Main image
27th May
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, May 27, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

It should come as good news to Rep. Anthony Weiner that service in the U.S. House of Representatives is, historically, one of the most effective routes to the top job in City Hall.
Not that the ground isn’t littered with members of Congress who have failed to become mayor — it is. The names of Bella Abzug, Mario Biaggi, James Scheuer, and Herman Badillo come to mind. But for at least three others, all of whom were mayors of some note, the road to City Hall went right through the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

The first of these was Fiorello Henry La Guardia. At least one mayor was a songwriter [James J. Walker, who wrote “Will You Love Me in December (As You Do in May?)”], but La Guardia was the only mayor to inspire an entire successful Broadway musical about his life with a production, appropriately called “Fiorello!”
La Guardia was the most effective practitioner of ethnic politics New York may have ever seen. He practically invented the concept.
As a Republican in a town that was home to America’s most storied Democratic machine, Tammany Hall, he needed all the help he could get. In the end, it was La Guardia’s distaste for Tammany that led him to the Republicans.
Accepting a lower Manhattan GOP Congressional nomination in 1914 that nobody wanted, La Guardia ran a losing campaign but did much better than any Republican before him.
He began his next campaign the moment the polls closed and didn’t let up for two years. This same nonstop campaign strategy was adopted more recently by Senator Schumer, and Mr. Schumer’s protégé, Mr. Weiner. La Guardia’s effort paid off.
In 1916, La Guardia narrowly defeated the incumbent, a Tammany saloonkeeper named Michael Farley, by 357 votes.
La Guardia was quick to enlist in the war,returned a hero,and liked being addressed as “Major” for the rest of his life. He parlayed his war record into an ill-fated stint as President of the Board of Aldermen. But his first try for mayor, in the Republican primary in 1921, ended in disaster. The loss was the first of several personal setbacks. La Guardia’s great friend, the legendary opera singer Enrico Caruso, died suddenly, and the politician’s beautiful young wife and baby daughter died of tuberculosis.
But La Guardia picked himself up from adversity, and in 1922, he ran for Congress once again, this time from a district in East Harlem. He faced a strong Socialist candidate as well as the Tammany offering, a lawyer of little note named Henry Frank. But Frank was Jewish, and the Jewish vote was thought to be pivotal in this multi ethnic district.
Mayor Bloomberg may be taking Spanish lessons,and he might feel comfortable enough to deliver occasional remarks or make a television commercial. But La Guardia didn’t have to take lessons; he had a natural affinity for languages and he exploited it.
When the Frank campaign began making an outrageous ethnic appeal to Jewish voters, La Guardia played his trump card. He issued a statement that still resonates in its audacity 83 years later, daring Frank “to publicly and openly debate the issues of the campaign, the debate to be conducted by you and me entirely in the Yiddish language.”
Frank may have been Jewish, but did not speak Yiddish. The Yiddish-speaking La Guardia (whose mother, unknown to most at the time, was Jewish)
was elected by a margin of 168 votes. He held the seat, with some distinction, for a decade.
Turned out of office in the Roosevelt Democratic landslide in 1932, La Guardia was tapped the following year by Judge Samuel Seabury as the fusion candidate to restore integrity to a city government beset with scandal. The rest, as they say, is history.
The next member of Congress to win the mayoralty was John V. Lindsay in 1965. Like La Guardia, Lindsay was a Republican. He represented the silk-stocking district on Manhattan’s East Side, until recently a Republican stronghold. The handsome, energetic Lindsay was an intriguing contrast to the Democratic candidate, the city’s colorless comptroller, Abraham D. Beame.
Under the guidance of David Garth, Lindsay ran under the slogan “He is fresh and everyone else is tired” and won the race.
Like Mr. Bloomberg, Lindsay wasn’t much of a Republican, and his own party cast him aside in the 1969 Republican primary.
But Lindsay had the good fortune of finding a home on the Liberal Party line, and drawing a particularly ineffective Democratic opponent, city Comptroller Mario Procaccino. Liber
al Democrats deserted Procaccino in droves, and Lindsay carried the day once again.
He ultimately became a Democrat and tried running for president in 1972. He declined to run for re-election in 1973, a race that was won by Beame, capping his successful political comeback.
The third Congressman-turned-mayor was Edward I. Koch. In 1977, using Mr. Garth’s media expertise, Mr. Koch overcame a blue-ribbon field that included many of the political stars of the day. His opponents included the incumbent, Mayor Beame, as well as Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, Representatives Herman Badillo and Bella Abzug, and Mario Cuomo.
Running an issues-based campaign, much as Mr. Weiner is trying to do now, Mr. Koch prevailed in this particularly tough field, under the slogan “After eight years of charisma (referring to Lindsay) and four years of the clubhouse (knocking Beame’s ties to the party bosses), why not try competence?”
Mr. Weiner seeks to become the fourth man to make the move from the House to Gracie Mansion. He seems to have almost everything it takes, except, of course, for the campaign guru, David Garth, who is working for Mr. Bloomberg.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply