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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
In this speech he also coined a slogan he used again four years later and adopted as his basic principle after he occupied City Hall: “No man can be a good Mayor merely by being a ‘good fellow.’ ” Elimination of waste and modernization in the city’s government were the keystones of his platform. He was talking at a time when extravagance, locally and nationally, was routine, and indifference to civic virtue was almost the rule. La Guardia then offered a constructive program of civic development and reform similar to the one he carried out when he finally became mayor.
In 1929 La Guardia already foresaw many needs of the future: he called for a large public works program to take care of the unemployed and to unify the city’s chaotic and inefficient rapid transit system. He campaigned for removal of what he regarded as the antiquated and unsightly elevated railroads and quick completion of the new Independent Subway system. He criticized the bus franchises negotiated by Mayor Walker and his friends, which the Seabury investigation revealed two years later to have been conceived in corruption and carried out with exorbitant profit to the promoters, including the Mayor and his cronies. “A temporary bus permit is to Tammany politicians what a horse and a six-shooter were to the James brothers,” La Guardia told the voters.
In his acceptance speech La Guardia threatened to establish boundaries outside the city’s limits that known criminals would not be allowed to pass, an action he took after he finally became mayor. He also frankly declared that he would not divert the police department from detection and prevention of serious crime to patrol New York’s thirty thousand-odd speakeasies “in order to snoop on respectable citizens desiring a drink.” New York under Tammany rule had an unusual number of unsolved murders, including the notorious case of the gambler and loan shark, Arnold Rothstein, which La Guardia was to use to dramatic effect later on in his campaign.
Fiorello La Guardia was a curious combination of pagan and moralist. He did not believe that government should or could regulate personal habits, but he was fanatical in his determination to protect people from having their desires exploited by thieves or suppressed by puritans. Prohibition he regarded as a restraint impossible to impose. He liked a drink now and then himseif. On the other hand, he did not gamble, and he often tried to stamp out gambling, as unsuccessfully as his predecessors and his successors.
The La Guardia campaign headquarters on the second floor of the Hotel Cadillac soon became a combined booking office and press bureau, where arrangements were made for the incredible number of meetings at which the candidate and his associates spoke day and night, and where publicity flowed like liquor elsewhere in town. La Guardia gave the enemy no rest and spared neither himself nor his co-workers. They supplied the newspapers with fresh charges almost every day. At first these were regarded as irresponsible exaggerations, but before long, as many of them were proved true, a certain respect for La Guardia crept into the skeptical press.
During this lurid 1929 campaign La Guardia first struck at what the Seabury investigation revealed later in detail: that the magistrates’ courts had never in their history been more corrupt, and that Tammany leaders and lawyers had a monopoly on the business of fixing, for high fees, the cases for builders who wanted to get around city zoning regulations.
La Guardia did not hesitate to criticize Mayor Walker’s personal life as well as his political one. In a Negro church in Harlem one night he said that things were terrible in the city but at least some people went home to sleep with their own wives. “And that ain’t so good either,” someone shouted.
Bouncing around the five boroughs of Greater New York, this volatile little Italian with the staccato indignation was both fearless and good-humored. He loved a wisecrack almost as much as Jimmy Walker did, but his were usually more pertinent than those of the night-club artist who was then mayor of New York. His ungovernable temper was an integral part of his honesty, and his disregard of the amenities won him the attention of millions who admired his spunk, even while it lost him the respect of thousands who thought he should be less vituperative. Throughout his career there were always those who considered Fiorello La Guardia their champion, and always those who disdained him as a jester.