Yesterday, in the middle of the Democratic national convention, came the news that Carmine De Sapio -- the last boss of the old Tammany Hall machine, the organization of the Manhattan Democratic Party that dominated New York politics from the 1860s through the 1950s, more or less -- had died at 95.
De Sapio fell from power, and so did Tammany, when he lost his party district leader position in 1961 to a liberal attorney reformer named Ed Koch. De Sapio had represented the district around Little Italy, but Little Italy was nestled in the heart of Greenwich Village, and by the first year of John F. Kennedy's presidency, the number of new-guard lefties in Greenwich Village was sufficient to swamp the old-guard loyalists of the Tammany machine.
Tammany's strength was to mobilize the immigrant vote -- at times, the Irish to the relative exclusion of the Italians and the Jews. At its high point, under the leadership of Charlie Murphy in the 1910s and '20s, it realized its hold on power depended on promoting a range of progressive reforms, The two greatest Tammany pols were New York Governor Al Smith and Senator Robert Wagner, who were responsible for some of the first minimum-wage, maximum-hour, and workplace-safety legislation in America. (For a beautifully written recent account of this story, see David Van Drehle's Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, an account of a horrible fire of 1911, which made Murphy realize it wasn't enough to put some immigrants on the city payroll; he actually had to better the lives of the far greater number of immigrants who weren't on that payroll.)
By the 1930s, the machine began to fall on hard times. In 1943, Tammany had to sell its headquarters to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, a transaction that symbolized quite neatly the passage of power from the old machines to the unions as the primary vehicle for turning out the big-city Democratic vote. De Sapio brought the machine back for a decade or so after World War II ended, engineering the election of Wagner as mayor and Averell Harriman as governor. But by then, the machine didn't have anywhere near the patronage power it once had had, and De Sapio was repeatedly linked to such crime bosses as Frank Costello (on whom Marlon Brando was later to model his portrayal of Vito Genovese). Koch ousted him in a district election in 1961, and De Sapio later did two years in jail on a petty bribery count.
I had no idea that De Sapio was still alive, and I doubt any but a handful of old New York hands did. I have no way of knowing, but I bet he ended his life more committed to the bread-and-butter progressive tradition of the old Democratic Party than the onetime reformer who ousted him, Koch, who has joined Georgia's Zell Miller this year as the only two members, so far as I can see, of Democrats for Bush.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.
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