Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Growing up in the last Century: DAD'S POLITICAL CAREER



One day shortly before my father passed away almost 30 years ago, in late 1994 at age 86, he started talking to me about his brief career in politics back in the 1930s.  It was an old story.  My sisters and I knew bits and pieces.  Dad had been a 30-year-old struggling lawyer in Brooklyn back then, had no background in politics, no money, the wrong personality (bookish and introverted like me), and no friends in high places.  Still, he decided to throw his hat in the ring for the Democratic nomination for a seat in the New York State Assembly.  

But there was always something odd about the story.  Dad rarely talked about it, and what we knew had plenty of holes.  Only one thing was crystal clear:  After this experience, Dad came out with an attitude.  “All politicians are crooks.  Every single one.”  I still remember his tone of voice saying so.  Even in the 1970s after I started working as a young lawyer in Washington, D.C. on Capitol Hill, counting several “household-name” Senators on the Committee where I served as staff counsel, including politicians my parents mostly seemed to like.  Even then, I still remember Dad singing that same tune: “They are all crooks.  Every single one.”  

Where did this attitude come from?  We all have plenty of reasons to distrust politicians, especially my family living as we did in Albany, New York, with its then-famously crooked political machine.  But Dad’s attitude was something deeper, more personal.     

Brooklyn in the 1930s

Here’s what we knew.  Dad first tried his luck in politics in 1938, when corruption in big American cities was nothing new or unexpected.  Brooklyn, though, played in its own special league.  Bosses controlled nominations and bristled at intruders.  Graft and crime permeated the scene.  My parents lived in a neighborhood called Crown Heights at 1248 Saint Marks Avenue, barely a dozen blocks, an easy quick walk, from the small candy story called Midnight Rose’s on Saratoga Avenue that then served as headquarters for the notorious Murder Incorporated gang under the famous mobsters Abe Reles and Albert Anastasio.  That set the tone.  

But Dad was idealistic and desperate.  An immigrant, he’d reached New York City as a five-year-old from Russia/Poland and grew up poor even by Lower East Side standards.  He had worked his way through St. John’s Law School (class of 1928), attended meetings of the Socialist-leaning Lawyers Guild, then earned his legal license in October 1929, the month of the great Stock Crash.  It was literally the toughest month of the century to start a career. 

Depression Era lawyers struggled and starved.  Dad represented vagabonds, evicted families, then worked for a real estate title company, but nothing substantial.  So with a wife, a one-year-old daughter (my big sister Honey), and little else to lose, he decided to take a flier at politics. 

Brooklyn back then had twenty-three Assembly Districts, each electing one member to the State Legislature.  These assembly seats were a big deal, prized possessions: two-year terms, nice salary, status, and a platform for promotion, a future judgeship, a seat in the State Senate, or maybe a partnership at a good law firm.  (And yes, plenty of graft too if it suited you, but that’s not what this story is about, at least not directly.) 

Dad ran three times for that Brooklyn Assembly seat, in 1938, 1940, and 1942.  During that time, American entered World War II, but Dad was too old for military service.  So he kept plugging away, at lawyering, raising a family, and politics.  He’d never win, but he kept putting himself out there. 

1938: The Good Race

But here’s the thing.   Of those three races, the only one he ever talked about was the first, in 1938.  Dad was proud of that campaign.  That year, he ran a classic insurgent race.  He did everything right: professional-looking leaflets and handouts (all union printed, of course), neighborhood letters, speeches, and organization.  As his central message, he railed against “Bosses” and corruption, claimed to be “the only Democratic Candidate free from domination,” and told his voters to “take control the primary system” and throw the bums out.  He shook hands, made phone calls, walked streets, and convinced neighbors to back him.

I remember how he and my mother laughed while talking about their shoestring operation, the meetings in their kitchen, the quirky supporters and door-to-door campaigning.  Dad, a newcomer, had three experienced opponents in the race, including both the incumbent plus a former office-holder making a comeback.  Dad’s opponents, with money and connections, could easily win supporters by promising jobs, patronage, and favors -- let alone paying a few street derelicts a couple of dollars apiece to show up and vote their way.  (Yes, they did that back then.)  By comparison, Dad had little to offer except honesty, a fresh face, some idealism and energy. 

            With that calculus, it’s no surprise he came in last, 4th out of 4 candidates.  But Dad was playing a longer game.  His campaign had caught the eye of another aspiring insurgent politician.  His name was Martin J. Kelly, an affluent, popular lawyer hoping to unseat the reigning, entrenched Democratic Party leader in that Assembly district. Kelly saw talent in my Dad, became his mentor, and Dad became a leader in Kelly’s insurgent campaign for District leader. 

Should Kelly actually win and become the new leader himself, the opportunities for Dad could be huge.  Dad would suddenly become the favorite for that Assembly seat nomination the next time around, or maybe something bigger.

            Kelly, to support his campaign, built himself a political club, the Martin J. Kelly Democratic Association, with a fancy office, legions of donors, dances and fund-raising parties, and a slick PR operation.  Dad joined the club and became an officer.  He headed the publicity committee and paid hundreds of dollars ($25 per month) in dues at a time he could barely make ends meet.  He even listed my Mom and my now-two-year-old sister as boosters as well.

But here the story turned murky.  Martin Kelly’s bid to replace the incumbent leader of their Brooklyn Assembly District came to a head in April 1940 in a special primary election.  The incumbent was a former City Alderman named Stephen J. Carney, and Kelly lost the vote.  So up in smoke went Dad’s chances to ride Kelly’s coattails to bigger fame.  But then something else happened.  There was a falling out, and Dad was left on the short end of the stick. 

1940: Not so Good

By the time Dad launched his next campaigns for that same Assembly seat in 1940 and 1942, the mood had changed.  Dad never managed to last in the race even until Election Day.  Each time, powerful people combined to block him, in ways Dad never really wanted to talk about.  All I knew was that, after this experience, his attitude toward politicians had solidified.  “They are all crooks,” he’d say with first-hand authority.  “Every one of them.”

So what happened?  Shortly before he died in 1994, Dad gave me a clue.  He left me among his papers an old, tattered file folder labelled “Bill’s Political Career” in hand-written ballpoint-pen letters.  I looked through the folder at the time, newspaper clippings, some letters, hand-written notes, cards, but arranged chaotically and not shedding much light.  Too many missing pieces.  So I just put it away with other old files where it sat collecting dust as years and decades rolled by.

Along the way, I learned historical research, wrote a few books, including a book about New York City politics (yes, the one about Boss Tweed), and marveled at how new on-line digital technology was making it possible to open powerful new doors into the past.  So when I happened to pull out that folder again not long ago – almost thirty years after I’d seen it the first time -- it occurred to me that now, today, with modern on-line research tools, I might have better luck.  

I soon made a new best friend: the now-digitized, searchable Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  The Brooklyn Eagle had been one of the best newspapers in America during its hay-day in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and it covered those local State Assembly races with loving care. 

I soon discovered, to my surprise, that my Dad had made a friend in the media. 

              So let’s pick up the story:  Where we left off, Martin Kelly, the insurgent lawyer who had taken Dad under his wing, finally had his big moment.  Kelly's chance to unseat the entrenched leader/boss of their Brooklyn Assembly district, Stephen Carney, came in the primary election of April 1940.  Kelly and Carney both fought hard and Dad got very involved in the campaign.  Kelly, in his brochures, described Dad as the “independent assembly candidate of 1938” and listed him as a major backer and coalition partner.  Dad spent primary day that April working as a voting inspector, watching the count at a key polling place to guard against cheating.  

Dad's hand-scribbled tally sheet as voting inspector for the Martin Kelly campaign, April 1940.

In the end, Kelly lost decisively, by a big enough vote margin to avoid any run-off or any claims of fraud.  For Kelly, that was it.  A few days later, Kelly and Carney met privately and decided to call off the fight.  They made peace.  They cut a deal.  Kelly returned to his private law practice and promised to forget all about politics.  

But what about Kelly’s followers, the more radical ones, the bitter-end true believers in “reform”?  They were in no mood to make peace.

My Dad back in 1940 still fell into this latter category.  He had spent years railing against corrupt “Bosses” like Stephen Carney, and he seemed genuinely surprised that his mentor, Martin Kelly, would make peace with the enemy.   So Dad decided to stick it to both of them.  That November, there’d be an election for that same old Assembly seat again, with a primary in September.  Dad would stand on principle and challenge Carney’s hand-picked candidate, a well-heeled incumbent named Fred Morritt, even without help from a mentor like Martin Kelly.  Dad would do it himself.  Game on!!   

Dad was not totally alone in this quest.  At this point, he seems to have nurtured a relationship with a political reporter at the Brooklyn Eagle named Charles Grutzner Jr. who penned a daily column called “People in Politics.”  Grutzner would later win awards investigating organized crime for the New York Times in the 1950s and 1960s.  Where better to cut your teeth than covering crooked local politics in 1940s Brooklyn? 

Grutzner, though his “People in Politics” column, had been the first to disclose the peace deal between Kelly and Carney.  And when Dad decided to break that deal by launching his own independent challenge for the State Assembly, that was news!  Grutzner featured the story in his column, including a photo of Dad right there in the paper.  Then, as primary day approached, Grutzner ran a second story about Dad’s campaign, this time quoting Dad at length blasting the Carney-Kelly peace deal and asking disaffected Democrats to rally to him.  “My headquarters shall be at my home, 1248 Saint Marks Ave.,” he quoted Dad as saying. “I ask all independent Democrats, all those Democrats who desire real representation in the Assembly and all those Democrats who love truth and justice, to communicate with me and send me a word of confidence and support.”

This second article, dated August 9, 1940, seemed to really irritate the now-unchallenged leader/boss of that Assembly District in Brooklyn, Stephen Carney.   Within hours, Carney decided to act.  Dad received a message.  Be it by phone, telegram, or word of mouth, call it an invitation, a summons, a demand, whatever you like, but before the day was out, Dad was required to appear at the office of his nemesis, the boss Stephen Carney, and sit down for a meeting, face to face.

The Private Meeting

Grutzner, the Brooklyn Eagle reporter, learned immediately about the meeting and reported on it in his column the next day – an article that was missing from Dad’s old file folder.  Bottom line: Dad was dropping out of the contest.  “William Ackerman withdrew today from the 17th A.D. Assembly race, giving District Leader Stephen J. Carney a perfect score in clearing primary hurdles out of the path of his Assemblyman Fred Moritt.  The ink was hardly dry on Mr. Ackerman’s denunciation” of the Carney-Kelly peace pact, Grutzner said, “when Mr. Carney sat down with Mr. Ackerman for a long talk which resulted in the young lawyer’s announcement.”  Grutzner quoted Dad as citing “Democratic unity in this important Presidential year” as his reason for quitting the race.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for that “long talk” between Stephen Carney and my Dad that day in 1940!   What actually happened behind closed doors?  On reading the Brooklyn Eagle article, how I wished I still had Dad around to ask that question, or even Mom who certainly would have known the bloody details.  But neither of them ever mentioned it during their lifetimes, so it probably wasn’t pretty.  

What form of arm-twisting did Carney use?   Did he shout and make threats?  Did he use charm and diplomacy?  “Let’s be reasonable,” or some nonsense like that?  Did Carney perhaps try to win Dad over as a new protégé?  Or did Dad try to win over Carney as a new mentor?  Maybe Carney promised Dad a fair shot at a primary for another job.  Or maybe he promised something else.  Who knows?   

The only thing we do know is the outcome. It was not friendly, and they didn’t pretend otherwise.  There was no good feeling.  The bridge, if it ever existed, was burned.  When it was over, Dad simply delivered the cold, terse message to the reporter, who announced it in the Brooklyn Eagle, and that was that.  Or was it? 

             1942: Unleash the Lawyers

            All of which brings us to 1942, when Dad again announced his candidacy for that same damn seat in the New York State Assembly.  Why did he decide to run again?  Certainly, he knew he had no chance.  He knew he’d made enemies.  Was it pure stubbornness?  Or perhaps finding out Carney had lied to him, broken whatever promises he had made to get Dad out of the race in 1940?  

              Either way, this time Leader Carney and his incumbent Assemblyman Moritt were not amused.  This time, instead of a polite meeting, they decided to sic the lawyers on Dad. 

Moritt, the Assemblyman incumbent, promptly filed a lawsuit before a local Brooklyn Judge accusing Dad of fraud.  The legal complaint claimed that Dad, in his nominating petitions, had included dozens of names that were faulty or fraudulent, and demanded that Dad’s name be stricken from the ballot.  Dad was incredulous.  That corrupt pol, that conniving little wire-pulling Boss, was accusing him of fraud!!?  My Dad could be accused of many things: stubbornness, bad judgment, the list goes on.  But fraud?  My Dad was the kind of person who paid bills within 24 hours and kept receipts for everything.  Punctilious to a fault.  Fraud? 

The charge horrified my Dad enough that he promptly filed a defamation lawsuit against Moritt to protect his good name.  He demanded damages totaling $50,000, a huge sum of money back then.  With no money to hire lawyers, Dad filed the case himself, tapping out the complaint on his old Remington manual typewriter.  (I still have that antique machine in my house.)  In it, Dad called Moritt’s accusations “wholly false” and intended for “the malicious purpose of degrading and intimidating” him, to destroy his reputation and “scare” him out of the race.  I can easily imagine the loud banging of the typewriter keys as Dad hammered out those words, trying to avoid misspellings and typos in this age before computers, “white-out,” or correction tape.       

I don’t know what ever became of that lawsuit.  It probably never got far; it’s not mentioned in any of the newspaper reports and, again, he and Mom never mentioned it during their lifetimes.  Nothing in the files.  But the fix was in.  A few weeks later, the Brooklyn judge issued a ruling throwing out the nominating petitions for sixteen different insurgent candidates fingered by Carney and other local Bosses, including Dad’s, removing all of them from the primary ballot.  That’s how the Brooklyn machine did its dirty work in 1942. 

So ended Dad’s foray into the bare-knuckled world of New York City politics.  He never won that Assembly seat nomination, his mentor Martin Kelly never became district leader, and Dad walked away feeling cynical about the whole mess.  To his credit, Dad had scared the Bosses into taking him seriously.  In those second two races, 1940 and 1942, they never beat him at the ballot box, but instead torpedoed him behind closed doors and in a trumped-up lawsuit.  That was an education in political science you don’t get from a university.

A few years after these events, Dad would take a competitive New York State civil service exam and win a job in the New York State Attorney General’s office on his own merits, with no nods from politicians.  This was the way he probably would have preferred it all along.  The move finally brought our family to Albany, the state capitol, where I was born in 1951.  Working in the State Attorney General’s office, Dad had the chance to play a key role in acquiring the land for building the New York State Thruway, the Long Island Expressway, and other key highway projects of the 1950s and 1960s. 

Dad may have felt defeated, even embarrassed, over the way the Brooklyn political bosses muscled him out of his primary election campaigns in 1940 and 1942.  It’s not the kind of story you like to share with your kids over the dinner table.  But that’s how life works:  People who stand up to bullies often lose and get knocked down; people who get back up to try again often just get knocked down again even harder.  But the fact is, Dad was lucky.  He won his battle.  In the end, he was able to walk away, reject a system that had lost his respect, and succeed on his own terms.  Ironically, even had he won, Dad probably would have hated being a New York State Assemblyman.  It hardly fit his stubborn personality, and he probably would have grown just as cynical of politicians watching them work up close and personal. 

I’m glad I finally managed to find the tougher side of the story that Dad tried to downplay all those years.  Telling the full version only makes his stand against the Brooklyn politicians all the more admirable.  Yes, they were crooks.  And I’m glad my Dad was someone who took his lumps trying to take one down and still managed to walk away.       

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