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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
As he prepared to give the town the colorful campaign the Times foresaw, La Guardia labored under other handicaps besides press antipathy. Not only was his own party tepid about him, but the progressives with whom he had worked in the past had declined into political insignificance. That summer of 1929 stock market prices were still high, and the electorate, always careless in good times, seemed to think it could still afford the luxury of jaunty Jimmy Walker, who was to La Guardia what a night club is to a settlement house. To cap all, campaign funds were painfully short. Many Republicans who usually contributed substantially to the party found La Guardia too radical for their pocketbooks. The bouncy candidate himself realized that his election would be no cinch, but he was optimistic enough to believe that silent, unaffiliated millions might come to his support if he waged a campaign that captured their attention, and that was just what he proceeded to do.
A World reporter visited La Guardia in his law office at 220 Broadway the morning after his nomination. He found the candidate in steady motion, full of exuberance. Presently there was an interruption from the telephone; La Guardia answered, to learn that an army officer claimed he had been involved in graft with an aircraft manufacturing company. The World reported:
La Guardia, sitting at his desk in his shirt sleeves, jumped to his feet with the telephone in his hand.
“You tell that officer that I say he is a blank blank blank and a blank,” he shouted through the transmitter, “and that if he makes that lying charge against me I will search him out in his office in Washington or wherever he may be, and drag him out into the street and thrash him.”
A minute later the candidate was chuckling and telling the World man that he preferred music to golf, which was too expensive for him, and that his forms of exercise were swimming and walking, which were free. (He might have added, “And waving my arms.”) “And,” the candidate went on, concerning his habits and hobbies, “I do get a kick out of a real political fight.”
The choice of La Guardia’s running mates had been left by the Mecca Temple convention to an executive committee of party brass. The Republican leaders, eager to get to the races at Saratoga and lacking confidence in any ticket headed by their maverick mayoralty candidate, wanted to dispose of this chore as fast as possible. La Guardia suggested asking the major civic and business organizations for their recommendations for comptroller—the most important post next to the mayor’s, since the city’s financial affairs would be managed by him—and for borough president of Manhattan, who had many contracts and much patronage at his disposal.
The Republican leaders did not want to take time for such consultation but, to La Guardia’s satisfaction, chose Harold G. Aron, a lawyer and banker, for comptroller and Bird S. Coler, an anti-Tammany Brooklyn Democrat who had once served as comptroller, to run for president of the Board of Aldermen. The New York County Republican Executive Committee chose Frederic R. Coudert, Jr., to run for district attorney, and Clarence H. Fay became the candidate for borough president of Manhattan. Keyes Winter, a lawyer and Republican leader of the Fifteenth or “silkstocking” district, became La Guardia’s campaign manager, and headquarters were soon opened in the Hotel Cadillac in Times Square.
Norman Thomas, Socialist party candidate for mayor, attacked La Guardia for running “with a bunch of militant conservatives, not one of whom has ever been known as a progressive.” He added the embarrassing charge: “He has openly promised jobs in event of victory to district leaders, the same district leaders who ordinarily sell out in local affairs to Tammany Hall.”
William M. Bennett made good his threat to contest the La Guardia selection in the primary election of September 17, but La Guardia beat him by 62,727 to 17,442. Ex-Mayor Hylan retired from the race, but his erratic police commissioner, Richard E. Enright, entered the mayoralty campaign as an independent on a ticket called the “Square Deal.”
After his victory in the primaries, La Guardia made an acceptance speech at a Town Hall meeting also presided over by General Harbord. He was curt in his gratitude—a quality many men found lacking in him:
I accept the nomination. Your remarks, General, are most flattering. I appreciate the many nice things you have said about me. Thanks. Now let’s get to business.