- Historic Sites
How Miss Perkins Learned To Lobby
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Smith’s integrity and position were to be important to her. That winter, for the first time in a generation, Democrats controlled both chambers and the governorship, and Charles F. Murphy, the leader of the party in the state and the head of Tammany Hall in New York City, ordered a revolution in the party’s legislative organization. Instead of promoting two elderly orators to be majority leaders in the senate and assembly, Murphy reached down into his “kindergarten class” and named Robert F. Wagner and Al Smith. Later Wagner would represent New York in the United States Senate, from 1927 to 1949, and Smith would serve four terms as the state’s governor. The two men were both under forty and were friends; though both were Tammany men and took orders from Murphy, they also influenced him. Murphy’s revolution was not simply in men but also in ideas. More than any others, these three brought the Democratic party of New York into the twentieth century.
Perkins quickly came to respect Smith’s power and to admire the way he used it. When she seemed to be getting nowhere with her demand for a hearing, she went to him and complained, “It isn’t moving at all. They’ve killed the bill tor the last two years.”
Smith, a member of Jackson’s committee, said, “The canners want an amendment to let employees in canneries out.”
She agreed that that was the case but insisted that the Consumers’ League and the other organizations supporting the hill could not accept an amendment exempting a large group of women workers.
“I’ll talk to Jackson,” Smith promised. “I think you might get it through.” At the hearings she made a “presentation": she described the bill, the people to whom it would apply, the means of enforcement, and the reasons for it. She quoted authorities on the effects of ten-, eleven-, or twelve-hour days on the health of
women and children. She gave specific examples of long hours in New York factories and supported them with photographs showing the conditions of work and the obvious exhaustion on the women’s faces by the end of the day.
The most searching questions generally were asked by Smith. He seemed genuinely interested and constantly forced her to be specific: Where is that factory? When was the photograph taken? What is that woman’s name? Has she a family? Perkins had prepared carefully and usually could answer. She soon realized that many of the questions he asked were not for his own benefit but to arouse the interest of the other committee members.
In the senate the questioning was less close. The chairman of its Committee on Labor and Industry was Thomas J. MacManus, “The MacManus,” boss of the Hell’s Kitchen district in New York. An old-style Irish ward boss, he was a large, carefully dressed man, with a neatly trimmed beard. In the eyes of most reformers he was irredeemably corrupt. Perkins did not doubt it, but while working on her survey for the Russell Sage Foundation she had had a happy experience with him.
A boy from the district had committed a crime and been caught. He was put in the Tombs to await trial, and his mother and two sisters, whom he supported, began to starve. The head resident at Hartley House, a settlement house in MacManus’ district, sent Perkins to the local office of the Charity Organization Society for help. The society itself seldom gave direct relief but more often made an investigation and then referred the case to the proper charity. In this instance the office made its investigation and then refused to make a referral because the mother drank and one of the children was illegitimate.
Angered by such a pharisaic ruling, Perkins went from the society’s office directly to the Tammany clubhouse. Inside, men were milling about, talking, smoking, and spitting. She asked if she could see MacManus. “Sure, lady, sure, he’ll be glad to see you,” someone said.
MacManus’ office was as full of men, talk, and smoke as the outer room, but he gave her his entire attention. “Go ahead; what’s troubling you?” She said she knew a boy in trouble.
“Well, I’m always glad to help anybody in trouble. Does he live in this district?”
“Do you live in the district?”
“Yes.” She gave her address without identifying it as Hartley House for fear that might throw him off.
“What’s the boy’s name?”
She told him and described the circumstances. Thirty-six hours later the boy was out of prison and back at work. She did not ask how it was done. She was not sure she would have approved if she had known, but ever afterward she felt a certain sympathy for MacManus.
Nevertheless, despite her expert presentation of the bill before MacManus’ committee and every indication that she had enough votes among the senators to pass it, she could not move the committee to report it out.
Meanwhile, partly because of” a fire in the capitol but even more because of” a fight within the Democratic party over the nomination of the United States senator, the session continued into May and seemed likely to go on for another month. In June she had planned to go to Europe with friends, but she wanted to see the bill passed first.