- Historic Sites
The Political Machine Ii: A Case History “i Am The Law”
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
On the other hand, when Hague knew he had an election sewed up, he was a model of decorum. In 1929, Republicans made an all-out effort to unseat him as mayor. On election eve there were frantic predictions that Hague was assembling hoodlums and phony voters by the busload. At the end of the voting day, the Republican prosecutor grudgingly had to admit that it had been the cleanest election in Jersey City in decades. Hague coasted to victory by 25,000 votes.
Contrary to myth, the paper ballot and the graveyard vote did not fully account for Hague’s success. Wherever they could get away with it, Hagueites voted the cemeteries and the names of those who had long since moved out of the county. The state’s permanent registration law offered an irresistible opportunity for fraud, especially when the local election bureau was lackadaisical about keeping track of the dead and departed. Hague guaranteed their laxity by making sure those appointed to the local election bureau were “Hague Republicans”—men who had nominal allegiance to the GOP but were keenly aware that their jobs had come from Hague. But in the 1940’s, when the Republican-controlled state legislature inflicted voting machines and genuine Republican watchdogs in the election bureau, Hague’s majorities were almost as huge as ever.
Hague’s three decades of success as a political leader were, above all else, a triumph of executive ability. With the same driving energy he had exhibited in cleaning up the police department, Hague completely overhauled the structure of the Democratic organization in Hudson County. Not loyalty alone but also efficiency became the hallmarks of Hague Democracy. The city was divided into twelve wards, and these wards were subdivided into districts. Each ward and each district had a male and a female leader. There were ward committees and district committees. Hague knew from personal observation that thousands of Hudson County residents stayed home on each Election Day. Most of them were immigrants—the Poles, Italians, Czechs, and Slovaks who had followed the Irish into the slums—and they often did not know enough English to comprehend the era’s tumultuous politics in the newspapers. Hague grimly decided that these people were going to vote. Whether they had to be bullied or cajoled, bribed or frightened to the polls, they were his secret weapon in Hudson County.
In every election every district was canvassed—which meant that every voter was personally asked to come out and vote on every Election Day. Lists of the aged and infirm were carefully compiled, and fleets of cars were at the disposal of every ward leader, to transport even the dying to the polls. Names were carefully checked off as people entered the polling booths, and the final hours of each Election Day were devoted to telephoning and even visiting those who had not yet voted to ask them why. Ward and district leaders were rewarded—or punished—strictly on the basis of their turnouts.
Simultaneously, Hague never abandoned his clean-city policy. He could boast, with considerable pride, that throughout the twenties, when hoodlums were shooting up Chicago and other cities, no gangster’s corpse was found within Jersey City’s borders. As usual, Hague’s methods were not always orthodox. City detectives, disguised as bums, loitered in the stations of the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad and at the ferry slips. Anyone they considered undesirable was likely to be sent back to New York on the next train or ferry.
Hague’s political technique was a blend of violence and benevolence. At Christmastime each ward leader distributed thousands of food baskets to the poor. Every ward had a boat ride or a picnic or both each summer. But for Hague, the ultimate charity was free hospital care. He poured millions into a medical center, hired top-notch doctors to run it, and supervised it in fanatical detail. He maintained a suite of offices there, and was ever roaming the corridors picking up stray bits of paper and checking the meat in the kitchen.
Once a Republican prober accused Hague of allowing the affluent as well as the poor to have their babies and operations free. With oracular sincerity the Mayor proclaimed: “If they say they cannot pay, that is good enough for me. … We do not argue with a sick person.”
“If the patient is trying to get something for nothing,” the prober demanded, “notwithstanding his ability to pay?”
“My God, he is welcome to be restored to health!”
“At the expense of the other taxpayers?”
“Of anybody, of anybody. When you give me a sick man I will restore him to health at anyone’s cost.”
It all dovetailed neatly with the reform aura that created Hague’s initial power. He was barely ensconced as mayor when he demonstrated that he could war on “the interests” far more ferociously than a Fagan or a Wittpenn. Where previous reformers had raised corporate tax assessments to levels they thought were reasonable and yet would not produce violent counterattack by the companies, Hague went all out. In 1917 and 1918, he increased the tax assessments on the Standard Oil Company from $1,500,000 to $14,000,ooo, on the Public Service Corporation from $3,000,000 to $30,000,000, and on the railroads from $67,000,000 to $160,000,000. The corporations rushed to the state Board of Taxes and Assessments in Trenton. The board cancelled all Hague’s escalations.