How Tammany Holds Power
Some of the abuses that Justin Feldman described were abolished in the 1950s by legislation that required the direct election of district leaders and limited the number of county committee members from any election district. Other abuses were not abolished until the election of Ed Costikyan as County Leader in 1961 (who appointed Justin Feldman as Law Chair) and in 1977 when Miriam Bockman was elected County Leader and the County Committee adopted the revised rules that remain in effect today.
---Douglas A. Kellner
39 National Municipal Review 330 (1950):
Democratic machine can smother all opposition because New York primary laws permit a party to make its own rules.
By JUSTIN N. FELDMAN
TAMMANY Hall may consider the New York primary law a nuisance but never an obstacle. The long cherished hopes of Charles Evans Hughes which eventually developed into New York State's primary election system have been completely frustrated by failure of the law to prescribe rules for the internal management of political parties.
How does the notorious Tammany Hall organization operate to perpetuate its control of the party's machinery despite a direct primary law. It should be made perfectly clear at the outset that, while this story deals with the Democratic party organization on Manhattan Island (New York County), the techniques described and, yes, even some of the incidents, are often duplicated in the Republican party.
Tammany Hall is the popular name for the executive committee organization in Manhattan. Once the dominant influence over the party organization in the entire city, Tammany has lost much of its power in recent years because of its failure to offer any real service to the voters, its loss of contact with the average Democratic voter for whom it presumes to speak, the emergence in the other counties within the city of strong leaders, such as Ed Flynn in the Bronx, and the vehement denunciations it has had to withstand from many respected citizens.
Still, it is Tammany Hall which, by controlling the party machinery, designates the party's candidates for public office. It is Tammany which sends large delegations to the all- important state and national nominating conventions. It is Tammany which dispenses whatever city, state and federal patronage falls to the Democrats. And it is Tammany which, under the election law, is authorized to make the rules by which the party in Manhattan is governed.
In Manhattan the Democratic vote regularly exceeds that of the Republican party. In most areas of the island a victory in the Democratic primary is tantamount to election. As less than 10 per cent of the Democrats in any given area of Manhattan ever vote in even the most hotly contested primary, Tam- many, capitalizing on apathy, on its control of the machinery and on the obstacles it knows how to put in the way of insurgents, rules the roost.
Manhattan has sixteen assembly districts, each of which elects a representative to the lower house of the legislature. Each assembly district is divided into election districts (voting precincts) on the basis of the number of registered voters in the area. The number of election districts varies from 28 in the fourteenth assembly district to 105 in the fifth. The boundaries of the various assembly districts and of the election districts are set by the city council, which is commonly controlled by the Democratic party, and Tammany can thereby gerrymander the boundaries to suit its own convenience.
Each of Manhattan's sixteen assembly districts has one vote in the party's executive committee and is represented there by at least one district leader and a woman co-leader, sometimes more. The co-leader is entitled to divide the district's vote and cast her portion as she likes but by force of long tradition she usually remains in the background and exercises her vote in accordance with the wishes of her leader. The value of the district's vote on this executive committee depends further upon the number of leaders there are from that particular district. For the number of leaders and co-leaders who will be recognized and entitled to sit on this party executive committee with fractional votes is determined, not by statute or by the enrolled Democrats or by the geographical size or party registration of the assembly district, but by the whim or the carefully calculated design of the executive committee itself.
Most of the assembly districts in Manhattan have thus been carefully subdivided by the executive committee to the advantage of its veteran members. An assembly district may be represented on the executive committee or "in the hall" by two, three or even seven district leaders and an equal number of co-leaders. The assembly district in which I reside, for example, has seven leaders and seven co-leaders on the Tammany executive committee; each of these leaders and co- leaders is entitled to I/ 14th of a vote.
The leader is an extremely important person. Aside from his countywide power as a member of "the hall," he helps control nominations in "his" county subdivisions which elect assemblymen, state senators, congressmen and certain judges.
But how is this key leader (executive committee member) chosen? In other counties of greater New York, Democratic district leaders are elected by the voters direct; likewise in other parties. But to make boss control of the party easier in Manhattan, the leader is not voted for in a party primary directly by the voters but is selected by the members of the county committee in his portion of the assembly district.
Now, let's look at this county committee. It is a massive barrier. By state law two county committeemen must be elected from each little election district. The party may by its rules provide such additional memberships on the county committee as its chairman deems desirable, so long as the additional membership for each election district is kept in proportion to the party vote for governor in the last gubernatorial race. So each election district in Manhattan elects some ten to twenty committeemen. The number of committeemen in each assembly district consequently comes to 1,125 or more! Most of the members of the county committee are friends and relatives of the party's election district captains (whom the leader appoints) and don't even know they are on the committee, much less what its function and power may be.
In calling a meeting of the county committee members in his part of the assembly district, it is not uncommon for the leader to notify only those persons whom he knows to be friendly. Tammany Hall appoints the temporary chairman and secretary of the meeting. A script is prepared in advance and distributed to the "actors" who have been given particular parts for the evening. The chairman, working from a copy of his script, will only recognize those persons whose names appear on it although scores of other voters howl concertedly for a chance to speak or nominate. Often the meetings are held on the street. A truck is backed up in front of the local district club house. Passers-by are treated to a routine bit of mumbo-jumbo from the chairman on the truck. The stalwart Tammany committeemen who are present rubberstamp the top command's choice for leader. Who can prove that there, in the open air, no quorum of county committeemen was present? The whole county has about 20,000 county committeemen. Except for one occasion in 1933, however, no meeting of the entire county committee has ever been attended by more than 500 persons.
An insurgent seeking to elect sufficient county committeemen pledged to support him for leader has an almost insuperable task confronting him.
He must print and circulate nominating petitions bearing the names of a different slate of county committeemen for each little election district. If a name is misspelled on the petition, or if the signer uses- an initial in signing instead of his full given name, or if the color of the petition differs in tint from the prescribed shade, or if the petition sheet uses an abbreviation in the name of an avenue or street, or if any one of several hundred pitfalls which have been read into the direct primary law are not avoided, the petitions will be whittled down and voided by the Board of Elections.
Under New York State law the Board of Elections is composed of four commissioners, two designated by the Democratic executive committees for the counties of New York and Kings (Brooklyn) and two by the Republicans. In all internal fights whereby the control of the dominant factions of the "regular" organizations are threatened, one hand very definitely washes the other.
If the insurgent candidate for leader succeeds nevertheless in getting his slates on the ballots, he must deal with the further difficulty that his name does not appear anywhere on the ballots, and the task of informing even an aroused electorate, so that they may pick out his ten or twenty supporters on the primary ballot, is extremely difficult.
Now, assume if you can that you have succeeded in electing a majority of the county committee in your bailiwick! Isn't that enough? Won't your candidate then be duly elected by the committeemen who have thus been pledged to vote for him? Surely if Tammany in calling the meeting has notified all of the persons entitled to attend, and if the persons whom you have elected attend, and if the Tammany-appointed chairman of the meeting acts fairly, and if the Tammany-appointed secretary of the meeting counts the votes accurately, and if the police re- pulse Tammany attempts to pack the meeting, you will elect the district leader? Oh, no! Not so simple! There are many other obstacles which Tammany may put in your way. They may do any of the following under the rules they have set up since the law empowers them to concoct their own rules:
You Can't Win!
Suppose you run a candidate for district leader in an assembly district which contains 99 election districts. There have always been three leaders in that district and the fellow you are anxious to oust is in charge of election districts one through 33. You file your petitions for those districts. You elect your slates for county committeemen in twenty of the 33 districts and are feeling pretty secure about the prospective meeting of the county committeemen when called to select the leader.
Tammany, however, has the right to decide after the primary that the man you opposed will now govern only thirteen safe districts and the remaining twenty, wherein you were successful, will be added to the territory of the fellow who previously had the 33 adjoining election districts numbered 34 to 66. You now control only twenty districts out of the revised group of 53.
Under Tammany rules, the executive committee that is, the other leaders may sit as judge of the qualifications of its own members and may veto the choice made by the county committeemen and substitute a man of their own selection. And this decision, again under the rules, may be made by the outgoing executive committee on which the leader you opposed is entitled to vote.
But this is not all. They have other devices! In 1947 a group of Democrats in the fifteenth assembly district organized to elect a district leader. After a hard and bitter fight waged against a leader who had been in control of that particular district for fourteen years, they elected a majority of county committeemen. Through the use of pressure on other party leaders they were able to get acceptance for their choice by the executive committee.
Some months later, however, the Tammany county leader, chairman of both the county committee and its executive committee, called a meeting of the county committeemen of that assembly district and, accompanied by some of his strong-arm men, attended this meeting which was chaired by his designee. When he walked in, he distributed copies of a script for the meeting to his accomplices and the meeting went off like a well rehearsed radio program.
Following a line by line recital of the script, the assembly district, which had heretofore had only one district leader casting a full vote in the councils of the executive committee, was declared split. A second district leader was selected someone whom nobody in the district had heard of. The meeting was declared adjourned and the master light switch was pulled so that the meeting could not continue and objectors could not be heard.
A new henchman of the dominant faction of Tammany had been installed and from that time forward the leader chosen by the county committeemen of the district no longer enjoyed a full vote in the executive committee but was relegated to a half vote, offset, of course, by the half vote of the newcomer.
Tricks of the Trade
In the 1949 primary an insurgent candidate in the first assembly district filed petitions in the election districts covered by two incumbent Tammany leaders. He won a majority of the election districts in one portion of the assembly district, but not in the second. When the meeting of the county committee was called, he found that it was a combined meeting of both portions of the district and the majority he had in one section was completely swallowed up in the larger meeting.
There being sixteen assembly districts, one might think there would be a total of sixteen votes on the executive committee. But the chairman of the executive committee has an additional vote by virtue of his office. He has the further right to appoint and remove three sub- committee chairmen each of whom may cast a full vote in addition to his vote as a district leader. In this way the chairman controls four votes out of twenty.
All these extremely undemocratic methods are the result of a direct primary law which allows the party executive committee to make its own rules that thus fortify tight clique control. It is in this way that a coterie of political leaders in Manhattan is able to frustrate insurgency, hold power for generations and select its successors. Those who are concerned with political and democratic techniques must turn their attention and that of the public to the important problem of ensuring democracy in the internal structure and machinery of parties.
Mr. Feldman, a New York lawyer, is a member of the new Manhattan party group known as the Fair Deal Democrats. Long active in public affairs, he was formerly chairman of the speaker's bureau of the Democratic State Committee and director of veteran affairs of the American Veterans Committee.
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