The Scandal of Reform
The Grand Failures of New York's Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Preface and Acknowledgements
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In early January 1996, when I was a college junior home for Christmas break, I called the office of John D. Feerick, the esteemed dean of Fordham Law School, to inquire whether he would be willing to meet with me. I wanted to ask him about his experiences as chairman of the New York State Commission on Government Integrity, to which Governor Mario...
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In 1904, journalist Lincoln Steffens published The Shame of the Cities, a collection of essays on big-city political corruption that had first appeared in McClure’s Magazine. Steffens’s lurid tales of bribes, boodle, and blackmail exposed the corrupt realities of urban democracy. He named names and indicted those complicit in betraying the public trust. Municipal...
Part One: The Evolution of Reform
1. Saints and Sinners
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The Reformer is as much of an American archetype as the Self-Made Man or the Frontiersman, a lone crusader who selflessly attacks corruption and searches for the civic equivalent of the Holy Grail: nonpartisan good government. Standing between the Reformer and his city on a hill has always been the party boss, his opposite in every way: corrupt...
2. Tweed: Reform’s Child and Champion
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Boss, from the Dutch baas, meaning “master,” is one of New Amsterdam’s finest contributions to the American lexicon, and it still holds special resonance in its native region. The New York Yankees, owned by the domineering George Steinbrenner, are the only sports franchise in the nation run by the Boss. No one in New Jersey, home to Bruce Springsteen, mistakes...
3. Purifying the Polls
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Blacks in New York had not won any expansion to their suffrage rights since the 1821 constitutional amendments had opened the ballot box to a select few. In 1846 and again in 1860, the state’s voters—with the Democratic party leading the opposition—rejected amendments that would have lifted suffrage restrictions on blacks. In 1866, voters called for another...
4. Reform Comes of Age
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In 1876, Tammany boss John Kelly fought a determined but losing battle to keep New York State governor Samuel J. Tilden from becoming the Democratic party’s presidential nominee. An aloof, clean-shaven, and cerebral corporate lawyer, Tilden had won national acclaim for his work in bringing down the Tweed ring, and now he made reform the...
5. Murphy’s Law: The Direct Primary
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No reform better symbolized the spirit of the Progressive era than the direct primary, and no state’s political parties more strenuously opposed it than New York’s. Tammany feared—and reformers believed—that direct popular control of nominations would fatally weaken the party machines. Tammany’s battle against the direct primary lasted for more...
6. Changing of the Guards
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On August 19, 2005, both the New York Post and the Daily News ran front-page headlines about a New York City judge who had disappeared seventy-five years earlier. The Daily News trumpeted, “JUDGE CRATER FOUND? Dead Gal’s Secret Letter May Solve 1930 Mystery.” For three-quarters of a century, police had been unable to crack the case of the missing...
7. The New Goo-Goos
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The dramatic increase in social and political activism that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s was similar to that of the 1890s and 1900s. In both cases, activists rallied under the banner of reform and created advocacy groups that offered educated professionals opportunities to engage in politics without dirtying their hands with parties. But the new...
Part Two: The Battle over Nonpartisan Elections
8. Not Your Grandfather’s Nonpartisanship
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On November 8, 2003, just days after the city’s referendum on nonpartisan elections, friends of the New York Public Interest Research Group gathered at the South Street Seaport for the group’s thirtieth anniversary gala. NYPIRG is the dominant voice of New York City’s good government community, owing largely to the seniority and savvy of Gene Russianoff, who...
9. The Politics of Process
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Otto von Bismarck compared the making of laws to the making of sausage, with neither being suitable for public viewing. Today democratic assemblies the world over continue to engage in horse trading, honest and otherwise; elected officials continue to weigh public and political interests; and private industries continue to lobby for special consideration. These backroom...
10. Bossism and Ballot Access
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On a Friday evening in September 2003, the regulars were gathering for their monthly meeting at an old three-story house on Putnam Avenue, just north of the Queens–Brooklyn border. The sign above the front door read “Ridgewood Democratic Club.” Hearing my knock, a man scurried out from around the corner of the building. “You gotta come through the...
11. Noncompetitive Elections: The Elephant in the Room
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James E. Davis had big plans. A young, charismatic, and confident former police officer who had defeated Clarence Norman’s Brooklyn machine in 2001 to win an open seat on the City Council, Davis believed he was destined for big things: maybe the presidency, certainly Congress. But on July 23, 2003, Davis was gunned down by a deranged political rival on the...
12. Participation and Representation
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In 2007, the New York Times ran a profile on Ronnie Lowenstein, director of the city’s independent budget office, noting that “Ms. Lowenstein has sought to be scrupulously neutral, even switching her voter registration from Democrat to independent, which, she acknowledged, virtually disenfranchised her in her heavily Democratic Manhattan...
13. Race Concerns and Race Cards
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In Beyond the Melting Pot, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that, when Tammany Hall collapsed, “the central issue of politics in the city turned from ‘Bossism’ to ‘Racism’ . . . [and] the struggle over racial issues became in many ways a surrogate struggle for control of city government and the Democratic party.”¹ Although race relations in New York...
14. The New Fusion
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No Republican mayor in the history of the City of New York has ever been elected on the strength of the Republican ticket alone. All have had to collect votes on other ballot lines that are more palatable to city voters, who have never been particularly fond of the Grand Old Party. The most recent Republican mayors, Giuliani and Bloomberg, may not have been...
15. Campaign Finance Follies
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By the end of the 1960s, as the rise of media technology weakened the party machines and made elections more candidate-centered, the corrupt financial bargains that reformers had always accused party bosses of making were now thrust upon individual candidates themselves, leaving no candidate, reform or regular, unsullied. Compounding matters, the...
16. Redeeming Reform
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In 2006, New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer ran for governor, promising a new era of reform. Campaign finance, redistricting, lobbying, ethics, public authorities: you name it, he called for reforming it. And for good reason. State government’s dysfunctions had become scandalous. Voters wanted, in the words of the New York Times, to “fix Albany.” In the...
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About the Author
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Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 5 tables
Publication Year: 2009