The Political Machine Ii: A Case History “i Am The Law”


The crowd exploded into a howl that dwarfed all their previous efforts. Hague stood staring at them. For a second something close to shock was on his face. Then he turned and stalked stoically off the platform.

Incredibly, the disaster in the second ward did not make Hague or Malone realize that the organization was in deep trouble throughout the city. They wrote off downtown and, with an irony that only those who understood Hague’s history would appreciate, placed their hopes on the uptown wards where the middle class had looked down their noses at Hague and his Irish forty years ago. On Election Day, Kenny revealed how thoroughly he had studied Hague’s tactics. His workers made the same heroic effort to get out their vote, matching the organization car for car, telephone call for telephone call. As many as forty-one watchers were on duty in each of the polling places, making it impossible for Hague to spring any of his old rough-and-tumble tactics.

Most important, the Kenny organization had unprecedented amounts of money to spend. The going rate in Jersey City had long been five dollars a vote. This was always dispensed freely, especially in the poorest sections of the city. Hague’s ward leaders were soon deluged with frantic pleas for help from their district leaders. They simply could not match the Kenny prices, and the sums dispensed by City Hall to each ward for this purpose were soon exhausted. At 1 P.M. , the leader of the sixth ward phoned Malone at City Hall. “Johnny,” he said, “I’ve got to have ten thousand dollars right away. They’re paying fifteen dollars a vote and they’re murdering us.”

“The hell with them,” Malone rasped. “We’re not goin’ over five dollars a vote and that’s final. It’ll give them bad habits.”

With a curse the ward leader slammed down the phone. Then he called the ward’s chief bookmaker (and his best friend), George Ormsby. “Can you get me ten grand right away?”

“Come down and pick it up,” Ormsby said.

Before the polls closed, the $10,000 was gone, plus several thousand dollars of the ward leader’s own money, which he always kept in reserve on Election Day. He should have saved it. At nine o’clock that night, the stunning news came over the radio. Kenny had won by 22,000 votes. He had carried every ward but one—the sixth.

A vast mob of Freedom ticket supporters snake-danced through the downtown streets carrying a coffin labelled “The Hague Machine.” Kenny and several of his lieutenants stormed into City Hall, hoping to seize incriminating records. But the organization had known for hours that the election was lost, and there was nothing but charred scraps of paper in the furnace room. The vault in the mayor’s office was empty. Earlier, according to several reliable witnesses, two police captains had helped lug suitcases filled with cash down to the vault of the First National Bank. The Kenny men did discover two thick ledgers, containing the names of more than 17,000 citizens who were politically unreliable, with careful comments written beside each name, based on reports from district leaders and other members of Hague’s espionage system.

Kenny was in charge of City Hall, but Hague was still very much a factor on the political scene. His men controlled most of the county government. Moreover, there was a gubernatorial election coming up in November, 1949, and Hague had found his strongest candidate in years. He was Elmer Wene, a popular three-term congressman and millionaire chicken farmer from southern New Jersey. The combination of Hague and Wene seemed unbeatable.

With the irony that keeps recurring in Hague’s story, Kenny found himself confronted with a situation similar to the one Hague had faced when he seized power in 1913. Then, Hague’s chief rival, Wittpenn, was running for governor. Kenny knew that if Wene won he would immediately appoint a Hague prosecutor in Hudson County. With Hague already in control of the grand jury, it would be only a matter of months before most of Kenny’s administration was in jail.

After a long strategic silence, Kenny announced that he was for Wene. But there was not an iota of enthusiasm in his endorsement. Meanwhile, Hague made an almost incredible blunder in his final pre-election speech. “We’ll be back in the driver’s seat in Trenton in January,” he thundered. Instantly, the Republicans seized on their old “Beat Hague” battle cry, and Alfred Driscoll, fighting to be the first governor to succeed himself (as permitted by the new state constitution of 1947), made it the theme of his final campaign speech.

Wene lost by 70,000 votes. For the first time since 1920, Hudson County went Republican. Kenny had quietly reversed his political engine, just as Hague had done to Wittpenn in 1916. On election night, Hague resigned as state and county leader of the Democratic party. The long reign was over.

Hague clawed desultorily at Kenny for the next few years, until Kenny resigned as mayor and, eventually, sought refuge in the less visible role of Democratic county “leader,” a position he still maintains. Neither temperamentally nor politically was Kenny capable of asserting Hague-size power. He has been content to remain an easygoing, behind-the-scenes leader in the Robert Davis tradition.