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How Miss Perkins Learned To Lobby
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
She went again to Smith, pointing out that she had sufficient votes pledged in both the senate and the assembly to pass the bill if only the committee would report it out. “You’re in favor of this bill,” she said. “Can’t you give me some assurance it will be voted on?”
He was silent, and she realized that he was in some way taking her measure. Finally he said: “Now, I’m going to tell you something. You’ll have to be very careful. You mustn’t repeat this. You can go along to Europe with perfect ease of mind. The bill isn’t going to be passed or reported this year.”
“Mr. Smith,” she exclaimed, “how do you know? How can you possibly know that?”
“I had a talk with Murphy. You can never get it out of committee. That’s the truth, and you go do as you please. You won’t do any good staying around here, because it’s not going to be taken up.”
“There’s lots of good Democrats who don’t believe in this kind of thing.”
“Tell me who,” she insisted. “The Democratic party had a kind of resolution in favor of it at the last convention.”
“Yeah, but that don’t mean anything. That was for the front. That sounded good because the Republicans didn’t have any such thing. Your people agitated enough. Some of them got it introduced. The Democrats couldn’t vote against it, and so they voted for it. Do you know who one of the big contributors to the Democratic fund is?”
She shook her head.
“It’s the Huyler Candy Factory. They’re great friends of Mr. Murphy’s, and they live right down there near him. It’s not going to go through yet. You can take that as a tip, but don’t you tell anybody.”
Recognizing that Smith had been extraordinarily frank, she was careful not to betray him. But she could not bring herself to follow his advice. Her friends sailed without her, and she continued to appear in Albany several days each week, talking, urging, asking Why? and Why not? As long as the legislature was in session, there was a chance. But when it finally adjourned on October 6, Smith was proved right; the bill had never reached the floor.
When the New York legislature convened for its new session in January, 1912, Frances Perkins again began her weekly trips to Albany to lobby for the fifty-four-hour bill. As she remarked later with amusement, to others she must have appeared to think the session’s only purpose was to pass that bill. Nevertheless, her intensity contributed to her effectiveness as a lobbyist. She cared deeply that women and children should not work more than fifty-four hours in a week, and her knowledge of the consequences of such a work week was formidable. With eyes burning, she often could transfix an assemblyman or senator until he, too, was ready to cry out that the hours must be limited.
She started again with Smith. This year, as a result of a loss of Democratic seats in the election, he was only the minority leader in the assembly, though the Democrats had retained control of the senate and the governorship.
In the months since the 1911 session of the legislature she had come to know Smith better, though they continued, as they would for life, to address each other as “Miss Perkins” and “Mr. Smith” or by title, “Madam Chairman” and “Governor.” Yet their friendship already was intimate and subtle. She never asked him directly whether he would vote for the fifty-four-hour bill. She knew that he personally was for it, but she also knew that Murphy as head of Tammany was against it and might require Smith to vote against it. He on his side never volunteered how he would vote on the bill, though he was always willing to advise her how to advance it. At times, as in the case of the Huylers’ opposition, he would even reveal what Murphy would have kept secret. But he never promised anything he could not deliver, and for that she liked him very much.
She made use of everything he told her. In the autumn, for help in combating the opposition of the Huyler brothers, she had turned to some of the socially prominent members of her league’s board of directors. Mr. and Mrs. R. Fulton Cutting and Mrs. Benjamin Nicoll began to include the Huylers and their wives in social gatherings at which the bemused guests discovered that their hosts favored the fifty-four-hour bill. To influence the Bloomingdale brothers, who owned a large department store, Perkins talked to their rabbi, Stephen Wise. It was, she was learning, all part of lobbying.
At her first meeting with Smith that winter she said, “I’ve done a lot. I took your hint. I don’t think all the opposition that was going around about this bill will be present now.”
“Perhaps,” he said, adding, “I noticed you stuck around all summer even though I told you to go on to Europe.”
“Well, I thought there might just be a chance.”
“There wasn’t any chance; I told you the truth. But you didn’t lose anything by staying around. You made friends up here because they all knew that you were staying when it was hopeless, that you weren’t going to give up. They know you mean business, so they’ll listen to you more than they used to.”