Daniel L. Feldman

The Rise of the Reform Democrats in Manhattan to the late 1960s

In NYC Politics on February 8, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Manhattan had been the center of the modern reform movement in New York Democratic politics since the late 1940s. Carmine DeSapio headed the New York County Democratic organization from 1949 till 1961, as the final Tammany Hall leader who truly exercised strong control over most of the Democratic party organization in New York City.  At a certain point in his tenure, vassals of DeSapio became the county leaders of three of the other four boroughs (excepting Brooklyn).

During his reign DeSapio sometimes put his political muscle behind candidates who at the time bore the imprimatur of reform. Wally Dobelis points out that DeSapio even helped the reformers in their successful 1951 effort to have district leaders, the Democratic party leaders of each Assembly district, elected in Democratic primaries.  Previously, they were selected by the same county committee members (usually “captains” and lower-ranking party workhouses) who were nominated in the first place by the incumbent district leaders themselves. Most famously, DeSapio backed “reformer” Robert F. Wagner Jr. in his successful campaign against incumbent mayor Vincent Impelliteri in 1953.

For a long period thereafter, though, Mayor Wagner was seen as the candidate of the “bosses,” DeSapio and the others, who did in fact support him. But by 1961, DeSapio and Wagner had fallen out. DeSapio backed Arthur Levitt for mayor. Wagner once again ran as the reform candidate, and won. This was DeSapio’s undoing.  Only a local Democratic district leader could also lead a county organization. The Eleanor Roosevelt-Herbert Lehman-led reform movement successfully backed a candidate against DeSapio for the Democratic leadership of his Greenwich Village district. Thus ended DeSapio’s reign.

For a year, Judge Simon Rifkind temporarily served as County Leader, succeeded by reformer Ed Costikyan for another year, and then “regular” Democrat J. Raymond Jones, the district leader from Harlem.  Next was another regular, DeSapio’s protégé, Frank Rosetti, Manhattan’s  Democratic County leader from 1967 to 1977. But Rosetti (and Jones before him) had to contend with too many fractious reform-dominated Assembly districts to exercise strong control even in Manhattan, much less beyond its borders.

My fellow undergraduates were already in the process of dominating some of those reform Democratic clubs when I arrived at Columbia College in 1966. They belonged to the “West Side Junior Mafia.” This was not an organized crime group. They were a new wave of reformers, whose core group had begun their political organizing while attending Stuyvesant High School, the public high school for academically gifted students then located on Irving Place in the East Village, now located just north of Battery Park City. Their role model, Robert Abrams, who had graduated from Columbia six years earlier, was just about to be elected to the New York State Assembly that November, and later served as Bronx Borough President and New York State Attorney General. They worked hard in campaigns and registration drives, helped families deal with city agencies like Sanitation, Housing and Health, convinced the adults in those families to register as Democrats and to vote for the candidates that their political clubs supported. They organized tenants, sometimes leading rent strikes to win better services from landlords; and block associations, adding credibility to their demands for better services from the City.

By the later 1960s, antagonism to the Vietnam War had generated rapid growth in the reform movement. Not only did that war seem unjustified and immoral to many students, it also threatened them personally and directly with the possibility of death.  With a huge influx of student activists, the new umbrella group of reform Democratic clubs, the New Democratic Coalition, replaced its now somewhat dormant predecessor, the Committee for Democratic Voters [Marvin Wasserman brought to my attention the earlier error in calling this “the Coalition for Democratic Values”], which had dated from about 1950.  By 1968, the new group of young reformers were able to take leading positions in Eugene McCarthy’s presidential primary campaign in New York, and in 1970, they elected one of their own, Richard Gottfried, age 23, to the New York State Assembly. As of 2011, he’s still there. Another, Jerrold Nadler, went to the Assembly in 1976 and to Congress in 1992, where he continues to serve. Some of the other names — Dick Morris, Mark Leeds, Sy Barsky, Joe Mercurio — later achieved renown in other contexts; some stayed loyal to the banner of reform.

They found Columbia College freshmen who had an interest in politics, like me, and recruited us to join local reform Democratic clubs so we could vote for them to lead such clubs. I still have my membership card from Reform Independent Democrats, then located at 2091 Broadway, from 1967.

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