Ef­fec­tive pro­gres­sive

Albany Times Union (Sunday) - - PERSPECTIVE - By Robert El­liot Chiles ▶

Al Smith won fight for pro­grams that im­proved lives

Acen­tury ago, on New Year’s Day 1919, Al­fred E. Smith be­gan his re­mark­able ten­ure as gover­nor of the Em­pire State. The Man­hat­tan Demo­crat’s sweep­ing re­forms of state gov­ern­ment and broad­en­ing of state ser­vices mod­ern­ized life across New York. This was achieved through a po­tent blend of pro­gres­sive vi­sion and po­lit­i­cal acu­men that equipped Smith to over­see an ex­traor­di­nar­ily trans­for­ma­tive pe­riod in the state’s his­tory.

Al Smith came to power cham­pi­oning com­pre­hen­sive in­vest­ments in a sub­stan­tial so­cial wel­fare state—and achieved vir­tu­ally noth­ing in his first term. His agenda was de­nounced as bol­she­vism by con­ser­va­tives and roundly re­jected by the Repub­li­can leg­is­la­ture. In 1920, he was de­feated for re­elec­tion. Yet, two years later Smith was re­stored to of­fice after cam­paign­ing to re­struc­ture state ad­min­is­tra­tion and en­hance the state’s com­mit­ment to health, ed­u­ca­tion, and work­place safety. Over the en­su­ing three terms (1923-1928), Smith en­joyed sus­tained po­lit­i­cal pop­u­lar­ity and, even­tu­ally, a se­ries of pol­icy break­throughs.

Repub­li­can con­trol of the state Assem­bly — and usu­ally the Se­nate as well — posed a daunt­ing chal­lenge to the gover­nor’s am­bi­tions, but Smith’s po­lit­i­cal skills were un­par­al­leled. As hos­tile leg­is­la­tors blocked re­forms, Smith took his pro­gram di­rectly to the peo­ple. He high­lighted park-build­ing and school con­sol­i­da­tion dur­ing his 1924 cam­paign and in­creased ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing and pub­lic hy­dro­elec­tric de­vel­op­ment were fea­tured in 1926, and al­ways in­cluded calls to re­form the ex­ec­u­tive bu­reau­cracy. Each time, vot­ers ral­lied to their gover­nor’s ban­ner. In­deed, Smith was able to suc­ceed broadly be­cause he com­mu­ni­cated his com­plex agenda in pop­u­lar terms and in a re­lat­able way; rather than be­ing the­o­ret­i­cal or elit­ist, the re­form pro­gram prof­fered by Smith was trans­formed by its spon­sor into a peo­ple’s ini­tia­tive — a fun­da­men­tally demo­cratic for­mula for suc­cess.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, Smith was never shy about his pro­gres­sive vi­sion for the state; rather, he ar­tic­u­lated an af­fir­ma­tive case for hu­mane gov­ern­ment and its tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits for or­di­nary cit­i­zens. When de­nounced in 1920 as “pa­ter­nal­is­tic,” he in­quired which of his “pa­ter­nal­is­tic” ini­tia­tives Repub­li­cans would elim­i­nate: Aid to or­phans? Hos­pi­tal fund­ing? Care for the men­tally ill?

In 1926, when Rep. Og­den Mills skew­ered Smith’s pro­posed pub­lic power au­thor­ity as “so­cial­is­tic,” Smith in­voked Em­pire State his­tory, ad­duc­ing the case of the Erie Canal and query­ing: “Does Con­gress­man Mills sug­gest that De­witt Clin­ton was a so­cial­ist?” When ad­mon­ished for prof lig­ate spend­ing in 1927, Smith cau­tioned: “When you hear our po­lit­i­cal friends talk­ing about ‘the great spender at Al­bany,’ let’s stop and study the amount of money the State is spend­ing for ed­u­ca­tion.” Smith was re­mark­ably frank in his pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of a ro­bust so­cial wel­fare regime for New York and his recog­ni­tion of the con­comi­tant costs.

Re­peated re­elec­tions and par­ti­san hag­gling led to Smith vic­to­ries on recre­ation, con­ser­va­tion, ed­u­ca­tion, ru­ral health, ma­ter­nal and in­fant wel­fare, la­bor reg­u­la­tions and a slew of other re­forms. More­over, when leg­is­la­tors re­fused to fund Smith’s ini­tia­tives as vig­or­ously as the gover­nor pre­ferred, he turned again to the peo­ple, re­ceiv­ing pop­u­lar en­dorse­ments of bonds for hos­pi­tals, parks, and state fa­cil­i­ties.

Worse than miserly leg­is­la­tors was a lum­ber­ing, ar­chaic state bu­reau­cracy. To rem­edy this, Smith pur­sued a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment for ex­ec­u­tive re­or­ga­ni­za­tion that stream­lined ad­min­is­tra­tion and even­tu­ally in­sti­tuted an ex­ec­u­tive bud­get — fa­cil­i­tat­ing more flex­i­ble, ef­fi­cient, and re­spon­sive gover­nance.

In 1928, after four pro­duc­tive terms as gover­nor, Smith ran for pres­i­dent on the mer­its of this New York re­sume. In­deed, as­serted so­cial work pi­o­neer Lil­lian Wald, Smith had “done more to pro­mote hu­man wel­fare and so­cial jus­tice in New York than any other man in pub­lic life through­out the his­tory of the state.” As we mark 100 years since his ten­ure be­gan, New York­ers still ben­e­fit by the lega­cies of the “Al Smith decade.”

Sig­nif­i­cantly, Smith was never shy about his pro­gres­sive vi­sion for the state; rather, he ar­tic­u­lated an af­fir­ma­tive case for hu­mane gov­ern­ment and its tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits for or­di­nary cit­i­zens.

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