American in the Making (Part Two)

When I was Mayor, I consulted the bar associations on one of my first judicial appointments. I found that three out of five of the members of the bar association committee on appointments were candidates themselves for this judgeship! I thought maybe that was just a coincidence. But I did not get much help from the bar associations during my years as Mayor.

I also discovered, when I looked into the situation on selection of judges, that any judge who had served a term, no matter how bad he might be, had ninety-nine chances out of a hundred of getting an endorsement for renomination by the bar associations. I hate to say that. I have so many good friends who are prominent in the bar associations of New York City, and who are fine, upstanding men, a credit to their profession. Yet the fact remains that the caliber of the judges in New York State, on the whole, through the years, bears out what I say. Oh, yes, there are some excellent judges, scholarly, upright, hard-working, fair. They are the exceptions. Later, when I was a Congressman, I brought impeachment proceedings against several Federal judges. Some of those men in our high Federal courts were neither upright nor scholarly, and some of them bore no resemblance to Caesar's wife.

I often sought in later times to have a "Who's Who" of judges' secretaries drawn up and published. It would have been a shock to most citizens. My idea was never taken up. Some of the secretaries of judges, drawing around $10,000 a year in salaries, know no law. Most of them know the district leaders. Some of them have very little education of any kind. Some even have criminal records themselves. They are selected for their politics and their friendships, and this is one of the most pernicious results of the patronage system.

Someday the whole method of selection of judges, and of determination of their qualifications and those of their assistants in New York State, will have to be changed, if we are to attain an approach to decent justice.

4

I PRACTICED law actively from 1910 to 1916 and sporadically in later years when my political activity permitted. I did not accumulate much money, but I managed to live, found time for study and research, and certainly learned a great deal about the political and economic conditions in my city.

I joined the Republican Party because I could not stomach Tammany Hall. Let it be understood that when I say Tammany Hall I mean the Democratic political machine in all five boroughs of Greater New York. They are all alike.

I lived in a district in Greenwich Village where the Republican organization was exceptionally clean. It produced such fine men as Herbert Parsons, Fred Tanner, Henry H. Curran, and Frank Stoddard. However, we were a regular political club. History will bear me out when I say that the minority party in any large city can afford to be somewhat virtuous. But if it happens to get control of the city government, it will resort to the very same activities and indulge in the same bad habits as its rival, assuming it can control the elective officials.

I had been storing up knowledge, and I was eager to bring about better conditions, particularly a more equitable economic situation and less favoritism to special interests in the administration of the law. That was why I was determined to become a Congressman. From the time that I returned to New York after my experience abroad in the Consular Service, I read the Congressional Record and kept abreast of activities in Congress. I also made myself familiar with the legislative history of that period. Somehow - I did not know how - I had a feeling that some day I would get into Congress.

I kept my eyes open, but I felt that my chances in New York City were very slight. The Republican districts had their Congressmen, but it required a great deal more political influence than I had to obtain a nomination in one of those districts, where nomination meant almost certain election. It was hard to break down the Democratic majorities in their districts. For a time I thought I might go West to a younger state, where the chances were better.

One night I happened to be in the clubrooms of the 25th Assembly District, my own district, where I was an election district captain for a time, when the boys were filling in petitions for the nomination for Congress. It was in the late summer of 1914. The petitions were printed, and the names of state and county candidates appeared on them. There were blanks left for the local candidates for the State Senate and Assembly and for representatives in Congress.

Someone hollered out, "Who is the candidate for Congress?" The leader of the district - I think it was Clarence Fay - came from his backroom office. He shouted out, "Who wants to run for Congress?" That was my chance. "I do," I said. "OK, put La Guardia down," Clarence said. That was all there was to it. But I darn near missed out even so. One of the men asked, "Hey, La Guardia, what's your first name?" I said, "Fiorello." "Oh, hell," he said, "let's get someone whose name we can spell." I spelled the name carefully and slowly and had to argue hard to get it on the petitions.

I took my nomination seriously. I soon learned that I was not supposed to take it seriously. When September came along, I attended my first political meeting. It was in one of the district clubhouses. Pamphlets were distributed throughout the district announcing the meeting and stating that all the prominent candidates would talk. I was there bright and early. The meeting started. Candidate after candidate spoke. The state candidates came in, and they had the right of way. I waited and waited for my turn. Two or three times in the course of the evening I was sure that I was next when the chairman would say, "And now we will hear from a young and promising candidate." I would get up each time, only to see that someone else was being introduced.

The meeting ended around 11.30 that night. I had not been called on. I protested to the chairman, who was talking to the district leader. "How come?" I asked.

Everybody had a good laugh. "Why, Fiorello, you haven't a chance of winning," they told me. "We've never elected a Republican to Congress from this district. Now, what you should do is go out and campaign for the State Senator and Assemblyman, help elect the ticket. That is all you can do."

"Could I try?" I pleaded.

"Oh, no, don't be foolish. You just go out now and help the others, and some day you may get a nomination for an office you can win."

I didn't think that was quite on the level. A few of the boys in the district agreed with me, among them Harry Andrews, who was district secretary, Louis Espresso, and old Mike Kehoe. Kehoe, who was in his late seventies, was a mastermind and a good political strategist. He was very much amused at my predicament. "Kid, don't be discouraged," he said, "but go out and try."

I discovered that the procedure at that first meeting was repeated at all the regular party meetings. I was not to get a chance to speak at any of them. I went out and bought a secondhand Ford. Harry Andrews and I plastered it with signs, and I started out on my own private, individual campaign. We went from corner to corner every night in that district, and we never missed a wedding, a funeral, a christening, or any other kind of gathering we could get into.

The 14th Congressional District ran from the Hudson River clear across Manhattan to the East River. It included some of the tenement sections of the lower East Side, teeming with Italian and Jewish immigrants. My knowledge of Italian and Yiddish came in handy. I rang doorbells and talked to the immigrant families. At outdoor meetings I would wait until the regular political rally had ended, pull up in my Ford as the people were leaving, gather a crowd, and do my talking.

My opponent was Congressman Michael Parley, a popular saloonkeeper and president of the National Liquor Dealers' Association. He had been the regular Tammany representative in Congress from that district for some time. I was called down once or twice for being "too rough" on him. Distinguished and serious gentlemen in the community pointed out to me that the retail liquor business was a lawful occupation and urged me not to disparage the Congressman who was in that business. I did not disparage him. I merely pointed out that he was not a good Congressman and wasn't even a good bartender.

When the votes were counted that November, 1914, Congressman Parley was re-elected by the small margin of 1700 votes. Never before had the Democratic majority in that district been less than 16,000 votes. Both my Republican colleagues and my Democratic opponents began to take notice of me. The Republicans began to think that maybe I had a future in politics because I could put on campaign that got the public interested, and therefore it would be wise to keep me in the political family. The showing I made attracted enough attention among the politicians to make them think it worth while to give me the appointment of Deputy Attorney General of the State of New York.

(To be concluded)

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