How Miss Perkins Learned To Lobby

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Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor for twelve years during the New Deal, was the first woman Cabinet officer in this country’s history. She was well qualified for the job. After graduating from Mt. Holyoke College in 1902, she worked first as a social worker and later in increasingly important jobs among reform groups who iuere fighting for humane and safe working conditions for factory employees.

For his biography, Madame Secretary: Frances Perkins, from which the following excerpt is taken, George Martin has drawn (among many other sources) on interviews recorded for Columbia University’s Oral History Project to get the personal recollections of people who were Frances Perkins’ friends, associates, and adversaries. The book will be published by Houghton Mifflin later this month.

When our story begins, Miss Perkins is 28 years old and is executive secretary of the Consumers’ League of New York. In that role she is about to learn the wily art of lobbying.

In January, 1911, Frances Perkins’ political education entered a new phase when she went to Albany to lobby for legislation that the Consumers’ League wanted. Its chief interest that year was the “fifty-four-hour bill” limiting the hours for which women of any age and boys under eighteen could be employed in a factory. There briefly had been such a law, but in 1909 the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, had declared it unconstitutional on technical grounds. Florence Kelley, the national secretary of the Consumers’ League, had had the law redrafted to meet the court’s objections and hoped to persuade the legislature to pass it in the 1911 session.

The New York legislature always convened on the first Wednesday of January and generally sat through March or April; a longer session was unusual. The two chambers, the senate with fifty-one members and the assembly with a hundred and fifty, met in opposite wings of the capitol, a large Victorian-Gothic pile perched almost at the top of a steep hill and facing down a broad avenue to Albany’s railroad station on the bank of the Hudson.

Despite its claims to grandeur, the building impressed Perkins as dilapidated. As she learned later, it was clean only for the opening day of the session. Thereafter the red carpeting quickly became gray with cigar ash, and there was a great deal of spitting, not always into spittoons. In the assembly the red curtains hung in limp, uneven folds, and the huge chandelier was dull with dust.

Each chamber was shaped like a half-moon. The presiding officer sat on a dais overlooking the clerks in a slight well directly in front of him and facing the legislators sitting in curved and rising tiers of desks. At the top and back of each room was a brass rail marking off an area ten or fifteen feet wide that was known as the lobby. Here the “lobbyists” would stand, recording votes and sending messages to legislators on the floor.

On the corridor connecting the two chambers was a small partitioned area, not very clean, called the Assembly Lunchroom. It had a few tables and a short counter without stools, and sold sandwiches, pie, and coffee. For months, despite hunger pangs, Frances Perkins would not enter it for fear she would seem “too bold” and offend the legislators whose votes she was seeking. They frequently carried the food back to their desks and ate without forks or spoons. The assembly, she wrote later, often presented “an interesting and sometimes revolting spectacle.”

On her first day in Albany a fellow lobbyist, Joseph Hammitt of the Citizens Union, showed her around the capitol. That morning the assembly was not sitting; most of its members were in committee meetings, though a few stood talking in the aisles. One, a fairly young man, was reading at his desk, and she remarked on his studious appearance. Hammitt identified him as Alfred E. Smith, an assemblyman from New York. “That’s what he does,” Hammitt said. “He’s reading the bills introduced last night. When he first came to the assembly, he used to read every bill introduced and send out to the library for the law it amended. He seemed to think he had to know the business of the chamber, and the only way to know it was to read the material as it turned up. Now he’s one of the best-informed men on the floor.”

Perkins was eager to meet Smith, and just then another lobbyist, Robert S. Binkerd of the City Club of New York, joined them. He knew Smith well, and, leaning across the rail, he loudly called “Al!”

Smith looked around, smiled, and came up the aisle. Binkerd introduced Perkins, and she and Smith chatted for a few minutes. As he turned to go he told her pleasantly, “Jackson’s got your bill. It’s still in committee and not moving very fast. Better ask for a hearing.”

Later she learned that Assemblyman Edward D. Jackson, a heavyset railroad man from Buffalo, was not pushing the bill and that if no one requested a hearing, there would be none. She was grateful to Smith for his casual remark. As the winter wore on she discovered that what he told her was invariably true. He was a politician and an orator, but he never spoke dishonestly. He might say little, withholding something she wanted to know, but what he did say was reliable.