Bobby Kennedy's New York

"Brass Knuckles"

Many New Yorkers like myself who supported Robert Kennedy's Senate candidacy have begun to worry. During his campaign he showed none of the vindictiveness, the ruthlessness, the drive for power with which myth had endowed him. Speaking, he seemed painfully (and on occasion, ludicrously) earnest, rarely succumbing to the traditional ethnic appeals of New York politics. He talked of his recent move to New York honestly, with none of the coyness or hypocrisy most politicians display in answering embarrassing questions. I found his candor refreshing, his interest sincere, and his support of reform within the Democratic party encouraging. This was before Albany.

The battle in Albany for control of the recently elected Democratic legislature was not spontaneous. It did not begin as a revolt of upstate Assemblymen and Senators against their former minority leaders, Joseph Zaretzki and Anthony Travia, both of New York City. During the conflict this was the rhetoric; but at informal caucuses held shortly after the November election the legislators expressed their support of Zaretzki and Travia. In the ensuing months a revolt began, quietly at first and then more loudly in December until on January 4, when the legislature convened, it exploded into an almost successful coup.

The revolt sprang from the ambitions of a number of county leaders eager to limit New York City Mayor Robert Wagner's influence over the Democratic party. These leaders sought to counter Wagner's 1961 victory over the party organization. In addition, all of them (except George Palmer of Schenectady) had been early supporters of Kennedy's entrance into New York politics. They had urged him to run and had worked diligently for his election. Clearly they hoped to protect their renaissance by using the umbrella of his name.

Crude and Organized

The tactics they used were at the same time crude and organized. Money was spent freely. The owner of a large racetrack buttonholed vacillating legislators, presumably offering rewards (campaign contributions) in return for support of the leaders' candidates--Stanley Steingut, the anti-Wagner leader in Brooklyn, and Jack Bronston of Queens (both, incidentally from New York City, hardly a major concession to upstate interests). One Manhattan legislator reported being offered a campaign contribution and the payment of a primary fight should he switch his allegiance to Steingut. A New York City reformer shifted his support after an organized series of telephone calls from previous contributors. These calls resulted from the efforts of a former Kennedy campaign aide. According to Mayor Wagner, increased lulus (the legislators' euphemism for untabulated expense accounts) were used to encourage support for Bronston.


Indicating some Kennedy complicity, Justin Feldman, a lawyer who scheduled Kennedy's campaign, was a frequent visitor to the Capitol building, though he has never in the past had any connection with the legislature. Perhaps most telling of all was the role attributed to Stephen Smith, Kennedy's brother-in-law and campaign manager. According to Newsweek, Smith made the vital calls that held the coalition together.

Again and again the question of Kennedy's position in the Albany fiasco arose. Kennedy assured everyone of his neutrality. At this point some New Yorkers started doubting his motives. We knew Kennedy's name was used freely by the coalition behind Steingut and Bronston. At least Kennedy could have disassociated himself. He did not. At this point it became clear that Kennedy's indifference was feigned and his involvement substantial.

The nature of what the New York newspapers called the anti-Wagner coalition hinted at a larger Kennedy role. The coalition's chief, the aggressive young leader of Nassau county, John English, had long been Bobby's man in New York. A frequent visitor to the Attorney General's office in Washington, he was the first to urge Kennedy's Senate race. Peter Crotty, Erie's leader and the chief up-state coalition member, stood in 1961 as Kennedy's candidate for New York Democratic State Chairman. The Bronx's aging Charles Buckley, once a business associate of Joseph Kennedy, was President Kennedy's earliest supporter in New York, a staunch foe of Mayor Wagner, and one of Bobby's strongest allies. These men formed the cadre of Kennedy's strength in New York and the nucleus of the Albany revolt.

Around them flocked William McKeon, the vain, insecure State Chairman who owed his office to Wagner but felt the Mayor treated him like a "file clerk;" Stanley Steingut, a Wagner enemy who was cager to be the Assembly's Speaker; several upstate leaders seeking a more influential role; and two pragmatic reformers from New York City's West Side, impatient for advancement and irritated by Wagner's indifference. As the coalition's efforts seemed to approach success, others desirous of a share of the legislature's $4.3 million patronage joined.

Kennedy's silence during the activities of his associates contrasted sharply with his public position after Zaretzki and Travia had been elected with Republican help. A week after their victory he sent them a letter accusing them of distributing jobs on the basis of patronage, not ability. But the letter's tone was so unfriendly that its point was obscured, and even seemed mysterious. At the time only three jobs had been assigned--one to Bernard Ruggieri, a favorite Kennedy campaign assistant and a former assistant to Mayor Wagner; one to George Van Lengen, a graduate of Harvard Law School; and sergeant-at-arms to a former New York City policeman and military horo from Westchester, the province of one of the anti-Wagner coalition's main supporters James Luddy. The motive behind such a letter, with its frigid, openly hostile tone, could only be anger, which seems peculiar from a man who professed indifference to the Albany out-come.

Aiming At 1966

His anger helps to substantiate what the activities of his associates and supporters indicated. Albany appears the first Kennedy bid for control of New York's Democratic party. In this instance he was foiled, but only after Republican intervention. Although his prestige within the organization and his control of patronage declined, he can still exert powerful influence and perhaps even control the 1966 gubernatorial convention.

Kennedy's only rival for dominance in the state is Wagner, and the unsuccessful coalition strategy had been aimed at cutting into his strength. Jack Bronston, the candidate for Senate leader had fought Wagner in the 1961 primary and as a result was opposed strongly by his county leader, Moses Weinstein. A Bronston victory would have meant the collapse of Weinstein's leadership and his replacement by someone friendly to his rival in Queens politics, District Attorney Frank O'Connor, English's close friend. Thus the coalition would have limited the Mayor's real power to Manhattan and Richmond, and by careful use of patronage many equivocating leaders could have been mollified, thus assuring their control of the 1966 convention.

They failed to destroy Wagner in Albany, but doubtless they will try again. For if the Kennedy coalition can substantially curb his influence, they will be able to reduce the power of the groups that support him--the Liberal party, the majority of the reform movement, and organized labor. Then they can divide the party into a series of feudal baronies, each county leader independent of the other, all owing allegiance to Kennedy. New York will have been transformed into another Massachusetts.