigan and Carol Greitzer as District Leaders over the Tammany headman in 1961. The New York Times ran an 8-column banner headline proclaiming the Wagner and Lanigan victories.

Lanigan, a Stevenson worker who was imposed on the VIDs by Lehman, lost favor by immediately declaring himself a candidate for county leadership, so says Edward I. Koch (1924-), then VID president. When Lanigan broke away from the club, Koch, (a tireless worker who had become club president despite having joined Tamawa around 1957 when he lost factional fights in VID) won the District Leader elections, by beating off De Sapio's challenges, in 1963, a rerun in 1964, and 1965. The courtly head of Tammany (nicknamed the Bishop), having lost his county office along with his District Leader position in 1961, finally had to retire. A book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, correspondent of the French Vogue in New York, To Forget Palermo, is thought to be a roman-a-clef about DeSapio. It was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1956.

Temporary county leadership went to the former Fire Commissioner Edward Cavanaugh, related to Wagner by marriage. He was replaced by Reform leader Edward Costikyan in 1962 (against the wishes of some Reformers). In 1964, J. Raymond Jones, Adam Clayton Powell's Congressional campaign manager and head of Harlem Democrats, took over. The county leadership eventually went to Frank Rossetti, who continued until 1977, when Mayor Koch replaced him with the VID District Leader Miriam Bachman (who replaced Carol Greitzer when Carol was elected to the City Council). Herman (Denny) Farrell has beeen the County Leader since 1981.

If you have more anecdotes, stories, additions and corrections, please write a Letter to the Editor, or call Wally. There is little published on the subject; we are writing history. More about individual clubs (Dem and Rep) in the next weeks.

For information in Part I Wally Dobelis acknowledges further indebtedness to Oliver E. Allen's The Tiger; the Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall, 1993, and several books by and about ex-Mayor Edward I. Koch.
Kinsol : Cvanaugh was W's brother in law?
1960 Roo backed Stev. Leh unknown? Q whether DeS backed Johns? Roo obj to Jons for VP.
Lanigan was 50

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