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The Scandal of Reform

The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York's Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 306
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  • Book Info
    The Scandal of Reform
    Book Description:

    TheScandal of Reformreveals the bonds New York reformers have always shared with the bosses they disdain, the policy failures they still refuse to recognize, and the transition they have made from nonpartisan outsiders to ideological insiders. Francis S. Barry examines the evolution of political reform from the frontlines of New York City's recent reform wars. He offers an insider's account and analysis and he challenges reformers-and members of both parties-to reconsider their faith in reforms that are no longer serving the public interest.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4869-2
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    In 1904, journalist Lincoln Steffens publishedThe Shame of the Cities, a collection of essays on big-city political corruption that had first appeared inMcClure’s Magazine. Steffens’s lurid tales of bribes, boodle, and blackmail exposed the corrupt realities of urban democracy. He named names and indicted those complicit in betraying the public trust. Municipal government was never so salacious, and the moral outrage that streamed from his pen stirred the conscience of the nation. Along with Ida Tarbell, whoseHistory of the Standard Oil Companywas published in the same year, Steffens set the standard for muckraking journalism and inspired...

  5. PART ONE The Evolution of Reform

    • 1 Saints and Sinners
      (pp. 7-20)

      The Reformer is as much of an American archetype as the Self-Made Man or the Frontiersman, a lone crusader who selflessly attacks corruption and searches for the civic equivalent of the Holy Grail: nonpartisan good government. Standing between the Reformer and his city on a hill has always been the party boss, his opposite in every way: corrupt, tyrannical, petty, and powerful. Their never-ending battles have formed a distinctly American parable, with reformers beatified as champions of the people who fight with slingshot in hand and God on their side. Yet when we trace the origins of this parable, the...

    • 2 Tweed: Reformʹs Child and Champion
      (pp. 21-32)

      Boss, from the Dutchbaas, meaning “master,” is one of New Amsterdam’s finest contributions to the American lexicon, and it still holds special resonance in its native region. The New York Yankees, owned by the domineering George Steinbrenner, are the only sports franchise in the nation run by the Boss. No one in New Jersey, home to Bruce Springsteen, mistakes the governor for the Boss. And delicatessen customers on both sides of the Hudson River are as likely to hear “May I help you?” as they are “Whaddaya need, Boss?” In greater Gotham,bossis embraced as a colloquial expression...

    • 3 Purifying the Polls
      (pp. 33-48)

      In the years following the Civil War, black suffrage became a central issue of American political debate and so, too, did the suffrage rights of the poor. In both debates, New York State took center stage.

      Blacks in New York had not won any expansion to their suffrage rights since the 1821 constitutional amendments had opened the ballot box to a select few. In 1846 and again in 1860, the state’s voters—with the Democratic party leading the opposition—rejected amendments that would have lifted suffrage restrictions on blacks. In 1866, voters called for another constitutional convention, and Republicans made...

    • 4 Reform Comes of Age
      (pp. 49-71)

      In 1876, Tammany boss John Kelly fought a determined but losing battle to keep New York State governor Samuel J. Tilden from becoming the Democratic party’s presidential nominee. An aloof, clean-shaven, and cerebral corporate lawyer, Tilden had won national acclaim for his work in bringing down the Tweed ring, and now he made reform the central plank of his presidential platform; “Tilden and Reform!” was his party’s campaign slogan. But although he won the popular vote, he fell one electoral vote shy of victory, allowing the Republican Congress to appoint a committee that handed victory to his opponent, Ohio governor...

    • 5 Murphyʹs Law: The Direct Primary
      (pp. 72-84)

      No reform better symbolized the spirit of the Progressive era than the direct primary, and no state’s political parties more strenuously opposed it than New York’s. Tammany feared—and reformers believed—that direct popular control of nominations would fatally weaken the party machines. Tammany’s battle against the direct primary lasted for more than five years, culminating in that most desperate and drastic of all political attacks: impeachment. But it was a fight against the tide of history. In 1913, New York adopted the direct primary, and reformers rejoiced. Yet today, it is not only reformers but party leaders who vigorously...

    • 6 Changing of the Guards
      (pp. 85-95)

      On August 19, 2005, both theNew York Postand theDaily Newsran front-page headlines about a New York City judge who had disappeared seventy-five years earlier. TheDaily Newstrumpeted, “JUDGE CRATER FOUND? Dead Gal’s Secret Letter May Solve 1930 Mystery.” For three-quarters of a century, police had been unable to crack the case of the missing Tammany judge. Theories of his disappearance—complete with various “sightings”—had once been popular city folklore and fodder for comedians. Now, a long-secret letter told the tale of a cab driver and a city cop who, along with others, buried Crater...

    • 7 The New Goo-Goos
      (pp. 96-106)

      The dramatic increase in social and political activism that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s was similar to that of the 1890s and 1900s. In both cases, activists rallied under the banner of reform and created advocacy groups that offered educated professionals opportunities to engage in politics without dirtying their hands with parties. But the new activists were quietly discarding the nonpartisanship that had always defined reform movements in favor of the Democratic party’s new brand of liberal ideology. Today, the city’s good government groups continue to call themselves “nonpartisan,” but the meaning of that word has been reduced to...

  6. PART TWO The Battle over Nonpartisan Elections

    • 8 Not Your Grandfatherʹs Nonpartisanship
      (pp. 109-117)

      On November 8, 2003, just days after the city’s referendum on nonpartisan elections, friends of the New York Public Interest Research Group gathered at the South Street Seaport for the group’s thirtieth anniversary gala. NYPIRG is the dominant voice of New York City’s good government community, owing largely to the seniority and savvy of Gene Russianoff, who joined the organization after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1978. Earnest and affable, Russianoff is always prepared with a pithy quote for reporters, many of whom consider him the ultimate goo-goo: “a straight arrow” toNew York Timescolumnist Bob Herbert, “a...

    • 9 The Politics of Process
      (pp. 118-141)

      Otto von Bismarck compared the making of laws to the making of sausage, with neither being suitable for public viewing. Today democratic assemblies the world over continue to engage in horse trading, honest and otherwise; elected officials continue to weigh public and political interests; and private industries continue to lobby for special consideration. These backroom considerations have always defined the legislative process, which voters widely understand. Nevertheless, they also understand that the process by which legislation is fashioned, whatever its impurities, is less important than the quality of the final product. Elected officials who oppose a piece of legislation may...

    • 10 Bossism and Ballot Access
      (pp. 142-157)

      On a Friday evening in September 2003, the regulars were gathering for their monthly meeting at an old three-story house on Putnam Avenue, just north of the Queens–Brooklyn border. The sign above the front door read “Ridgewood Democratic Club.” Hearing my knock, a man scurried out from around the corner of the building. “You gotta come through the side door,” he said. Following him, I entered into the middle of a long room, its walls papered with scores of campaign posters placed side to side and top to bottom: Green, Ferrer, Dinkins, Hevesi, Holtzman, Koch, Cuomo, Ferraro, Beame, Kennedy,...

    • 11 Noncompetitive Elections: The Elephant in the Room
      (pp. 158-182)

      James E. Davis had big plans. A young, charismatic, and confident former police officer who had defeated Clarence Norman’s Brooklyn machine in 2001 to win an open seat on the City Council, Davis believed he was destined for big things: maybe the presidency, certainly Congress. But on July 23, 2003, Davis was gunned down by a deranged political rival on the balcony of the council chambers, the first murder of an elected official in City Hall in its nearly two hundred–year history. The news shocked and saddened the city, and it led various political commentators to make a grim...

    • 12 Participation and Representation
      (pp. 183-199)

      In 2007, theNew York Timesran a profile on Ronnie Lowenstein, director of the city’s independent budget office, noting that “Ms. Lowenstein has sought to be scrupulously neutral, even switching her voter registration from Democrat to independent, which, she acknowledged, virtually disenfranchised her in her heavily Democratic Manhattan neighborhood.”¹ Lowenstein is in good company: nearly one in five New York City voters is an independent—some 747,000 as of March 2008, a group larger than the combined electorates of Baltimore and Boston and nearly 50 percent larger than the city’s Republican party. On election day, the choices that New...

    • 13 Race Concerns and Race Cards
      (pp. 200-224)

      InBeyond the Melting Pot, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that, when Tammany Hall collapsed, “the central issue of politics in the city turned from ‘Bossism’ to ‘Racism’ … [and] the struggle over racial issues became in many ways a surrogate struggle for control of city government and the Democratic party.”¹ Although race relations in New York are better today than at any other time in the city’s modern history, the struggle for control of city government remains wrapped in issues of race and ethnicity—and charges of racism. Unfortunately, there remain occasions when such charges are justified,...

    • 14 The New Fusion
      (pp. 225-244)

      No Republican mayor in the history of the City of New York has ever been elected on the strength of the Republican ticket alone. All have had to collect votes on other ballot lines that are more palatable to city voters, who have never been particularly fond of the Grand Old Party. The most recent Republican mayors, Giuliani and Bloomberg, may not have been elected without third party support. The votes that Giuliani collected on the Liberal party’s ballot line proved to be the difference in his narrow victory over Democrat David Dinkins in 1993, and the votes that Bloomberg...

    • 15 Campaign Finance Follies
      (pp. 245-260)

      By the end of the 1960s, as the rise of media technology weakened the party machines and made elections more candidate-centered, the corrupt financial bargains that reformers had always accused party bosses of making were now thrust upon individual candidates themselves, leaving no candidate, reform or regular, unsullied. Compounding matters, the growing importance of radio and television advertising to political campaigns sent their costs skyrocketing, pressuring candidates to pursue moneyed interests more aggressively than ever. These pressures could not be restrained by the nation’s weak campaign finance regulations, which had remained largely unchanged since 1925, when the Teapot Dome scandal...

    • 16 Redeeming Reform
      (pp. 261-268)

      In 2006, New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer ran for governor, promising a new era of reform. Campaign finance, redistricting, lobbying, ethics, public authorities: you name it, he called for reforming it. And for good reason. State government’s dysfunctions had become scandalous. Voters wanted, in the words of theNew York Times, to “fix Albany.” In the political lexicon, no word better conveys the fixing of problems thanreform, and no recent national figure has better personified the word than Eliot Spitzer. He embodied all the classic characteristics of the Reformer: a child of privilege and an Ivy League graduate...

  7. NOTES
    (pp. 269-288)
  8. INDEX
    (pp. 289-300)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 301-302)