Remembering Tom Manton, Boss and Coalition-Builder

Tom Manton came to political prominence representing a conservative white Congressional district in Queens, but cemented his legacy as the county’s undisputed Democratic political boss by bringing the ideologically and ethnically diverse borough to consensus.

So when he died on July 22 after a long illness at the age of 73, the unity of opinion on the courtly but undeniably tough leader of the Queens Democratic Party—from friends and sometime rivals—came as no surprise.

“It started out in 1984, when my uncle ran against Tom for Congress,” said Representative Joseph Crowley, Manton’s handpicked successor in Congress and likely replacement as party chair. “At that time, Tom was a bad name in my house. A few months later, I was at an Irish-American Cork Dinner at Cork Lounge on Greenpoint Avenue. At the end of the night, as people were leaving, I was standing near the door and Tom tapped me on my shoulder and said, ‘Would you ever consider getting into a primary for State Assembly?’ And I said, ‘Are you really talking to me?’”

More significant than his habit of making friends out of political rivals was the knack that Manton—a former police officer and United States Marine who opposed abortion and gay rights—had of making allies of ethnic and ideological opposites.

Councilman John Liu, the first Asian-American elected to the Council, recalled that Manton refused to endorse him the first time he ran, but encouraged him to keep going until he won, with the party’s help, in 2001.

“Tom was always looking to make the party reflective of the people in Queens, and to that end, he instituted change in the party’s organization to insure representation from people who were not represented before in the party,” said Mr. Liu.

In doing so, Manton was following the pattern that was set when he was first installed as county chair two decades ago. At the time, the party organization was in the throes of an existential crisis after a massive scandal and the spectacular suicide of its leader, Donald Manes.

Manton came in with the combined backing of the white-ethnic party operatives from Western Queens and a number of prominent black leaders who before then had limited influence in the organization.

“He pulled us all together,” said Councilman Thomas White, a native of South Jamaica who allied himself early on with Manton. “He met with us, let us know what his position was in terms of politics, and believed in representation and unity of strength. He knew he could not cater to one particular group, that we were one county and there had to be representation of all the people in Queens. And then I knew we had a leader.”

Manton, a blue-collar son of Irish immigrants, displayed his political ambition early in his career.

“In 1969, the Democratic leaders said that I was the most qualified person to become the next Council member, because I just ran for Congress and lost a close race,” recalled former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone. “But then the leaders said, ‘Wait a couple of months—we need to run another candidate, so just step aside and you’ll be the candidate in the next election.’

“That’s when I met Tom Manton for the first time. He came into my office and said, ‘If you run, I’ll support you, but if you don’t run, I’m going to climb over this guy and I’m going to win.’ I said, ‘O.K.—good luck, Tom.’ And he went ahead and won. He went and took on the organization and jumped right over me.”

After a long wait, Manton ran for and won Geraldine Ferraro’s Congressional seat after she left to run for Vice President in 1984.

And two years later, things came full circle when the onetime insurgent finally became chair—and proceeded to impose discipline on what had been a fractious organization.

“He used legitimate force,” said Henry Stern, the former Council member and city Parks Commissioner, “but if the force of persuasion failed, the force of intimidation prevailed. If the carrot failed, he would try the stick. He was just good at politics. He didn’t make personal enemies and he didn’t go around insulting people. You didn’t have the hubris issue with him. He had the power, but his reign, if you want a metaphor, it was an iron fist wrapped in the velvet glove.”

“If you didn’t stick with him, he would run a primary against you,” Mr. Vallone said. “He was tough but honest.”

For all his willingness to reach out to new constituencies as Queens became more racially diverse, Manton was a strong boss, maintaining personal discretion over patronage and political support, and personally helping to engineer the ascent of the two Council speakers who succeeded Mr. Vallone.

Under Manton, the organization enjoyed near-absolute control over the process of appointing judges, and was able to provide a huge amount of influence—and lucrative work—to colleagues in the legal profession.

And so well known was Manton’s ability to marshal support for his preferred candidates that the county party’s headquarters became a necessary campaign stop for every serious Democratic Presidential candidate of the past two decades.

But Manton’s methods were also characterized by a pragmatic flexibility. Archie Spigner, a former Council member and an influential figure in black politics, said that Manton made calculated allowances for dissent when he saw fit.

He cited as examples the times that black Democratic officials in Queens broke with Manton to back African-American candidates when, for instance, Jesse Jackson ran for President in 1988 and David Dinkins ran for Mayor in 1989. “He would say that if that’s what you gotta do, that’s what you gotta do,” Mr. Spigner said. “There wasn’t retaliation or retribution or penalties for standing with those kinds of ethnic obligations.”

Still, there was no doubt that Manton was in control of the important personnel decisions that happened within the party, a fact that entitled him to credit from the beneficiaries of his largess—and to blame from those who felt they had been short-changed. “Black Democrats could have gotten more of a slice of the economic pie,” said Juanita Watkins, a former Council member who has been involved with the Queens party for four decades. “I’m talking about party officials—deputy this, deputy that. In some of the jobs, we have qualified people—in the City Council and other areas in city government. But in some of the higher-paying, really good jobs, blacks have a very small percentage. If they are appointed jobs, they come through the party; no one can name those positions without Tom’s approval. So more could have been done.”

To the end, though, Manton was a pragmatist.

State Senator John Sabini, who briefly preceded Manton during a temporary stint as county leader, said that in a world filled with big egos and bigger ambitions, Manton believed, above all, in cold realities.

“Tom Manton always said, ‘When they file a committee, I’ll believe it,’” Mr. Sabini said. “And he was usually right about that: ‘Show me the money and then we can talk.’”