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Fiorello’s Finest Hour
Once upon a time an honest man ran for mayor of New York City — and, naturally, lost
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
Fiorello La Guardia ran for office thirteen times. He was defeated three times: on his first trial for Congress in 1914, on his last trial for Congress in 1932, and on his first trial for mayor of New York in 1929. That 1929 contest against the popular and notorious Jimmy Walker was his most vigorous offensive. It was, in effect, his tryout for his successful mayoralty campaign four years later, when he won and became the most energetic and interesting mayor New York has ever had.
When La Guardia was a bouncing young lawyer, he kept telling his friends that one day he would sit in Congress and become mayor of New York. None of them believed him, and they put his aspirations down to admirable but unrealistic exuberance. He made Congress in 1916, left it in 1917 to command and fly with a group of American aviators in Italy, returned to the House of Representatives in 1918, left it again at the end of 1919 to become a contentious and constructive president of New York’s Board of Aldermen, and then went back to Washington to make himself one of the most valuable representatives there between the two world wars.
In 1929, La Guardia’s first step was the tough one of grabbing the Republican nomination for mayor, and he began his preparations early in January of that year. He was officially a Republican—but only officially—because when he first began to take an interest in politics as a youngster in Arizona (where his father was a United States Army musician) he read about the Lexow investigation of 1894, which revealed the corruption linking the police and Tammany politicians with prostitution and other illegal activities. These accounts in the New York Sunday World gave young La Guardia a distaste for Tammany Hall that lasted a lifetime. His only alternative was the Republican party in New York City, and Republican leaders frequently made deals with Tammany Democrats, permitting the Democrats to control the city in return for their co-operation in permitting the Republicans to control the state.
In 1929 there was some doubt whether Mayor James J. Walker would run for a second term. He had been elected in 1925 after Mayor John F. Hylan, who defeated the Fusion-reform Mayor John Purroy Mitchel in 1917 with the aid of William Randolph Hearst, had been ditched by Tammany leaders in favor of the more compliant and careless Walker. Hylan was eager to try again in 1929, even if he had to run as an Independent Democrat. La Guardia was confident that, with Fusion support, he could win on the Republican ticket. But many Republican leaders were even more reluctant than usual to give him their nomination, and he could not run and win without it. To most of them he was an unregenerate renegade and a dangerous radical, whose ideas they distrusted and despised and whose manner of expressing them they disliked and deplored. They considered his views on control of monopoly, regulation of public utilities, and relief for unemployed miners and other jobless workers downright socialism, and they mistook his verve for vulgarity.
La Guardia had made loyal friends as well as relentless enemies by his bluntness, sharp wit, and aggressiveness. Some of these friends were now ready to help him. Professor Francis W. Aymar of New York University Law School, La Guardia’s alma mater, sounded out sentiment among influential people of varied political complexion with a view to forming an independent citizens’ committee. La Guardia was raring to declare himself early in 1929 by presenting a platform, but his friend Courtlandt Nicoll, former New York state senator and a power in Republican politics, advised him to “hold your fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Edward Corsi, head of the Haarlem House settlement in La Guardia’s congressional district in East Harlem, and Philip Tirone, a political figure in the poorer sections of Brooklyn, went to work early and hard for their friend La Guardia in their neighborhoods. When the newspapers announced in the spring of 1929 that La Guardia might be the Republican candidate for mayor, he received offers of help from people he did not know but who knew his record as a courageous and constructive congressman. In May, Republican clubs in the Bronx and Brooklyn began to endorse him, and some Manhattan leaders, particularly the influential Samuel S. Koenig, chairman of the New York County Republican Committee, supported him.
In June the Socialist party nominated Norman Thomas for mayor, and an independent group nominated John F. Hylan. As the struggle for the Republican nomination became more intense, William M. Bennett, perennial entry in Republican primaries, announced that he would once more jump into the contest and inaugurated his effort by calling La Guardia “a sawed-off Big Bill Thompson,” after the blustering Mayor of Chicago who had promised his fellow citizens to punch King George V of England in the nose, though His Majesty had little to do with the gangster and sewage disposal problems of Chicago.