One hundred years ago this month, Alfred E. Smith was the first Catholic elected governor of the State of New York.
In one of the closest gubernatorial elections in the State’s history, Smith beat the incumbent Republican governor, Charles Seymour Whitman, a member of the Reform-Progressive movement, by 15,108 votes.
Smith, the first Democrat from New York City to be elected governor in over half a century, won the hotly-contested race because he carried his hometown by the largest majority ever accorded a gubernatorial candidate. Working-class New Yorkers came out in droves to vote for one of their own.
Alfred Emmanuel Smith was born in Manhattan’s lower east side on December 30, 1873. After the death of his father, the 13-year-old Smith dropped out of his Catholic parish grammar school to become a laborer to help support his mother and siblings.
After working long hours at the Fulton Fish Market, he participated in plays and oratory contests at St. James Parish. Impressing a neighborhood political boss, Smith received his first political job — New York County process server. Later, he was appointed a clerk in the office of the Commission of Jurors.
Smith then caught the eye of the renowned Charles Murphy, Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall. Murphy convinced Smith to run for the State Assembly, a post he easily won in 1903.
Smith worked hard to master legislation that his better educated confreres barely understood. And thanks to his outgoing personality and legislative skills, Smith rapidly rose through the ranks, and in 1912, was elected unanimously as the Speaker of the Assembly.
Smith went on to be elected Sheriff of N.Y. County in 1915, President of the N.Y. City Board of Alderman in 1917, and governor a year later.
Upon taking office in January 1919, Smith announced he would accept no social engagements because “there was enough work in the Governor’s office to keep him busy and the people’s interests demanded during these crucial reconstructions times that their Governor be on the job.” He rigidly observed his declaration.
In the 1920 national Republican landslide, Smith went down to Nathan L. Miller by 46.6 percent to 44.0 percent; but he came back in 1922 to beat Miller, 55.2 percent to 40 percent.
Re-elected to a third and fourth term in 1924 and 1926, Smith compiled an incredible record.
In his new book on the relationship of Smith and Franklin Roosevelt, "Frank and Al," author Terry Golway reports that during Smith’s tenure:
"The state’s Labor Department, which monitored workplace safety, was revived. Money was allocated for public health programs in rural counties, for new conversation programs and the creation of new state parks, for child welfare programs, for new laboratories for the state Health Department, and for a Housing Board to help finance slum clearance and the construction of new housing…. Perhaps even more remarkably, Smith managed to cut the state income tax by 25 percent in March 1924…. He could afford to do so because he had begun the tedious and decidedly unexciting work of overhauling the state’s sprawling bureaucracy … a task that would … make Albany more efficient and more accountable to the governor. It was one of his greatest achievements."
Smith was not afraid of surrounding himself with talented aides. He jumpstarted the careers of Frances Perkins, Jim Farley, Samuel Rosenman, and Edward Flynn — all of whom would work for FDR during the New Deal years.
In 1928, Franklin Roosevelt nominated Smith, “The Happy Warrior,” for President at the Democratic National Convention.
As the first Catholic nominated for the nation’s top job, Smith was on the receiving end of an anti-Catholic backlash.
Mainline Protestant leaders denounced him and millions of warped, vicious, bigoted pamphlets, flyers, and newspapers were written, printed, and distributed by the Klan and other crackpot organizations across America.
Smith lost badly to Herbert Hoover in November 1928, but there was a silver lining in defeat.
Thanks to a surge in voter turnout in America’s major cities, due to the great awakening of Catholic votes, Smith was the first Democrat to carry America’s twelve largest cities.
“What Smith really embodied,” wrote political analyst Samuel Lubell, “was the revolt of the underdog urban immigrant … Smith’s Democratic Party now represented the ‘underpaid melting pot.’”
Smith laid the foundation of the coalition that elected F.D.R., Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson.
However, leftists and social engineers taking control of the Democratic Party in the late 1960s found the values of the working-class wanting and pushed them out of the party. Millions of Smith Democrats became Nixon and Reagan Democrats.
And in the 21st Century, myopic East and West coast elites, preferring identity politics to the meat and potato issues that matter to Democrats in “flyover country,” have dismissed these struggling people as “deplorables.”
Alfred E. Smith, New York’s greatest governor and champion of his beloved working-class folks, must be turning in his grave.
George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact," and "Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy." He is chairman of Aid to the Church in Need-USA. Mr. Marlin also writes for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. To read more George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.
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