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Hibernian Chronicle: The rise of Al Smith

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

After spending his first years in the New York State Assembly saying and doing very little (he was a rookie and Republicans controlled the state government), Al Smith gained his first important assignment in 1906-a seat on the Insurance Committee.
In 1907 he joined a committee considering a new charter for New York City. He began to take a leading role in the Democratic caucus in Albany and soon befriended another Tammany up-and-comer named Robert Wagner (the future Senator).
When the Democrats took control of the state legislature in 1911, Smith was elected majority leader in the assembly (Wagner assumed the same position in the state senate) and chairman of the all-important Ways and Means Committee.
It was at this point in his career that Smith began to emerge as a champion of progressive legislation aimed at helping the poor and vulnerable in society. They key moment came in the wake of the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory of fire of March 1911, which claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant women.
When reckless disregard for worker safety was cited as the chief cause of the carnage, a Factory Inspection Commission was formed, headed by Wagner (chair) and Smith (vice-chair).
Over the next sixteen months the Commission investigated hundreds of factories and compiled a damning, three-volume record of shoddy safety measures and worker abuse. Smith’s work on the Commission not only raised his public profile, it also brought him into contact with a group of experienced social reformers such as Florence Kelly and Lillian Wald, who impressed upon him the potential for government to improve the lives of average people.
Smith combined this notion with an uncommon skill for crafting and passing legislation. One of his greatest skills was his oratory and his ability to use humor, sarcasm, and empathy to move his listeners. When representatives of the state’s powerful cannery industry came before the assembly to protest a proposed law mandating employers give workers one day off per week, Smith demolished their position with biting wit.
“I have read carefully the commandment, ‘Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy,’ but I am unable to find any language in it that says, ‘except in the canneries.'” The bill passed.
By 1915, Tammany boss Charles Francis Murphy had begun to groom Smith for higher office. That year he was elected Sheriff of New York County, a position that raised both his downstate profile and income (the law allowed the Sheriff to keep a portion of the fines he collected).
In 1917 he was elected President of the city’s Board of Aldermen. The following year, Smith narrowly defeated a powerful Republican incumbent to become the state’s first Irish Catholic governor.
Wild celebrations broke out in Irish neighborhoods across the state, for the Irish in America were on the rise in 1918 and no one embodied their hopes and optimism more than Al Smith. Deep down, however, lurked a certain amount of Irish pessimism: what if he turned out to be a failure?
Murphy spoke to this concern when he congratulated Smith on his victory. “I am anxious to see you make good so that we can show the people that a young man who has come from the lower east side and has been closely associated with all phases of party activity, can make good.”
Make good he did. In eight years as governor between 1918 and 1928 (he was ousted for one term in the Republican landslide of 1920), Smith proved one of the most effective governors in state history. He pushed through scores of social legislation bills that made New York a model for progressive government. For example: equal pay for women teachers; tenement reform; state funding for education increased from $9 million to $82 million; strengthened worker’s compensation; expanded civil service; streamlined state government, combining 129 agencies into 20; adoption of cabinet government; and a massive state parks program (under Robert Moses).
By 1924, Smith was considered a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for President, especially with the convention being held in New York City.
But the party was bitterly divided between its urban, immigrant, Catholic and Jewish, and worker base represented by Smith and its rural, southern, western Protestant, pro-Prohibition base represented by William G. McAdoo of California.
The key issue was the KKK, which by 1924 had seen its membership soar to five million. Smith’s backers wanted the party platform to explicitly repudiate the Klan, while McAdoo’s preferred the safe strategy of avoiding any mention at all.
Many of McAdoo’s supporters also opposed Smith because he was Catholic. The divided convention dragged on for weeks, as Smith and McAdoo contended for the nomination over 102 ballots. Finally, the delegates selected a compromise candidate in John W. Davis who lost by a large margin to Calvin Coolidge in the general election that fall.
Smith was stung by the intolerance he faced at the convention, but remained optimistic about the future. Four years later, after two more successful terms as governor, Smith went to the 1928 Democratic convention as the heavy favorite to gain his party’s nomination. To many Irish Americans, the thought of an Irish Catholic running for president — and possibly winning! — seemed inconceivable. Continued next week …

Sources: Matthew and Hannah Josephson, Al Smith: Hero of the Cities; Oscar Handlin, Al Smith and His America; Robert A. Slayton, Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith. Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm

Nov. 12, 1936: Eugene O’Neill is awarded a Nobel Prize for literature.
Nov. 13, 1775: Gen. Richard Montgomery leads American forces in taking Montreal during the American Revolution.
Nov. 14, 1889: Nellie Cochrane Bly commences her sensational Round-the-World journey.

Nov. 10, 1879: Nationalist Padraic Pearse, in Dublin.
Nov. 12, 1929: Actress and Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, in Philadelphia.
Nov. 15, 1887: Artist, Georgia O’Keefe, in Sun Prairie WI.

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