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The Political Machine Ii: A Case History “i Am The Law”
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
With “Hagueism” for a rallying cry, the GOP proceeded to elect two governors in a row, for the first time since Hague had come to power. This was a serious blow to Hague. From 1941 to 1949, counting Edison’s term, he was voiceless in Trenton. Dozens of key appointments to the state’s boards and commissions fell into Republican hands, as the terms of Hague Democrats expired. Deaths and resignations accounted for still more, in both the judicial and executive branches of the government. Worse, a new state constitution, with a provision which would force public officials to answer embarrassing questions, was proposed in 1944. A massive effort by the Hague organization, climaxed by an official denunciation of the document by Archbishop Walsh, defeated this threat temporarily. But it was still very much on the horizon; Republicans and Edison Democrats were beating drums for it with crusaders’ fervor.
Within Hudson County, Hague suddenly began having almost as much trouble exerting his hitherto complete control. Insiders have always maintained that the trouble, which started in Bayonne, was Hague’s own fault. By now, Hague was spending very little time in Jersey City. When he was not in Florida, he was sojourning in New York at the Plaza. Most of the city’s political and economic business was conducted on the telephone, through Deputy Mayor Malone. For too many politicians in the organization, Hague had become a remote figure, no longer to be feared. When a public school was erected in Bayonne, Hague’s leaders skimmed off all the gravy for themselves, ignoring the standard distribution that assured each politician a share, however small. Feuding promptly erupted inside the Bayonne organization, and a slate with a “Home rule, not Hague rule” slogan swept all five city commission seats in 1943. Similar revolts exploded in North Bergen and Hoboken during the next four years.
Perhaps, at seventy-one, Hague was weary at the thought of extinguishing these rebellions. They were ominous signs that a new generation of voters had come to maturity, and many of them were not inclined to accept Hague’s leadership in the old unquestioning fashion. Jersey City, the heartland of Hague’s power, had a similar corps of restive veterans home from the global wars and hungry for a slice of the political pie. Hague’s next move seemed to be a major concession to a new era. He announced his resignation as mayor of Jersey City on June 4, 1947.
A magnificent ceremony was staged two weeks later in the auditorium of Dickinson High School, at which Hague handed over the official rule of the city to his nephew, Frank Hague Eggers, the commissioner of parks and public works. Moore and dozens of other politicians whom Hague had elevated to power appeared on the platform to gush forth hours of soggy oratory in praise of his accomplishments. Hague then rose and made it clear that he was not resigning as chairman of the Democratic party in the state and county. It suddenly dawned on a lot of people that the great change was really a great smokescreen. The choice of Eggers made Hague’s sleight of hand even more transparent. Just to make sure he retained total control, he was ready to risk the hostility that such nepotism was certain to arouse.
The realization was discouraging to more than a few local Democrats, who yearned for relief from Hague’s heavy hand. One of the most restless was John V. Kenny, leader of the second ward. Short, balding, and mild-mannered, Kenny was the son of Nat Kenny, the man who had given Hague his start in politics. Kenny was a good leader, who worked at his job in a ward that had been completely transformed since Hague’s era; gone were the feuding, brawling Irish, replaced by Poles and Italians and Slovaks. They were intensely devoted to “the Little Guy,” as many people called Kenny, for the same reason that Hague’s Irish had been devoted to him.
In the light of these undeniable political realities, it was only natural for Kenny to think of himself as Hague’s logical successor. But Kenny, a political realist, declined to challenge Hague personally. As a second warder, he was acutely aware of Hague’s fondness for retaliating, not merely politically but physically. The Little Guy had no desire to get his head cracked. Better—or at least safer—to wait until the Big Guy was safely planted in Holy Name Cemetery, and then make his move. But the emergence of Eggers as the heir apparent forced Kenny to make a decision. If he wanted to inherit the crown, it was now or never. Quietly, Kenny began making secret trips to Newark to confer with leading Republicans. The only hope of beating Hague was a fusion ticket, fuelled by Republican money.
Hague knew about Kenny’s dealing with the opposition almost immediately, thanks to his superb espionage system. He called a meeting of the Democratic county committee and announced that there was a double-crosser in their midst. With special ferocity, Hague read Kenny out of the Democratic party and deposed him as leader of the second ward.
Driven into a corner and made to look not a little like a martyr, Kenny fought back. Grimly he gathered together his ward supporters and a strong cadre of disgruntled young veterans from other parts of the city, and began building his fusion ticket. He made no attempt to surface during the November, 1948, elections. On this, the year of Harry Truman’s come-from-behind victory, Hague cracked the whip furiously, and the organization had seldom looked better. Although Dewey carried the Garden State by 86,000 votes, every local Democratic candidate scored a crushing victory.