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New York History Winter 2014© 2014 by The New York State Historical Association 41 “If it wasn’t for Roosevelt you wouldn’t have this job”: The Politics of Patronage and the 1936 Presidential Election in New York Si Sheppard, Long Island University, Brooklyn Today, New York is a loyal “blue” state, having delivered its electoral votes to the Democratic Party’s candidate for president in every election for a generation. That was not, however, always the case. When Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for reelection in 1936, New York was considered a key swing state. To tilt the electoral environment in their favor, Democratic activists at the grassroots level were directly encouraged by a key lieutenant of the president—his Postmaster General, James A. Farley—to take maximum possible partisan advantage of the New Deal relief spending agencies. The specific agenda was to create statewide networks of patronage with the intended outcome the delivery of votes in exchange for jobs. Although compromised by the necessity of making accommodations with Republican political machines wherever they dominated at the local level, this strategy laid the foundation for a Democratic landslide. During the 1890s, the evenly balanced partisan politics of New York State shifted dramatically as the Democratic embrace of populism under William Jennings Bryan drove suburban voters into the Republican camp, enabling the GOP to consolidate its grip on state government.1 Authority was assumed by a state political machine under Senator Thomas Platt, abetted by machines at the local level, maintained by men such as William L. Ward in Westchester County, Francis Hendricks in Onondaga County, George Aldridge in Monroe County, J. Russel Sprague in Nassau County, and Thomas Wheeler in Oneida County.2 Outside of a handful of urban 1. Samuel McSeveney, The Politics of Depression: Political Behavior in the Northeast, 1893–1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972). 2. Richard L. McCormick, From Realignment to Reform: Political Change in New York State, 1893– 1910 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981); Marjorie F. Harrison, “Machine Politics, Suburban Style: J. Russell Sprague and the Nassau County (N.Y.) Republican Party at Mid-Century” (Ph.D. Dissertation: 42 ■ NEW YORK HISTORY strongholds—Buffalo, and the machines of Rufus Elefante in Utica, Joseph J. Murphy in Troy, and Dan and Edward O’Connell in Albany—the Democratic Party effectively ceased to exist north of the Bronx line.3 The concentration of Republican strength in upstate New York paid additional dividends; the region typically boasted disproportionately high turnout relative to New York City. These factors contributed to limiting Democratic success in New York State in presidential elections between 1892 and 1932 to a single plurality victory in 1912. New York had rejected one favorite son, Democratic Governor Al Smith, in 1928, preferring the Republican Herbert Hoover by a narrow 2,193,344 to 2,089,863 vote (49.79% to 47.44%) edge. That margin was turned around completely four years later as another favorite son, Franklin D. Roosevelt, comfortably bested Hoover 2,534,959 votes to 1,937,963 (54.07% to 41.33%). New York’s forty-seven electoral votes made it the big prize again in 1936, and the Republicans’ residual strength at the state level gave them confidence they could be competitive. The GOP had retained control of the State Senate in all but three elections between 1893 and 1933, and the State Assembly in all but two elections over the same period. In 1934 the Democrats finally secured a 77–73 majority in the State Assembly, but the following year, the Republicans wrested back control by a substantial 82–67 margin.4 It was clear, however, that the Republican challenge in 1936 would be an uphill climb. Democrats dominated the U.S. House delegation, and both U.S. Senators were Democrats, as was the governor, Herbert Lehman. Above all, the unprecedented spending initiatives of Roosevelt’s New Deal enabled the Democrats to effectively control the flow of government contracts and funding to New York. This money could be directed to serve partisan political ends, and the man who sought to maximize this opportunity was James A. Farley, who served Roosevelt in a tripartite fashion: in Columbia University, 2005); Philip A...