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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
On the morning after election the newspapers greeted the huge Walker plurality with pious hopes that during the next four years he would develop, mature, and work. He did none of these things but remained indolent and permitted his associates to run the government and take the spoils, of which he was thought to have received his share. Before three years were over, the sad days for Jimmy Walker which General Harbord had predicted, in his nominating speech for La Guardia, finally arrived. He had to resign as mayor of New York after the Seabury investigation revealed the worst conditions in the city since the reign of Richard Croker as Tammany Boss in the 1880’s and 1890’s, when he too had obliging stooges for his mayors and when he and his henchmen levied graft on all sectors of the population.
La Guardia offered no alibis for his defeat and told the press that the next mayoralty election was too far away for him to be able to say whether or not he would run again. He claimed, however, that the regular Republicans had deserted him, that he would have something to say about them when the proper time came, and that he would continue to watch city affairs vigilantly. Some reporters believed he had been defeated because he had denounced wealthy members of his own party who had benefited from real-estate and tax assessments made in their favor, because he was of foreign extraction, and because he opposed Prohibition. He resented such objections, and often lashed out with a blanket charge of bigotry against those who made them.
La Guardia went back to Congress and became furiously active in coping with the Depression that had now come upon the country, following the stock market crash that occurred a week before his defeat.
The tremendous effort La Guardia had made to win—against overwhelming odds, in the most vigorous campaign he ever conducted—was not lost. Through it he became well-known as a fighter and a constructive leader to voters in all five boroughs of New York. After they had seen all his charges confirmed—and new abuses revealed—during the Seabury investigation of the magistrates’ courts and the city government in 1931 and 1932, and after they found themselves deep in depression in a city on the verge of bankruptcy, the people—no longer able to afford corruption, indifference, lethargy, and wisecracks—elected Fiorello La Guardia their mayor in 1933. They kept him in that office for the following twelve years, during which time he became one of the most valuable citizens that city has ever had, and one of the best mayors it seems ever likely to get.