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William F. Ryan


By Frederick H. Gardner

New York's only Reform Democratic Congressman does not think integrity and success are mutually exclusive in American politics. He is a man of principle with a habit of winning.

William Fitts Ryan (it's not FitzRyan), is a tall and solidly built man of 43 with bright Irish eyes and a quiet voice. The son of a judge, Ryan was graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law School, served his stint in World War II combat, and worked for seven years in the N.Y. District Attorney's office. With this background, he might have chosen to scramble quickly up the existing political ladder.

But in helping to found Manhattan's Riverside Democrats in the mid-fifties, Ryan made reform his central issue. In a state whose Democratic tradition embraces both Franklin Roosevelt and Carmine De Sapio, the question of honest, representative government is anything but abstract. The men Tammany Hall was shuttling into office were dependent only on the machine.

Ryan's first victory against Tammany came in 1957, when upper West Side Democrats chose him as district leader. By 1960 he was popular enough to wrest the Congressional nomination for New York's 20th district from Tammany's inert Ludwig Teller. This fall, when Tammany and upstate Republicans reapportioned him into a largely unfamiliar district, Ryan scored a strong victory over De Sapio's man, Herbert Zelenko.

The primary fight against Zelenko offered the Reform movement their most severe challenge, and a most significant victory. Zelenko, a prosaic Congressman with a very spotty attendance record in Congress, had parlayed Tammany endorsement into an eight year stay in Washington. Thrown against another Democrat, Zelenko chose to test the limits of acceptable liberalism. He warned Catholics that Ryan opposed federal aid to parochial schools. He challenged Ryan's call for the admission of China to the U.N., and described him as pro-Castro (Ryan had warned against the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Recently he supported the President's blockade decision). He decried Ryan's opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and described his vote against the Cunningham Amendment (which would cut off publication-exchanges with Communist countries) as a vote for "the importation of anti-semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-religious literature."

Ryan avoided none of these issues, though he of course straightened out the innuendo in his speeches and campaign literature. He said at the time, and repeated last night at Quincy House, "the real issue against Zelenko was liberalism in Congress."

A victory of 26,000 to 18,000 in the primary was followed by a 93,000 to 32,000 spread in November. The West Side voters seemed anxious to vindicate Ryan's brand of liberalism.

Ryan remains the only Reform Democratic leader with a sense of politics and a touch of charisma. Though the self-styled Peace advocates claim him as one of their own, Ryan's approach to disarmament differs visibly from, let us say, that of Stuart Hughes'. Ryan talks victory; he sees the cold war and its concomitant arms-spending as an obstacle to the goals which a progressive society must fulfill. He is convinced that only in a world en route to disarmament can the wisdom and spirit that distinguish the United States among nations exert their full influence.

As an Incumbent Democrat from New York's 20th Congressional district, William Fitts Ryan can, if he wants to, remain in Washington for a long, long time. If he seeks another position, however, it will probably mean a choice between the Senate and the mayor's office. His choice will determine the broader direction of New York's reform movement.

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