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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 July 18, Mayor Walker received a deputation at City Hall from the Committee of 682, headed by August Heckscher, prominent Republican real estate operator and philanthropist, and without much difficulty they persuaded him to run again. Walker was told how much he had meant to the city and, somewhat to his surprise, how many public improvements—there were forty on the deputation’s list—he had been responsible for. After looking over the list, he remarked that if it was the will of such men as August Heckscher and people prominent in the financial, sports, and department-store worlds that he should “carry on,” “Who could say No?”
A few hours after Mayor Walker “bowed” to the request of the Heckscher committee at City Hall, La Guardia was on his feet at a dinner tendered him by the New York Republican Club in Town Hall. In his speech he emphasized that the next mayor must be a man who could say no to the thieving politicians who had been able to twist previous “reform” mayors around their fingers. (La Guardia always had a way of pronouncing “politician” as if it were a dirty word.) He advocated reorganization of the city government to eliminate useless and overlapping officials—a task he performed when he eventually became mayor—suggested city planning that would look ahead fifty to seventy-five years instead of from day to day, and denounced Walker’s administration for having failed to produce “one useful existing important public improvement carried out since it has been in office.” The only change he could discover in the traditional bad old ways was that policemen were now compelled to wear “funny looking octagon caps.”
By the end of July, La Guardia was well ahead of all other contenders for the Republican nomination, insofar as his own efforts and those of his friends could put him ahead. But the regular Republican political leaders were still trying to head him off with any candidate, man or woman, more to their liking. They had little confidence that they could beat Jimmy Walker that year, and they had practically abandoned hope, devoting themselves to their prospects of electing a governor in 1930. A Republican party convention was scheduled for August 1 at Mecca Temple, where party workers would select their candidate for defeat. Whoever this sacrificial lamb might be, he would then have to win the nomination in the primary election on September 7, for La Guardia threatened to run in the primaries against any hand-picked selection of the bosses and their underlings. He also threatened that if he were denied the nomination he would tell the voters exactly what the leaders had done to him when it came time for them to elect a governor the following year. With compelling arguments like these, La Guardia’s friend Sam Koenig finally persuaded his fellow leaders to submit only La Guardia’s name to their convention.
Major General James G. Harbord, president of the Radio Corporation of America and a distinguished citizen interested in civic reform, was chairman of the Mecca Temple meeting on the night of August 1. He drew a picture of Mayor Walker as personally attractive, “young enough to have been in the Great War, but not in it; old enough to be mature, but not old enough to have outgrown the irresponsibility of childhood. … He has thoroughly enjoyed his job and has never been too tired to take a vacation,” the General continued. He described Walker as a credit to New York’s tailors and as a mayor who brought a steady procession of Channel swimmers, crown princes, Rumanian queens, and Arctic explorers to the steps of City Hall. He went on to denounce the Mayor as a costly extravagance to the taxpayers, and faithless to his pledges to give New York an efficient and economical administration. “He acknowledges no responsibilities for the performance of great tasks,” General Harbord said, and then prophetically added: “He has no serious moments and his sad ones are yet to come to him....I have no objection to your naming a Mayor who, with a proper sense of proportion, will smile occasionally,” he concluded, “but I hope it will be one who does not have to stop work to do it.”
The convention’s platform charged graft in many of the city’s departments, and waste and neglect in most of them. It pledged improvements in transit, law enforcement, housing, education, food distribution, and sewage disposal. It promised more parks and playgrounds, equitable tax assessments, and promotion and pay for city employees for merit rather than political pull. Courtlandt Nicoll put La Guardia’s name in nomination, gave a résumé of his career, and ended with the statement: “He is a man who knows New York, and New York, thank God, knows him. Success is his companion and victory is his habit.” But the convention, though it accepted La Guardia as its nominee, had no trouble controlling its enthusiasm. Five of the 1,519 delegates refused to vote for him, and one of them, Gordon Knox Bell, from the so-called “silkstocking” district, objected strenuously to the customary courtesy of making the nomination unanimous.