New York City's reform Democratic movement theoretically lives on, but most of its excitement is gone and many of the bright, upper-middle-class Stevensonians who infused it with their energy have drifted away. In 1961 the reformers, eager for tangible political power, supported Robert F. Wagner for re-election, thus treating the city to the spectacle of an incumbent Mayor running on a platform of "throw the rascals out." This listless coalition of reformism, and the more palatable elements of the machine hasn't really worked; the reformers have gotten less than the half a loaf they hoped for.
With the demise of reform Democracy, the responsibility for creative, independent political action in New York City (and New York State) has fallen to the Liberal Party, the largest third party outside the old Confederacy. For the past decade-the Liberals have occupied something like a balance-of-power position in New York politics; in a close city or State election, whichever major party gets the Liberal endorsement generally wins.
The party existed in embryonic form from 1936 to 1944 as a right-wing faction, in the American Labor Party, then the main third party in the State. When the Communists won control of the ALP in 1944, this faction, led by academics like John L. Childs of Columbia and old socialists like David Dubinsky of the ILGWU and Alex Rose of the United Hatters, Cap and Millinery Workers, walked out. The new Liberal Party polled 320,000 votes for President Roosevelt in the 1944 elections.
Since then Liberal strength has usually hovered some where between 200,000 and 400,000 votes in both citywide and Statewide elections. In nearly all State and most city and local elections, the Liberals endorse the Democratic candidates; but the party often runs its own candidates and occasionally supports a Republican. The Liberal vote carried New York State for Presidents Truman and Kennedy, and Adlai Stevenson's State campaign was handled largely by the Liberals in 1956, when Caramine de Sapio's Democratic machine sat on its hands.
The party's best years were the early fifties. In 1951 the Liberals did the impossible: their own candidate, Rudolph Halley, beat a Democrat and a Republican for president of the New York City Council. Halley got 657,000 votes; James A. Hagerty, then a reporter for The New York Times, called the Liberals "the number one party in New York City." A year later Prof. George S. Counts of Teachers College, Columbia, ran for U.S. Senate on the Liberal ticket and got 461,000 votes.
The Liberal Party did not dominate New York politics for long; still, its vote has risen steadily for the past several years. Now, several factors have combined to give the Liberal Party a chance to become something more than a receptacle for protest votes.
Now that the reform Democratic movement has wilted, Stevensonians and independents have nowhere to go. Racial minorities have greater political awareness and less devotion to the Democrats, thanks to the civil rights revolution and the fading of FDR's memory. Some labor leaders, too, are not completely happy with the Democrats. If these three groups were brought together under the Liberal banner, the party's voting strength could surpass that of the Republican in New York City.
Last week, the Seafarers International Union, the IUE, and locals of the UAW decided to affiliate with the Liberals. Four other important unions have made similar decisions within the past year. Rose and Dubinsky still pretty much run the party, but the needle trades unions may not dominate it so completely much longer.
In addition, the Liberals have recently picked up new backing among Negroes and Puerto Ricans. Three years hence a successful Liberal race for Congress with a candidate like CORE'S James Farmer will not be out of the question.
But the Liberal Party can never become a permanent force for reform as long as it works only through unions instead of its own local organizations. Its conventions and local committees are still mainly formalities; the party is still run like a conventional pressure group with an executive secretary. The Liberals' current goal is to add 200,000 to their usual 400,000 votes next year. They can probably do it. But the growth will be ephemeral if left uncemented by a firm party organization. With such an organization, the Liberal Party could both exert enormous pressure on the Democrats and elect officeholders on its own.
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