- Historic Sites
The Political Machine Ii: A Case History “i Am The Law”
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
Now Hague pulled out all the stops for one of Governor Wilson’s pet reform measures—city commission government. This new style in city government had been inspired by the superb job a commission of citizens had done resuscitating hurricane-wrecked Calveston, Texas, in 1900. It was supposedly superior to the mayor-council form because each commissioner was directly responsible to the people for the operation of his department. The so-called reform (Jersey City returned to the mayor-council pattern in 1961) won massive approval in a referendum, and candidates blossomed by the dozen for the first election, in the spring of 1913. Wittpenn entered a slate of followers but did not run himself because he was campaigning to succeed Wilson, now President, as governor. Hague, running for commissioner, turned his campaign into a crusade against the so-called Wittpenn “machine.”
The second-ward leader’s bellows on behalf of reform won him wide support. On June 9, 1913, the local Jersey Journal ran a cartoon showing the city awakening from a long slumber. Beside it was an editorial urging the voters to “kill machine rule forever.” The voters responded by choosing Hague as one of the commissioners. A pioneer Republican reformer, Mark Fagan, ran first with 21,379 votes, and was made mayor, while Hague became commissioner of public safety. Shortly thereafter, the Hudson County Democratic Committee, under Hague’s leadership, rescinded an earlier vote endorsing Wittpenn for governor and urged the election of James Fielder, his opponent in the approaching Democratic primary. This about-face meant that Hague was the acknowledged, unopposed leader of the Democratic party in Hudson County.
One of the unrealized dreams of Hague’s political life was to create a “Greater Jersey City” out of the hodgepodge of municipalities that made up Hudson County. Besides Jersey City, with about half of the county’s 538,000 population, there were Bayonne, at the end of the peninsula formed by New York and Newark bays; Hoboken to the north; and a number of smaller enclaves such as Weehawken, North Bergen, Secaucus, Kearney, and West New York. All of these places could, at times, become very jealous of their independence. That made for political headaches, but it also had its advantages.
The multiplicity of governments, each with its own police, fire, and other city departments, created a remarkable number of political jobs. The county itself, with its courts of justice, its own police department, hospitals, jails, and other institutions, was also a hive of political patronage. Moreover, the man who controlled Jersey City inevitably ruled Hudson County, and with it the grand juries that had the power to investigate graft. The politicians of the smaller cities were therefore almost certain to fall into line behind the Jersey City leader.
The scent of total power inspired Hague to tackle his public duties with passionate ferocity. He needed all the energy he could muster; his new job plunged him into a violent conflict with Jersey City’s police and fire departments. The police had been a municipal disgrace for decades. Robert Davis had run Jersey City as a wideopen town. Red-light districts flourished, saloons served liquor into the dawn, and gambling was uninhibited. Such an atmosphere made the moral decay of the police force inevitable.
Hague launched an all-out assault on police laxity. His motive was twofold. First, it was vital for him to protect his reform image in the shadow of Mayor Mark Fagan, who had achieved national fame in this role. Second was the opportunity to open an unparalleled number of jobs to his dispensation. As many as 125 men were put on trial in just one day for violating departmental regulations. Hundreds of police officers were ruthlessly demoted or dismissed. Into the decimated ranks Hague poured his tough young Horseshoe followers, from whom he culled an elite squad of plainclothesmen, called Zeppelins, who wove a web of secret surveillance around the entire force. Soon not a cop in the city dared to accept petty graft. They began enforcing for the first time city laws against prostitution and afterhours drinking. Women were barred from every one of Jersey City’s thousand saloons, and any saloonkeeper who violated this puritanical ordinance was threatened with fines, loss of his license, and less legal kinds of punishment. The result, to the average voter in Jersey City, seemed almost miraculous. Public Safety Commissioner Hague had literally cleaned up the city.
Hague’s organization now demonstrated its political prowess by winning its first county-wide contest: Hague’s deputy commissioner of public safety, James F. Norton, was elected to the potent post of surrogate. Next came a more crucial test—the gubernatorial election of 1916. Running with the endorsement of President Wilson, Wittpenn, now Hague’s avowed enemy, had won the Democratic nomination for governor. Coolly, Hague reversed the engine of the county Democracy and wrecked Wittpenn by giving him the smallest majority a Democratic gubernatorial candidate had received from the Hudson County bastion in decades —a puny 7,430 votes, in contrast to the 25,959 ‘he organization had rolled up for Governor Fielder in 1913.