New York Politics & the Liberal Party
Ever since 1944, when the Liberal party, but recently a minority within another minority party, delivered 330,000 votes for Franklin D. Roosevelt, it has been a force with which New York politicians of every stripe have had to reckon. A Republican Speaker of the State Assembly, if he covets the governorship—and who knows where that might lead?—will seek Liberal party endorsement as eagerly as his Democratic opponent. This little party, then, has power. Much of it is visible (and not only during election campaigns). As for that part of its power which is not visible, Liberal leaders like Alex Rose (vice chairman of the party and otherwise president of the United Hatters, Cap and Millinery Workers Union) and Ben Davidson (executive director of the party since its inception) protest that their best work must be quiet and informal. The influence they bring to bear cannot, they claim, always be publicized—for fear that office holders will be embarrassed and the party’s influence thereby lost.
As with the many victories for which Liberal spokesmen take too much credit, there is nevertheless something in what they say here, and the “pros” from President Johnson on down know it. In New York City, in Albany, and in Washington, they listen respectfully to the Liberals. Whether the Liberals say enough is another question, but that their voices are heard, if not always heeded, is certain.
How did all this come about? Why is it that the Liberal party of New York has survived to celebrate its twentieth anniversary, when the several Labor parties, the Progressive party, the Epic Movement, the Farmer-Labor party, the Commonwealth party, and the Socialist party—to name only those recently singled out by Ben Davidson—have all gone into eclipse?
The chronology, at any rate, is clear. In 1936, the American Labor party came into being, spawned officially by Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky of the two big garment unions, together with some ex-, quasi-, and demi-socialists and other “progressives.” We have it from William B. Hesseltine, a close student of third-party movements in the United States, that “In the 1930’s New York unions and the Social Democratic Federation which had split from the Socialists, formed the ALP for the thinly-veiled purpose of keeping Roosevelt from swinging too far to the right.” This version is not inaccurate, but it tells less than half the story, for the prime mover in forming the ALP actually seems to have been James Farley, who can hardly be said to have had any interest in keeping his chief from swinging to the right. Consummate strategist that he was, Farley understood, and so did Roosevelt, that an indeterminably large number of votes could be scooped out of New York in the year FDR was seeking his second term, by the simple expedient of creating a party through which people loyal to Roosevelt but hostile to the Democrats could vote for him.
At its point of origin, then, the ALP was centered more on helping Roosevelt at the polls than on pushing him in any direction. Presently, however, the Communists saw and seized an opportunity to penetrate the new party. They met with little resistance from Hillman or Jacob Potofsky of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers who believed then, and for too long thereafter, that it was possible to work with the Communists. Dubinsky, Rose, and Davidson knew better. By the time they saw their New York County branch in Communist hands, they were ready to withdraw. It had taken the C.P.U.S.A. eight years of bitter struggle to complete this little coup, whose success had fateful consequences for American politics at least until 1948.
The Liberal party was born in 1944. There were fewer midwives than the ALP had in 1936, but all of them stood in resolute opposition to the Communists, who have never again given them any trouble. (Indeed, the problem today is how to prevent Republicans, and to some extent, Democrats from infiltrating and dominating several clubs in upstate New York—while it is the Reform Democratic movement that is bedeviled by attempts at Communist takeover!) Ideological ballast, such as it was, came from a unique source, Columbia’s Teachers College, which imparted a peculiar coloration to the party that has not yet disappeared. John Dewey lent his name and gave his blessing to the Liberals, and his disciples, John Childs and George S. Counts, each subsequently a state chairman, did likewise, in addition to devoting their services. (With interim exceptions, the chairman has always been a gentile, apparently on the principle that guided Freud when he selected Jung, his gentile, as president of the International Psychoanalytic Society.)
Childs presided over a committee charged with drafting the original Declaration of Principles in 1944. The general objective spelled out at that time was to fight reaction and corruption in both big parties, to promote the liberal wing of each, to steer clear of Stalinism, to help win the war, and to work steadily toward a basic political realignment. New York-based though they were, Childs and his colleagues strove to establish a national perspective. The Liberals’ first political act was to nominate Roosevelt, whose name now appeared three times on every New York ballot. Democratic regulars, Popular Fronters (through the ALP), and dissident anti-Communists (through the Liberals) could all cast votes for the same man—votes which some would not have cast at all under auspices repugnant to them. Candidates ever since have seen the advantages inherent in this situation. Albany, still in the hands of a lopsidedly rural conservative legislature, could destroy the Liberal party, instead of just harassing it, by abolishing dual and multiple designation, but cooler heads (sometimes those of Republican governors) have prevailed against all ultra-conservative attempts to legislate the Liberals to death. There is every reason in the Eastern megalopolis for Republicans to save the Liberals from upstate hatchet men of their own party. New York City, for all its multifariousness, belongs to the Democrats, which means that few, if any, Republicans can realistically hope for election to municipal office without Liberal support. Neither are a Republican’s chances very bright for statewide and national office unless the Liberals give him their seal of approval. Thus, both big parties stand to benefit from, and therefore put up with, a third party they could easily suffocate.
Up until the ALP was dealt a fatal blow in the humiliating defeat of Henry Wallace in 1948, the Liberals struggled with uneven success to differentiate themselves from their parent organization, and running behind it, remained a fourth party. They did, however, become legally established as a fixture on the ballot in 1946. State law requires that for this privilege a party must poll at least 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial election. Despite a relatively poor showing with a lackluster candidate in 1962, the Liberals have never had any real trouble in surpassing that figure.
The year 1945 was a crucial one, more for what did not occur than for what did. By then, Wendell Willkie had strayed so far from his Republican confreres that, although he had been their most recent standard bearer, they had not even invited him to the national convention of 1944. It struck the Liberals that if Willkie could be persuaded to run for Mayor of New York on a Fusion ticket, they might have a man in the mold of La Guardia who would continue to do battle against Tammany Hall—and much, much more. Liberal overtures were made to Willkie; he was said to be interested; and after a second conference with Childs, the political wheels were set in motion. The Liberal leaders who conceived this scheme thought, probably with good reason, that Willkie could have won New York City, and that his victory might just have started a revolution reverberating through the country.
How so? Here the public record is fragmentary, though the publication of Willkie’s correspondence with FDR may some day fill in the tantalizing lacunae. We do know that both men were greatly dissatisfied with their parties, that they were drawn by personal and political bonds to each other, and that their talk about founding a nationwide third party was serious. Presumably, even after Roosevelt’s death, Willkie’s imagination was stirred by the prospect of winning an impressive victory in New York and subsequently organizing the broader movement; also, it was the Liberals’ golden opportunity. But a few weeks after having more or less agreed to run, Willkie died, and the steam went out of all these ambitious plans. It has never been restored. Comptroller McGoldrick of the La Guardia administration seemed willing to be a mayoral candidate, but he equivocated and finally declined the nomination. That left the Liberals with Jonah Goldstein, a Democrat acceptable to the Republicans, who bore no special relation to the Liberal party and who ran so poorly, garnering a mere 123,000 votes, that several Liberal leaders thought of giving up the ghost. But following a six-month respite from practical affairs, a period set aside for a comprehensive review through a “listening committee” of officers who, at open hearings, heard conflicting arguments from spokesmen of local clubs, they decided to persist against heavy odds in an uphill battle which could only yield slow progress. And they also resolved that they would henceforth be more careful and circumspect in approaching candidates.
The crisis of 1945 produced new financial problems, for many of those who like to support a winner and have no other basic commitment, dropped away with the Goldstein debacle. To run a political party is no paltry matter: it takes an enormous amount of money. The authorized version is that “liberal and labor forces” supply the necessary backing for the Liberal party. But mainly, one surmises, these “forces” boil down to the Hatters and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.1 In any case, funds materialize and fairly expensive operations are undertaken even between campaigns; as of this year, the Liberal party’s headquarters, previously rather shabby, are almost elegant, a new series of radio broadcasts has been launched, and more organizers are hard at work upstate. The party is growing—despite dips and rises, its relative proportion of state votes has increased every year since 1946. There is now much less talk than in late 1961 of merger with the Democrats, sloganized as “reappraising the Liberal party’s role.” That phrase, set afloat after Mayor Wagner had allegedly broken the back of Tammany Hall, has been discarded in favor of “continued independence.”
Independence sometimes signifies repudiation of Democratic and Republican candidates in favor of a Liberal who runs all by himself, and sometimes, detachment from Tammany and support for a progressive Republican. The Liberals pursued this latter policy in 1949 when they endorsed Newbold Morris for mayor, passing their old ALP rivals for the first time, and besting Vito Marcantonio, a formidable vote-getter. Morris lost the election by a small margin, declaring that if the Republicans had done as much for his cause as the Liberals, he would have won.
The next such expression of local independence, and by far the most successful one to date, occurred in 1951. That year Rudolph Halley received 583,000 votes on the Liberal line as an independent candidate for President of the Council of the City of New York, and defeated two hacks, the Democrat Joseph T. Sharkey, and the Republican Henry J. Latham. In 1950, before proportional representation was abolished (and the Liberals are agitating to have it restored), two Liberal city councilmen had been elected. But neither their presence nor that of Halley changed the municipal scene in any significant way. The truth now universally admitted is that the Liberals embraced Halley without inquiring about his politics, just as the ADA—a non-party organization parallel to the Liberal party, and as flexible—found itself boosting General Eisenhower for President soon after World War II. Halley had sex appeal at the polls: millions of people knew him as a TV personality, a tireless chief counsel of the Kefauver Crime Commission who could be a forceful interrogator of criminals. The Liberals—who saw their chance to capitalize on a public image—were just as disillusioned as the rest of us when Halley turned out to be a political cipher. Nevertheless, when they ran him for mayor in 1953, he made an impressive showing. The year before, Dr. Counts, whose fame was somewhat more limited, had also scored impressively as the Liberal party’s independent candidate for U.S. Senator—with about half a million votes. These results delighted the Republicans as much as they sobered the Democrats. From now on, no one could seriously doubt that the Liberal party had veto power, that it often occupied a pivotal position, and that it could prevent the big parties from heedlessly nominating men it considered unacceptable.
Although the moderate exercise of that power has in general proved more welcome than not to political bigwigs, it has naturally annoyed others—especially those of the reactionary right. The result has been the formation of yet another party in New York state, the Conservative party, which has deliberately modeled itself after the Liberal party, and which, by virtue of a surprisingly big vote for its gubernatorial candidate in the 1962 election, now has a permanent place on the ballot. Already Republican office seekers soliciting Liberal endorsement do so at the risk of losing Conservative support. If these tactics work, the two fringe parties are bound to neutralize and eventually force each other out of business. It will be interesting to see how the Liberals meet this challenge of the reverse mirror image.
From the beginning they have had to meet other challenges, those built so solidly into our system that to survey them is to wonder how any minority party can ever be established in the United States. State law, made and administered by Democrats and Republicans, is ingeniously designed to prevent political competition, and if it fails it can still be used most effectively to stifle a minority party. When the law proves inadequate, moreover, there are extralegal techniques available to men who, if no other recourse avails, do not hesitate to use them. At the precinct level, politics is still a dirty business.
Obstacle number one for a new party in New York State consists of petitions—sheets of paper on which fifty valid signatures must appear for each of sixty-two counties. Any signature may be challenged for any number of reasons, ranging from incorrect form or the use of initials to out-and-out fraud, and if a single name is successfully challenged, all others on the same sheet are thrown out. As might be expected, the petitions of an unwelcome minority party are examined with a microscope. Thus, a dedicated functionary like Ben Davidson knows his people should start ringing doorbells at 6:30 A.M. to make sure that for every fifty signatures needed they will collect two hundred and fifty. With much experience behind him, Davidson in ’44 had his party’s petition volumes locked in a safe and had guards stationed around the safe. And when the petitions went to New York and then to Albany for processing, they went under police protection.
A resourceful leader of a third party, if he has a pool of volunteer workers, can overcome this obstacle—only to find that the path before him is still strewn with mines. The Liberals today must contend with physical intimidation, threats to livelihood (and worse) from racketeers and gamblers, a type by no means confined to New York City but likely to pop up in towns like Utica and Hudson. The underworld, no more a respecter of American party labels than Lord Bryce, is as active in Republican territory upstate as it is in Democratic urban centers. Liberal organizers, then, have their hands full. On top of all this, new bills are introduced into the State Legislature virtually every year with a view toward making life impossible for the Liberals. The election laws get more complicated, further technicalities are added, a greater percentage of signatures is proposed, extra committeemen must be added in every county.
To their great credit, the Liberals have fought back, refusing despite continued frustration and harassment to shut up shop, and we have them to thank more than anyone else for the possibility of electoral dissent in New York—a possibility that hardly exists in most of the other states. We have already seen why the two major parties tolerate the Liberals—it is by and large to their advantage to do so. But when the advantage looks dubious, when, for instance, Republican legislators find their posts in jeopardy, pressure invariably mounts to destroy the Liberal party, and at that point only a deal can insure its survival. Curiously, such a deal may involve an assertion of independence. When is independence not independence? When the Liberals agree to run a man of their own instead of throwing their support behind a particular Democratic candidate where a Liberal endorsement might tip the balance against his Republican opponent. Maneuverability is thus taken away from the Liberals in exchange for the privilege of being. So much has to be surrendered—in the interest of fighting good fights on other fronts. What are these other fights? And where are the other fronts?
Reflecting on such questions, the party’s top tactician finds it ironic that he and his friends, who started out to change the world, have now come to stand for nothing more radical than “old-fashioned honesty.” There is no doubt that the hope of municipal reform gave the Liberals their greatest impetus, and sustains them even now in a city whose people have every reason to be cynical about politics. Gus Tyler, intellectual leader of the ILGWU and a devoted Liberal, believes, for instance, that his party’s primary function is to purify the Democratic party. If the Liberals’ raison d’être is indeed to establish honesty in local government through the reconstruction of a corrupt old party, their work—as Lincoln Steffens, who knew all about the cyclical nature of reform and corruption, would have said—is cut out for them on a permanent basis.
Yet one wonders how the Democrats can be purified by a party, one of whose principal agents can announce, all unselfconsciously, as he did to me, “We have proved that there is nothing wrong with opportunism.” Or again, and verbatim, “There is this paradoxical situation, you see: at times we have to make a coalition with crooked Democrats, at other times with reactionaries.” No one is held in greater disdain by the Liberal hierarchy than your political purist who would stand aloof from compromising coalitions. Such a man is impractical, visionary, Utopian, unfit for the rough and tumble of. politics. Liberals contend that by compromising, by eschewing intransigent idealism, by renouncing sectarianism and embracing realism, they are able to get things done. Mindful, then, of its splendid aphorism—that politics is not just a matter of arithmetic but also of algebra—what can be said from a “realistic” point of view about the Liberal party? Does it stand up well when judged not by its roots but by its fruits?
Much has to be credited to the positive side, however ambivalent one’s general reaction may be. In many cases, Liberals have forced the Democratic party to raise the caliber of its candidates. When they choose to be a counterforce in local and state affairs, their impact can be mildly beneficent. Each year the party draws up a state program (largely the handiwork of Louis J. Merrell, who is widely respected for his thoroughness and competence) which addresses itself intelligently to every major issue before the state legislature. Assemblymen and senators of both parties use this program and find it helpful to them in their deliberations. Apparently they have also welcomed, or have not greatly resented, an annual legislative conference at which specialists from inside or outside the party ranks present their views in Albany. (The conferences still take place, but now in New York.) Liberals did yeoman work in opposition to a power grab of the St. Lawrence and Niagara Rivers, helping to salvage 50 per cent of the power for public and cooperative use which would otherwise have been handed over to private capital. Their big gun on this issue was Adolph A. Berle, Jr. (a founder of the party, at present Honorary State Chairman, his warm friendship for and public support of Governor Rockefeller in 19G2 notwithstanding). The Liberals pioneered in Albany on the question of consumer protection through Averell Harriman, the governor they considered very much their man (when he was not Carmine De Sapio’s) . Most recently they contributed to the campaign against Albany’s relentless effort to impose tuition fees on students of the city colleges of New York. Their presence has been felt in the state capital under three governors: Dewey, Harriman, and Rockefeller. They can be relied on to make an occasional dent, “to have a detail here and a detail there adopted,” as Davidson has put it.
The Liberal record, apart from a few serious blemishes, is, well—liberal, unexceptionable and unexciting. The Liberals favor rent control; they drafted the legislation which brought it into being; and since it lapses every two years, their representatives must testify that often at meetings where landlords assemble by the carload and the busload. Liberals have been active in urban renewal, in the economic integration of housing, in fostering disability and unemployment insurance, reapportionment, civil rights, medicare. They believe in doing good by their lights, which are those of the New Deal. They are never more than a baby-step ahead of the Democratic platform; sometimes they may even lag behind that platform or behind those charged with implementing it. And it is here, in the Liberal party’s relation to the program of the Democrats, that we come to the negative side of the ledger in assessing its role from the “realistic” point of view.
A third party in the earliest American tradition, that of John Randolph who broke with both Jefferson and Hamilton (choosing to be neither a Federalist nor a Republican), is literally a “third something,” a tertium quid. We have had a great profusion of such parties. In evaluating them retrospectively, the student of American politics rarely points to how long-lived many of them have been. Yet the Liberals’ greatest pride is that after two strenuous decades, they are still there, a hard fact which strikes them as proof of their success. Can it be that nothing fails like such success, and that for a real tertium quid nothing succeeds like excess?
In 1932 the Socialist party offered a program far to the left of either big party, and a million voters who were counted, as well as something like another million who were not, cast their ballots that year for Norman Thomas. Newly installed in office and confronted with a great depression, the Democrats quickly acceded to every “minimum demand” made by Thomas, thus stealing his thunder and that of his party. Although there are other weighty reasons for the decline of the Socialists, none is more important than the fine showing they made in 1932. For this showing could only frighten the big parties into adopting a large part of the Socialist program and rendering the Socialist party itself superfluous. Thus it is that Thomas, the perennial Presidential candidate, can look back on the performance of a major historic service. Will Dubinsky or Rose ever be able to enjoy a similar satisfaction? So far, there is no sign that they will. The Liberals are too ready to remain a satellite party, they suffer from too much timidity to advance many of their own strongest convictions, and they are too fearful of excess, of proposals that may be “premature” or “unrealistic,” to flutter the dovecots in any serious way.
Liberal leaders will tell you that their go-slow attitude derives in part from the sophistication they acquired as trade unionists. In collective bargaining you can’t reach for the moon: give a little, take what you can, bide your time till the next round of negotiations, and above all, don’t expect too much. But this philosophy, which can be questioned even as applied to the American labor movement, is simply not proper to a third-party movement whose purpose is to prod the big parties into taking the kind of action their own inertia keeps them from taking. A pressure group that is not actuated by some sense of urgency, which does not make outlandish demands, and refuses to ask for much more than it can reasonably expect to get, ceases to be a pressure group. Not only that, but it ceases to be attractive to its most important potential constituency—the intellectuals.
New York has tremendous intellectual resources, a nucleus of scholars and artists who are chronically troubled about the remediable ills in their environment and in the world at large. Among them are many of the non-voters who stay at home on election day, not out of apathy, but because they see no decisive difference in policy between the two big parties. Such men could probably be drawn into a real third party where they might freely air their views, unfold alternatives to the prevailing consensus, and generate new ideas. Early on, intellectuals like Adolph Berle and Reinhold Niebuhr did enlist in the Liberal ranks, but no notable addition has been made in the last ten years. As the party evolved along conventional lines, and “practicality” overwhelmed “idealism,” many intellectuals came to feel that they were no longer entirely welcome, and the consequence has been a certain anemia in the party’s approach to the political issues of the day.
The current state chairman of the Liberal party is Professor Timothy Costello, who teaches industrial psychology at the New York University School of Business Administration. He has no office, nor even a desk at party headquarters, yet he is fairly au courant with party affairs. For Costello, the Liberal party is “the cutting edge of the Democratic party,” an agency by which “forward-looking concepts are fed into the larger community,” and “electable as well as desirable candidates” can be brought to the fore. Liberals, with or without the capital “L,” are living, he says, off. the fat of previous generations. Times have changed and that fat affords very little nourishment. What, then, can replenish the supply? The answer, according to Chairman Costello, is applied social science. But is it? After all, large and, by any earlier standard, astronomical sums are being spent to study social problems in America—crime, delinquency, suicide, mental disorder, drug addiction, marital discord—and if anything, there has been a steady increase in the magnitude of these problems. On the other hand, since 1954 and the so-called sociological decision on desegregation (and would it not have been better if the Supreme Court had based the decision on legal or moral grounds instead of on problematic psychological data?), there has been a virtual moratorium on research in race relations accompanied by unparalleled progress in the direction of integration. Insofar as Costello’s favored technique, conflict resolution, does work, it is more often than not an instrument used by management to manipulate workers. The truth is that social science will not do as a substitute for hard ethical and political judgments.
Timothy Costello is concerned about disarmament. He sees some merit in the unilateral initiatives idea, and has talked it up, but without striking a responsive chord in his party. Of course, there are Liberals with a more pronounced streak of pacifism, notably the Reverend Donald Harrington, successor to John Haynes Holmes at New York’s Community Church. Harrington, however, was rapped on the knuckles this year by Albert Margolies, until recently a Liberal publicist, for allegedly favoring unilateral disarmament—which he denies—in the party’s official publication. In this area, as in nearly all matters pertaining to foreign policy, the party has simply followed the Kennedy administration (which, in Liberal eyes, is even absolved of any responsibility for the disastrous Cuban invasion), and will now probably follow Johnson.
The Liberals are convinced that but for their support, Kennedy would not have captured New York and would therefore not have been elected President. In an election whose outcome was so close, any bloc may make such a claim. Some skeptics, indeed, may find Norman Mailer’s whimsical argument as persuasive as that of the Liberals. (After the Democratic Convention of 1960, Mailer mistook Kennedy for a hipster, and said so with enthusiasm in Esquire. He figures that perhaps a million people read the article, of whom a sizable number—enough, possibly, to have made a decisive difference—were influenced by it. Why not?)
In any case, the late President appreciated Alex Rose’s help more than Norman Mailer’s: Liberal party leaders had (and have) a calling card to the White House, and in general—being representatives of organized labor as well as spokesmen for a political party—they have no trouble whatever in reaching the decision-makers. The question is, what do they do with this disproportionately large voice of theirs? Melancholy observers fear that the answer, for domestic almost as much as for foreign policy, is: nothing really, at all.
Theoretically, the Liberal party favors “democratic economic planning” today as strongly as it did twenty years ago. The term does not frighten members, many of whom still regard themselves as socialists, even if they exemplify Norman Thomas’s famous remark that he knows lots of people who are still socialists—very still. Still or not, however, they can hardly be indifferent to the ills of our economy. Their primary allegiance is to the working people of New York, a large percentage of whom suffer from underemployment, poor pay, inadequate relief, and all the miseries attendant thereon. The garment industry, for example, is plagued by runaway shops and the spectre of automation. If, as is all too possible, the needle trades should get into a condition similar to that which has come to plague coal mining, New York City will have a massive new problem on its hands. The Liberal party could begin addressing itself to that problem now, seeking some kind of solution as a model for the national economic planning it supposedly supports. But one’s guess is that the national administration will come forward with a program for dealing with automation none too soon, and yet well in advance of any proposals the Liberals will find to make.
So, too, in the field of civil rights, where the Liberals were both passive and uncritical of the Kennedy administration instead of acting as a goad and a counterforce from the left. For several months before the Negro March on Washington, for example, the President was expressing public doubt about the advisability of such a march, holding to the line that “these matters are best settled in the courts, not on the streets.” The Liberal party, which has no racist wing to pacify and one of whose better-known members is James A. Farmer, director of CORE, took no stand on the March. Finally, Kennedy reversed himself, under pressure from Negro leaders. Only then did the Liberals feel free to act on their best impulses by endorsing the March and organizing a delegation to join it in Washington.
So much for the state and national scenes. What about the third major arena in which the Liberals play a role—New York City? There, alas, the party is as overcommitted to the Wagner administration as it is to the Democratic administration in Washington. The Liberals’ electoral exertions on behalf of “Fighting Bob,” as Rose dubbed him in 1961, were most effective. They helped him make a clean break with the Democratic bosses, De Sapio, Buckley, and Sharkey. Although it is still unclear who rejected whom, and how much, the break did occur, and Wagner won a notable primary by attacking Tammany Hall, with signal assistance from the Liberal party and yet another union group, not heard from since, the Brotherhood party. Even before Wagner’s reelection, on September 27, James A. Wechsler, editor of the New York Post and a Liberal party sympathizer, commented:
Political writers have held funeral rites for New York’s Liberal party on many occasions, but it has invariably lived to fight again.
Now it is conceivable, however, that the end is in sight—not because of a crushing defeat but because of a famous victory. The new political circumstances created by Mayor Wagner’s rout of the machine-men in the Democratic primary create the real possibility of the Liberal party’s merger with both the Democratic reform movement and the large labor bloc represented in the newly-formed Brotherhood party.
Despite such talk, and more that came later, the Liberals decided against formal dissolution of their party. Instead they became deeply committed to Wagner, professing to see a great difference in the mayor before and after election day of 1961. Previously he had been a prisoner of the bosses; now he was a free man, and the Liberals had figured prominently in his emancipation. How is the new Wagner better than the old Wagner? His champions affirm that he works hard: “He has to. Decisions that used to be made in Tammany Hall now have to be made in City Hall.” But the big change, they say, is a vast improvement in the quality of his appointments. Not a few of these appointments, perhaps a hundred, from judgeships on down, have gone to Liberals. This is novel—patronage going to a third party—but there is nothing inherently sinister about it, especially since in almost every instance the Liberals who have been appointed are good people, much to be preferred over the usual appointees.
All the same, grave questions must be raised. Wagner will not be mayor forever. He may run for the U.S. Senate (or the vice-presidency) this year, and in that event, one of his lieutenants, a man like Abraham Beame or Paul Screvane, will be the likeliest Democratic candidate for mayor. With such a big sprinkling of quondam county chairmen and other Liberal party personnel in Wagner’s official family, will Liberals ever be able to oppose any member of that family? At least one voluble Liberal, Stuart Scheftel, is afraid that they may not. Scheftel came to the Liberal party as a Fusionist, and a Fusionist he has steadfastly remained. He doubts that New York, where, he estimates, illegal gambling constitutes a two-billion dollar a year industry, can ever be anything but a “payoff city” under Democratic rule. Accordingly, two years ago, Scheftel became the only insurgent in the Liberal party’s twenty-year history. He declined to accept Wagner, his old school chum and a man he personally likes, as the Liberal nominee for Mayor, and entered his own name in the one important primary the Liberals have ever had. The attempt failed for lack of petitions, but Scheftel still refused to support Wagner. Lately things do seem to him to have picked up a bit in City Hall (“Bob’s more energetic these days”), but he is disturbed by Wagner’s appointment (with Liberal support) of Louis I. Kaplan to a judgeship after the New York Bar Association and the Citizens Union found Kaplan to be unqualified. In Scheftel’s opinion, the Liberals have a bright future on the local scene if they stick to their original purposes. To betray them again, he thinks, is to risk extinction. Is he right? An acid test will be coming very soon, and it remains to be seen whether the Liberals will be able to summon up the resources to fight the Democratic party with a Fusion ticket such as Rose, with all his political wizardry, could put together and whose triumph could well have political consequences far beyond the bounds of New York City itself.
1 In talking to a top official of the union who expressed amazement at what he regarded as a major political tour de force, viz., the Liberal party's continued existence, I attempted to raise a moral question by asking, “Haven't you had to pay a heavy price for survival?” His spontaneous response was: “A price? You should only know how much it costs us.”