Volume 74, Number 14 | August 04 - 10 , 2004

Perspective


A front-page drawing from the Nov. 6, 1958, Villager showing De Sapio addressing the crowd in Washington Sq. that had turned out the previous Saturday to celebrate the trial closing of the park to auto traffic. De Sapio was accused of coming to the issue late for political expediency.

How a bunch of Village upstarts toppled Tammany

By Ed Gold

The elderly man sat quietly in his wheelchair, looking frail, only a wisp of gray hair atop his head. He smiled but didn’t speak.

We were in a podiatrist’s waiting room. Finally, he was wheeled into the examination room by an aide who returned and said to me with some pride: “He was a very important man in this community years ago.”

“Who is he?” I asked.

“Carmine De Sapio,” he replied.

De Sapio, who died last week at 95, was the last of the powerful old-line leaders of the Democratic Party in New York, building a political empire from his Greenwich Village base.

That day in the waiting room I was sorry I hadn’t recognized him because I knew he loved talking politics.

He was, in his prime, in the words of Henry Stern, former Parks commissioner and historical chronicler, “a man of distinction.”

But with all his savvy, he had been brought to heel to a large extent through the efforts of the Village Independent Democrats, a rambunctious, idealistic reform crew which grew out of the 1956 presidential campaign between Dwight Eisenhower and V.I.D.’s hero, Adlai Stevenson.

De Sapio became Democratic district leader in the Village in 1939 and always claimed to be both a liberal and a reformer, the latter because he had changed party rules so that insurgents could run against district leaders in a direct party vote. Of course, that proved his undoing more than two decades later.

In 1953 and 1954, he had two stunning political victories that placed him in the catbird seat as the 1956 presidential race began. In ’53 he had backed Bob Wagner, Manhattan borough president, for mayor and the following year Averell Harriman, an ambassador under Roosevelt, for governor and both won.

In the mid-’50s he held the district leadership in the Village, was county leader, titular head of the Democratic Party in New York, national committeeman and New York secretary of state — the office in charge of state patronage.

In 1956, Stevenson Democrats sought a working arrangement with De Sapio’s Tamawa Club to bring out the vote in the presidential election, but the effort proved conspicuously unsuccessful. A large number of Tamawa supporters liked Ike and had little use for Adlai. One De Sapio captain said he would keep the party vote down because “if the vote is too heavy, they’ll take away part of my district.”

In 1957, former Stevenson supporters formed V.I.D. and fielded a candidate, Herman Greitzer, an outspokenly radical reformer, against De Sapio.

Word got around that the Tammany leader did not want a contest since he considered it a waste of his valuable time. One of his captains, knowing I was a founding member of V.I.D., approached me and said De Sapio was prepared to solve the club’s problems. The solution, he said, was to offer Greitzer a judgeship. I told him he had the wrong guy and the wrong club.

De Sapio’s grip on the Village was pervasive. The building I lived in, at Bleecker and Christopher Sts., was a De Sapio building. The owner was a De Sapio captain who considered me “disloyal” because I ran against him for county committee.

In the lobby, a wall mural was dedicated to the Village. It showed a sketch of the Washington Sq. Arch — and a picture of Carmine De Sapio! And the building owner told tenants that De Sapio could tell how they voted, and if they voted the wrong way their services would be cut.

We had one bonus as a result of the De Sapio connection. When it snowed, our street was cleaned first; the Sanitation commissioner lived in the building.

In the 1957 race, Greitzer won 36 percent of the vote, and two years later, Charles McGuinness, the V.I.D. candidate, got 47 percent, losing by only 600 votes out of an amazing 9,000 cast. We were helped in the ’59 campaign by Eleanor Roosevelt as the fight to unseat De Sapio drew broader party attention.

During the V.I.D.-De Sapio contests, the differences between the democratically run, often boisterous and unruly V.I.D. and the harmonious, one-man operation at Tamawa were conspicuous.

Go to a Tamawa meeting, and you’d eat the cookies, drink the coffee and shmooze about the kids. Ask when issues are to be discussed, and you were met with disbelieving eyes. “The decisions are made in Carmine’s office,” you’d be told.

Or consider the reaction of De Sapio’s female running mate, Elsie Gleason Matura — the maiden name was for the Irish vote — when asked if she had ever disagreed with De Sapio: “Heaven forfend that I should ever disagree with Carmine.”

In 1960, the De Sapio structure in the Village began to crumble. He tried to outsmart V.I.D. by naming two respectable reformers from the Murray Hill Club, Eleanor Clark French and Charles Kinsolving, as state committee candidates.

But V.I.D. insisted on one of the slots. When De Sapio rejected the suggestion, V.I.D. put together a slate of Jim Lanigan from the reform Tilden Club — he was a Stevenson friend — and Sarah Kovner (nee Schoenkopf) — the club’s campaign manager in ’61.

To everyone’s surprise, the V.I.D. slate won with 52 percent of the vote, setting the stage for the defining ’61 race for the district leadership, which drew national attention.

It should be noted that De Sapio, suffering from hubris, shot himself in the foot politically in 1958 when he rammed through Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan for a U.S. Senate seat over Tom Finletter, the former secretary of the Air Force, who had been strongly backed by a liberal icon, Senator Herbert Lehman. Hogan went on to lose. Lehman then formed the Committee for Democratic Voters, a reform group in New York City dedicated to De Sapio’s political demise.

As a personality, De Sapio had some positive qualities. He was tall, impressive in stature, always neat and well dressed, an easy conversationalist, according to his closer associates. He was also mostly soft-spoken. But there were exceptions.

In one of the primary contests with V.I.D. he showed up on Primary Day at P.S. 3 in the West Village and spoke to his district captain, who was also an election inspector. I was a V.I.D. poll watcher at the time.

“Good to see you, Rose,” he said. “How is the vote going?”

She gave him a number. He turned red in the face and slammed his fist on the table. “That’s not good enough,” he said firmly. “Get some people out to knock on doors.”

“I’ll take care of it right away, Carmine,” Rose answered.

The leadership battle in 1961 was historic and made front pages across the nation. At V.I.D., we all got very emotional and I wrote, as president of the club, in a club newsletter, that we were fighting “for the soul of the Democratic Party.”

Our attack on De Sapio was threefold: that he ran an undemocratic operation and Democrats deserved better; that he cared little about community problems; and that he was a sinister figure who could not be trusted — the dark glasses caused by an eye problem helped us a lot.

He did get involved in one major issue, stopping the roadway through Washington Sq. Park, but as former Councilmember Carol Greitzer recalls, “he came in late on the issue and left most of the work to V.I.D. and other community activists.”

In 1961, Lehman persuaded Wagner to jump ship and sail with the reformers. V.I.D. ran Lanigan and Carol Greitzer in the district leadership race, on a Wagner ticket. The club clobbered the De Sapio slate by 1,300 out of 10,600 votes with a margin of 500 votes more than Wagner got in the district. Insult on injury, my wife, Annalee, beat out De Sapio in his county committee race. But it was not yet the Tammany leader’s last hurrah. De Sapio had some distinctive supporters who stood by him the night he lost in ’61, notably the liberal columnist Murray Kempton and Rosemary McGrath, longtime Village community activist who at the time was a member of the rightwing Young Americans for Freedom.

Two years later, V.I.D.’s candidate against De Sapio, Ed Koch — who would become mayor 14 years later — squeaked out a 41-vote victory, which the courts tossed out, forcing a special election in 1964, which V.I.D. won by 164 votes. The last hurrah for De Sapio came in 1965 when Koch beat him by more than 500 votes.

Why the big drop in V.I.D. fortunes between 1961 and 1963?

The year after its stunning victory to become the official Democratic club in the Village, V.I.D. engaged in some dumb politics, prodded by Koch’s then-overreaching ambition. Koch challenged William Passannante, the veteran assemblymemember, in a primary against the strong advice of Lehman and Wagner, who backed Passannante.

Passannante, though a friend of De Sapio’s, had assets including strong support from the Italian community, which was very proud of him, and a good reputation north of the park because of his liberal record, including opposition to the un-American activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee, known as HUAC. The major newspapers in the city also backed him. He won with 62 percent of the vote and many Villagers at least temporarily reconsidered their earlier support for V.I.D. Thus the cliffhanger in 1963.

The road since the mid-’60s was bittersweet for De Sapio. He spent some time in jail for bribery. But he remained popular with political cronies, who often sought his counsel.

As former Democratic County Leader Miriam Bockman recalls: “He was very likeable and he had appointed so many people when he was in power, they still had a lot of confidence in him.”

He was also known for loyalty. Last year, when his longtime friend, Tony Dapolito, the 12-term chairperson of Community Board 2, was in the Village Nursing Home, De Sapio, then 94, called him on a regular basis to wish him well and talk over old times. The calls really cheered Dapolito.

Maybe they’re still talking about all the memorable events they lived through in Greenwich Village.

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