Necessary Evil: The Mayor of Jersey City on Tammany Hall

Machine MadeMention the words “Tammany Hall” to anyone with the faintest knowledge of politics, and you will quickly be greeted with a frown or worse. Tammany historically means corruption on a grand scale, government management at its worst, violence and intimidation. All, I might add, are fairly accurate remembrances.

As the mayor of Jersey City, a city that shares Tammany’s dark yet colorful past, I welcome Terry Golway’s alternative take on New York’s political bosses. His new book, Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics, is a valuable and enjoyable analysis describing how the political machine changed the role of government—for the better to millions of disenfranchised recent American arrivals.

The director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy, as well as an editorial writer for The New York Observer, Mr. Golway knows his subject having written extensively on politics and the importance of Irish immigration to New York. While he is clear-eyed about the havoc Tammany wreaked, the important part of Mr. Golway’s story is how the bosses manipulated the levers of government not just for personal gain but to actually change the meaning of government and support their constituents. 

Tammany used government as a tool to gain votes that in turn led to power—and profits—but in doing so helped those who needed it most. Mr. Golway writes that George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany leader who once remarked that he made his money through “honest graft,” believed that it was the promise of a job that turned ordinary citizens into patriots. More broadly, Mr. Golway notes, “Tammany Hall supported the writing of a new social contract in New York, one that served as a model for a more aggressive role for government in 20th-century American society.”

This is the critical point of Machine Made: Lost in the bosses’ reputation for greed and corruption were policies to improve the lives of immigrants who came ashore on Ellis Island rather than Plymouth Rock. And it wasn’t unique to Tammany.

In Jersey City, where I was elected mayor in 2013, Frank Hague ruled with an iron fist.   Perhaps now best known as a recurring character in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Mr. Hague managed to amass more than $10 million in his bank accounts despite never making more than $8,500 per year in his three-decade rule as mayor. Maybe he was a brilliant investor. More likely, there was another reason for his wealth.

Nonetheless, like Tammany’s leaders, Mr. Hague meant to improve the lives of residents who his predecessors typically ignored. Of course, by helping the immigrants coming directly from Ellis Island to Jersey City, he earned their votes and kickbacks for jobs. The seamy side of his rule carried over for decades after he retired. All you have to do is read Helene Stapinski’s Five Finger Discount, the author’s account of her corrupt family’s history in Jersey City politics, to get a feel for a part of his legacy. 

Still, Mr. Hague built perhaps the nation’s foremost public medical center to benefit every resident of the city. It too is a lasting legacy that attracted countless immigrants to Jersey City with the promise of affordable health care that was otherwise unobtainable. Not by accident, Jersey City is now recognized as one of the most diverse cities in America.

Despite Mr. Hague’s enormous power and wealth, his reign pales by comparison with Tammany’s century-long rule. But with that power came some enlightened policies. The bosses of Tammany Hall understood that the millions of immigrants coming to New York City, first from Ireland and Italy, followed by eastern European Jews, left their homelands looking for better lives. By bringing them into the political system and providing even the smallest benefits—a turkey at the holidays, a Fourth of July picnic—Tammany got the support of these immigrants, who saw how their lives improved in their new home.

Later, Tammany underlings recognized that government could be an even greater instrument to protect these very same immigrants. Two of the most prominent leaders who grew up in Tammany were Senator Robert Wagner and Governor Al Smith. 

Wagner believed that hard work alone wasn’t enough to overcome harsh circumstances and that government had to help improve the lives of the poor. “For everyone who rises to the top, a thousand are destroyed,” he told a friend. Mr. Wagner, of course, wrote and sponsored milestone social welfare laws that created a safety net for millions of struggling families. According to Mr. Golway, Mr. Wagner was Tammany’s greatest legacy on the national level.

But even more than Mr. Wagner and his achievements, the seeds of the New Deal were planted first in New York, where Franklin D. Roosevelt and many of his top staff took the best policies Tammany had to offer and brought them to Washington.

In some ways, Tammany’s success in providing opportunities for the poor to move into the middle class helped lead to the machine’s demise. Government agencies took over most of Tammany’s safety net responsibilities and with it changed the expectations of citizens about how government could be a force for positive change. 

Nothing is ever perfect, and that certainly applies to government, but the legacy Mr. Golway is so passionate about is undeniable. Tammany Hall, for all the many flaws of its leaders, helped create a welcoming environment for immigrants, making New York and the United States the beacon of hope for those seeking a better life. Or as Sen. Wagner said, “We passed law after law and made New York the shining mark for the world to emulate.” Now, that’s a legacy worth remembering.

Steven Fulop is the mayor of Jersey City.