The Inner City Catholic: From The Boss to Gipper

At the end of the Second World War, some political analysts began to detect cracks in the coalition that gave FDR his four-term lease on the White House. Although Roosevelt handily carried the Electoral College in 1944—432 votes to Dewey’s 99—he received only 53 percent of the popular vote. Even in his home state, New York, a cultural revolt was brewing among a significant portion of the voting population. Years of political domination by liberal Democrats began to affect the political behavior of inner-city Catholic voters: Roosevelt’s greatest losses were among the Irish. The post-war era brought additional Catholic defections. Polish and other Eastern Europeans blamed the Democrats for the sell-out at Yalta, and the Church’s opposition to the Communists did not help Democrats who posed for snapshots with “Uncle” Joe Stalin.

These trends were overlooked by New Deal government bureaucrats and political commentators influenced by historians Charles Beard, Vernon Parrington, and Frederick Lewis Turner, who stressed that economic influences, more than moral or cultural values, shape political decisions. These policy mavens believed, as political analyst Michael Barone describes in Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan, that America’s political history is the “story of progress on the road from 19th century laissez-faire and isolationism to 20th century welfare statism and internationalism.” Rejecting this position, he argues that the person qua person makes a difference in the course of history, that actions based on cultural standards have had substantially greater impact on the political landscape than economic ones. “The voting bases of the traditional Democratic and Republican parties,” according to Barone, “were primarily cultural; both drew allegiance from Americans who saw them not as promoters of their economic status, but as a protector of their way of life.” The Jeffersonians vs. the Hamiltonians, the Jacksonians vs. the Whigs, the Civil War, immigration restriction, Prohibition, civil rights, crime, Vietnam, abortion, or drugs: These battles for the soul of America have had significant cultural implications. And nowhere was this cultural battleground more evident than post-war New York.

There exist in New York society cultural elites who are contemptuous of working-class values. Their ideological positions are not necessarily a function of wealth or schooling, but rather an attitude—a shallow sophistication that rejects the populist position that people should be relied upon to govern themselves. The old Catholic-ethnic neighborhoods have often been the target of their social experiments because these neighborhoods and the traditional values that they protect prevent the elitists from dominating human behavior. Andrew Greeley has postulated that the cultural elites view the neighborhood as “a regression to more primitive and premodern ways of living. The neighborhood asserts the importance of the primordial, the local, the geographic, the familial against the demands of the bureaucratized, rationalized, scientific, corporate society. . . . The neighborhood is rejected by our intellectual and cultural elites because the neighborhood is not modern and what is not modern is conservative, reactionary, unprogressive, unenlightened, superstitious, and just plain wrong.”

To grasp the change in political allegiance that took place in the Catholic working-class neighborhoods, a brief overview of the condition of the post World War II Democratic Party is essential.

The Machine Breaks Down

In 1958, W. Averill Harriman was completing his first term as New York’s 48th governor. To be taken seriously as a 1960 presidential contender, he knew he had to have a spectacular reelection victory. This, he believed, was within his reach. After six years of Republicans in the White House, all the polls indicated that the Democratic Party would make large gains in the mid-term elections.

But a showdown was developing between the old-time regular Democrats, who represented the Catholic ethnics, and the elite liberal reformers. The party was experiencing its own cultural crisis; the state Democratic convention would be the battleground.

During the first half of the 20th century, Democratic political machines ruled most of urban America. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has written that the Irish-Catholic genius is organization. The Irish drafted the blueprints for most of the city machines, employing a style of governance long championed by their church—subsidiarity. They built from the bottom up, with neighborhoods organized block by block, through parishes, clubhouses, saloons, and candy stores. This was the system that provided services and dispensed patronage, contracts, and franchises to the faithful.

Decades before the birth of the “poverty industry” and public policy specialists, the machine pols realized that the job of local government was to provide basic services. Ideology did not enter the picture; the need to forge alliances did. The system worked because immigrants trying to gain a foothold in their new country received aid without losing their dignity. President Johnson’s press secretary, George Reedy, noted that “one of the great strengths of the political machines was their treatment of poor people as human beings rather than ‘cases.”‘

New York Tammany Hall’s Charles Francis Murphy (1858-1924) was the very model of the Boss. He remained in power for decades because he felt a sense of civic responsibility to his wards. The reformers, who tried to claim the credit for saving the cities, were “short-lived morning glories” whose hold on office was always brief. Instead of rolling up their sleeves and mixing it up with the people, they appointed blue-ribbon committees to study charter reform. The New York Times admitted in 1923 that Tammany “wore human spectacles” and that reformers failed because they “attempted to deal with . . . municipal government as though it were a private corporation. . . . [They forgot] that a city administration must have a heart as well as a head.”

The reign of Boss Murphy begat Catholic Al Smith, and it was Smith who as governor of New York implemented a state government agenda that practiced the principle of subsidiarity. Unlike the progressives, he was not embarrassed to deal with politicians and to bargain for programs that enhanced the quality of life in the neighborhoods. His record shows it, featuring the construction of hospitals for the indigent and mentally ill, a state teachers’ college, a network of parks, and 5,000 miles of roads, as well as social legislation that eliminated sweat shops, regulated child and female labor, established a 48-hour work week, created workmen’s compensation and widows’ pensions, and instituted a primary system.

The machine reached the height of its power with Smith’s 1928 presidential nomination, but the seeds of its destruction had already been planted. The Restriction Acts of 1921 and 1924 would cut off immigration, the machine’s lifeline, and the New Deal brought in the social engineers who would learn how to hold on to political power. When Al Smith walked out of the 1936 Democratic convention, he was accused of sour grapes. But in a speech that fall, he revealed the real reason he bolted: “The regulars were out on a limb holding the bag, driven out of the party, because some new bunch that nobody ever heard of in their life before came in and took charge and started planning everything.”

The New Democrats

New York’s Democratic Party emerged in the late ’40s and the ’50s as the home for “social engineers.” Searching for a new intellectual liberal hero, they stumbled across Adlai Stevenson of Illinois His cultural elitism and contempt for the blue-collar worker engendered a new generation of political progeny who grew up not with the fragmented local politics that had marked Franklin D. Roosevelt’s early career, but instead with the centralized national politics that were produced by Roosevelt’s big government policies.

Carmine DeSapio, Tammany Hall’s Grand Sachem, looked forward to a 1958 Democratic state convention that would further enhance his reputation as kingmaker. This lower east side Italian-American, who picked up the machine’s pieces after the 1950 resignation of Mayor William O’Dwyer, anticipated reelecting a governor and electing a U.S. senator in 1958.

To consolidate his power, DeSapio implemented the “big tent” theory. He supported neighborhood regulars in local races while encouraging liberals to run in major races. In 1954, he was responsible for Harriman’s election, and he organized Robert F. Wagner’s mayoral victories in 1953 and 1957. DeSapio viewed himself as nothing more than a political mechanic. “The extent of his ideological commitment may be measured by his pronouncement to the Holy Name Society Communion Breakfast of the New York Sanitation Department that ‘there is no Mother’s Day behind the Iron Curtain.”‘

At the convention, DeSapio pushed Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan for the U.S. Senate nomination. In his judgment, the ticket needed an Irish-Catholic to balance “WASP” Harriman and the Jewish candidate for comptroller, Arthur Levitt. Liberal reformers were appalled by the “boss-controlled” convention. To the reformers, ethnic ticket balancing was a corrupt act and Harriman’s passive acceptance of the “balanced” ticket was unacceptable.

In the fall, hordes of liberal Democrats deserted their ticket. Republican Nelson Rockefeller attracted these disenchanted Democrats by describing his “liberal” vision of New York. In the 1959 election, as the national Democrats picked up 13 seats in the Senate, 47 in the House, and nine governorships, Harriman lost to Rockefeller by 593,000 votes while Republican Congressman Kenneth Keating beat Hogan by a narrow 132,000 votes.

Fighting the Rockefeller Republicans

“New York,” Nelson Rockefeller often said, “is a big, dynamic, high-powered state and it wants a big, dynamic, high-powered man for its governor.” These words summed up Rockefeller’s concept of the governorship. Attempting to shed the image of the stodgy Republican, he immediately began to implement his grandiose plans to redesign the state of New York.

Not everyone within the Republican Party structure, however, was pleased with Rockefeller’s liberal approach to governing the state and the party. By the early ’60s the disenchantment with Rockefeller and the belief that the future of the party did not rest with liberalism caused open rebellion.

New York’s unusual election laws permit the establishment of permanent third parties, which have often made the difference in close elections. The New York State Liberal Party, founded in the ’40s, delivered 264,000 votes to Harriman in his squeaker 1954 gubernatorial victory (by 14,125) over Irving Ives. John F. Kennedy, who carried New York in the 1960 presidential election by 383,000 votes, garnered 406,176 votes on the liberal line.

In 1961, a number of conservative Republicans began to discuss the feasibility of establishing a Conservative Party in New York state. Attendees included J. Daniel Mahoney, Kiernan O’Doherty, William F. Buckley, Frank Meyer and William Rusher of National Review, William F. Rickenbacker, Mrs. Alfred Kohlberg, and law professor Charles Rice. These men and women were convinced that there was enough conservative sentiment in New York to form a new party to serve the political ideals of working-class New Yorkers, the so-called “street corner conservatives.” They hoped the party would be a vehicle for right-minded Republicans to circumvent the New York GOP and for Catholic ethnics to desert the Democratic Party. Eventually, they hoped to form a coalition that would overtake the Republican Party’s “old guard.”

Dan Mahoney and his brother-in-law Kiernan O’Doherty began to move forward. A corporation was formed, by-laws were adopted, and clubs were instituted throughout the state. In the summer of 1962, a petition campaign began in the state’s 62 counties.

During this same period there was also discontent within Democratic ranks. After the 1958 electoral debacle, New York’s reform Democrats began to make moves to capture the soul of their party. Surveying the battles between liberal reformers and neighborhood regulars, Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded that “the divergence is cultural in a broad sense.” The reformers, he wrote, “are people with what is called a high rate of upward mobility. Not so the regulars who incline to stay near the old neighborhoods, speaking with the old accents, even after they have become rich and successful. . . . The liberals live in silk stocking Republican neighborhoods and they have virtually no connection with the working class.”

For many liberal Democrats, the collapse of Franklin Roosevelt’s coalition can only be explained in terms of venality and racism. They are convinced that as soon as their traditional constituencies achieved middle-class status, they thumbed their nose at their benefactors. Tip O’Neill on one occasion declared, “I go out and campaign among those guys whose parents went to school on the G.I. Bill, got their first house on FHA housing, whose life has been made by these Democratic programs. Then they go out and make $20,000 a year and start voting Republican.” Thomas and Mary Edsalls’ book, Chain Reaction further claims that racial politics propelled significant numbers of voters out of the Democratic Party.

This is not the case. Throughout the ’60s, working-class ethnics in New York’s inner cities began to feel unwanted in the Democratic Party. As James Q. Wilson demonstrates in The Amateur Democrat, the reformers’ preoccupation with “small-d democracy,” “integration,” “good candidates,” and “liberalism” were “simply irrelevant to the major preoccupations of both the lower classes and those middle-class representatives of ethnic groups.” These old-line Catholic Democrats were concerned with neighborhood crime, the decline of traditional values, quotas, abortion, soaring welfare costs, the defense of freedom abroad, and respect for the American flag.

In New York City’s 1961 mayoral race, Catholic ethnic voters began to break away from the Democratic fold. Although Mayor Robert F. Wagner was reelected to a third term by deserting the “bosses” who created him and embracing the reformers, there was a third party movement led by Comptroller Lawrence Gerosa that the ethnic neighborhoods found attractive.

Gerosa was elected comptroller on Wagner’s ticket in 1953 and 1957. A bitter feud developed between the two men during their second term. In 1961, Wagner dumped Gerosa from the ticket. Gerosa ran for mayor independently on the “Citizens Party” ballot and lost, but his 14 percent was drawn mostly from blue collar Catholics, placing in stark relief the rift that had developed between reformers and conservatives in the New York City Democratic Party.

The Conservative Party, having survived court challenges, unveiled its candidate for governor in the fall of 1962: David Jaquith, a Republican activist and president of a Syracuse steel-fabricating firm. Kiernan O’Doherty, cofounder of the party, was nominated to face Senator Jacob Javits.

Although Rockefeller was reelected, Jaquith received 141,887 votes and O’Doherty 116,151. Outside of New York City, Jaquith outpolled liberal candidate Robert Morgenthau 91,693 to 80,978. In Buffalo, Albany, Syracuse, and New York, his votes mostly came from Catholic neighborhoods. More importantly, since the gubernatorial candidate received more than 50,000 votes, the Conservative Party became a permanent part of New York’s political structure.

Conservatives Come of Age

Nelson Rockefeller’s 1964 Republican nomination bid was squelched by the “Draft Goldwater Movement,” which began in New York City. The movement listed on its membership roster some of the founders of the Conservative Party, who took effective control of the national Republican Party.

Barry Goldwater, “creamed” in New York, received only 31.3 percent of the ballots cast and lost the state by 2.7 million votes. Nevertheless, political analysts detected some interesting voter trends. Goldwater’s appeal to segments of the New York populace was based on cultural issues: communism, the war in Vietnam, crime, and civil rights.

Goldwater actually won a majority of New York’s white Catholics. In the blue-collar sections of Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and the North Bronx, many Catholic neighborhoods gave solid majorities to the Arizona senator.

Also, in the substantially Catholic working-class suburbs, Goldwater ran well ahead of his 31.3 percent state total. In the upper-middle-class suburb of Pound Ridge, he received 44 percent of the vote, and in Pelham 59 percent. In the working-class suburbs he realized 41 percent in Orangetown, 43 percent in Babylon, and 45 percent in Smithtown.

The conservative trend in the ethnic neighborhoods was tested once again in New York City’s 1965 mayoral race. Catholic political polemicist William F. Buckley Jr. decided to take on the “WASP” Republican-Liberal candidate John V. Lindsay by accepting the Conservative Party nomination. Congressman Lindsay, who represented the Upper East Side’s “silk stocking” district, had an Americans for Democratic Action voting record of 100 percent and was considered one of the most liberal members of the House of Representatives.

The Buckley-Lindsay-Beame campaign was legendary, particularly for the debates where Buckley’s wit and charm captivated the city. Buckley lost, but the 13.4 percent of the vote he received was significant. His highest percentages came from white-ethnic Catholic neighborhoods.

A Growing Exodus

The trend of Democratic Catholic ethnics moving into the Republican-Conservative fold continued in 1966. Reacting to the Great Society, Vietnam, and city riots, Democratic voters turned to Conservative Party-endorsed Republicans throughout the state.

The Liberal Party, fearing the growing strength of the Conservative Party, decided to run their own candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., for governor in 1966. Rockefeller managed to win with only 44.8 percent of the vote; significantly, though, Conservative Party candidate Paul Adams outpolled FDR’s son. Adams received 510,023 (8.5 percent) to the Liberal Party’s 508,000 (8.4 percent). The victory moved the Conservatives to Row “C” on the ballot while the Liberals dropped to Row “D.”

A major cultural battle was waged in New York City that November. John Lindsay had promised in his campaign to institute a civilian review board to examine brutality charges against city police. He kept his pledge, appointing four civilians to the board along with three police deputy inspectors. Police Commissioner Vincent Broderick assailed the decision as a “cruel hoax, this bromide, this palliative of an independent civilian review hoard.”

Opposition to the review board became a rallying cry for Catholic cultural conservatives fed up with rampant crime and violence. A petition to put a referendum on the ballot was sponsored by the Conservative Party and the Policeman’s Benevolent Association. In November the review board was decisively defeated, 62.9 percent to 37.1 percent. In the Catholic-ethnic neighborhoods, opposition to the board averaged 80 percent.

Unrest in the nation’s cities and campuses, the failures of the Great Society, and the strategy pursued in the Vietnam War turned New York’s Catholic-ethnic Democrats, in 1968, to Richard Nixon. All of Nixon’s top 18 New York City Assembly Districts were predominantly working-class Catholic. “In 1960, NYC’s German, Irish and Italian Catholics had favored Kennedy by an approximately 5 to 4 ratio; in 1968 they preferred Nixon over Humphrey and Wallace by a ratio of at least 5 to 3 to 1,” recounts Kevin Phillips in The Emerging Republican Majority.

Suburban areas that were dominated by Catholics who escaped city crime and slums increased their support for Nixon while support for him declined in the more liberal “silk stocking” sections of suburbia. It can also be argued that the bulk of the 358,864 votes Wallace received would have gone to Nixon. Wallace, for instance, captured only one percent of the vote in Scarsdale while he received eight percent in Suffolk County, a conservative working-class bastion.

Just as significant were the votes cast in the 1968 Senate race. Although Senator Jacob Javits was reelected with only 48 percent, Conservative Party candidate James L. Buckley (brother of William) received 1.1 million votes—19 percent of the total. Buckley actually outpolled Democratic candidate Paul O. Dwyer in several major counties and came close in Westchester, Nassau, Rockland, and Queens. In the Catholic, blue-collar Maspeth-Glendale-Ridgewood section of Queens, which comprised a significant portion of Democrat Congressman James J. Delaney’s district (the future seat of Geraldine Ferraro), Buckley actually carried the area with 37.3 percent of the vote.

In 1969, liberal Mayor John Lindsay, seeking a second term, was rejected in the Republican primary in favor of state Senator John J. Marchi, an obscure, conservative, Roman Catholic from Staten Island who carried the ethnic neighborhoods in the out-lying boroughs. Although Lindsay won on the Liberal Party line with 43 percent of the vote in November, his days as a Republican were numbered. In August, 1971, he announced that he had switched his registration to the Democratic Party.

Buckley Wins

The year 1970 was significant for the conservative cause in New York state. Gearing up to run for a fourth term, Nelson Rockefeller began to reinvent himself as a conservative, declaring war on drugs and crime. Although no budget that runs $1.2 billion over the previous year’s can be called an austerity budget, Rockefeller called for a halt to new programs and an across-the-board cut in state spending of five percent. He also asked Vice President Spiro Agnew to campaign for him in upstate New York. Recalling the Rockefeller who told him in 1958 and 1966 to keep out of his New York campaigns, an amazed President Nixon remarked, “Isn’t that something! They’re really reading the tea leaves, aren’t they?”

To fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, Rockefeller turned to an upstate Republican, Congressman Charles Goodell of Jamestown. Acceptable to conservatives, Rockefeller figured Goodell would keep the Right happy in 1970. Senator Goodell, however, had other ideas. Upon arriving in the Senate, he became a “liberal dove,” condemning his Republican president, demanding immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, and supporting liberal social programs. Catholic James L. Buckley was convinced by conservative Republicans, led by political consultant F. Clifton White (creator of the “Draft Goldwater” movement), to make another run for the Senate on the Conservative Party line.

Buckley took on Democratic Congressman Richard Ottinger and Republican-Liberal candidate Charles Goodell. Numerous Republican leaders and state legislators deserted Goodell for Buckley, including President Nixon, who all but embraced Buckley as Vice President Agnew labeled Goodell the “Christine Jorgenson” of the Republican Party.

Endorsed by the New York Daily News, the Gannet newspaper chain, as well as John Lindsay’s 1969 Catholic opponents, Republican Senator John Marchi and Democrat Mario Proccacino, Buckley won the three-way race with 39 percent. Like Nixon, Buckley appealed to Catholic-ethnic blue-collar voters and carried their neighborhoods with substantial majorities. For example, Buckley, who received only 35 percent of the vote in New York City, garnered 60 percent of the vote in western Queens’ Catholic, blue-collar ninth congressional district.

A National Revolt

New York’s changing voting habits were indicative of a change that was taking place nationally. The Republican Party, under the guidance of Richard Nixon, forged the realignment of northern Catholic blue-collar ethnics, southern whites, and midwestern farmers. Nixon was perceived as a champion of these groups while the Democratic Party “further polarized society by appearing to become the captive of dissidents and outsiders who were looking to the federal government for special privileges.”

The portion of Roosevelt’s coalition that remained in the Democratic Party—the left wing element—ran the 1972 convention that nominated George McGovern. Mario Cuomo conceded that McGovern drove away the Catholic blue-collar worker, who felt alienated by a new Democratic Party that he believed neither understood nor related to him. For example, in 1972, while George McGovern was receiving 58 percent of the vote in Manhattan’s Upper East Side “Silk Stocking” district, the ninth congressional district was casting 73 percent of its votes for Richard Nixon. This landslide was occurring in a district where only 24 percent of the population had a family income above the $15,000 median.

For four years, the Watergate scandal stalled the Republican ascendency. Jimmy Carter failed in his attempt to blame his shortcomings on “America’s malaise.” In Michael Barone’s view, Carter was rejected in 1980 because “the cultural segment of America which was emotionally most inclined to see Jimmy Carter as its kind of American had decided he was not; its members felt at the least disappointed, and in some cases betrayed.”

By running on a platform that pledged to restore America’s traditional morals at home and its strength and respect abroad—and that pledged to reject redistributive politics at home—Ronald Reagan cemented the coalition first forged by Richard Nixon to the Republican Party. Reagan managed to carry New York by a plurality in 1980 (47 percent) and by 54 percent in 1984, but in many Catholic blue-collar neighborhoods, his margins were of landslide proportions—over 80 percent of the vote cast in 1984.

It is interesting to note that during the past quarter century, Catholic politicians of blue-collar, ethnic origins have dominated New York’s major elective posts. The roster includes pro-life Catholics Senator Jim Buckley, Senator Al D’Amato, Attorney General Dennis Vacco, Governor Malcolm Wilson, and nominal Catholics who are pro-choice: Governor Hugh Carey, Governor Mario Cuomo, Governor George Pataki, Senator Moynihan, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Today, blue-collar Catholics are aging; the new generation of yuppie Catholics may desert the neighborhood values of their parents and grandparents. Nevertheless, the post-war Catholic generation had a tremendous impact on America’s political landscape. Ronald Reagan, hero of the blue collars and a former Democrat who portrayed himself as the antithesis of cultural liberalism, best described the political transformation that took place in New York and the nation during the ’60s and ’70s:

The secret is that when the Left took over the Democratic Party we took over the Republican Party. We made the Republican Party into the party of the working people, the family, the neighborhood, the defense of freedom, and yes, the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance to one nation under God. So, you see, the party that so many of us grew up with still exists, except that today it’s called the Republican Party.

  • George J. Marlin

    George J. Marlin is the author/editor of ten books including Squandered Opportunities: New York’s Pataki Years (2006), The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact (2004) and Fighting the Good Fight: A History of the New York Conservative Party (2002). His articles have appeared in numerous periodicals including The New York Times, New York Post, National Review, Newsday, The Washington Times and the New York Daily News. Mr. Marlin is also general editor of The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton.

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