Good Old Days

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Senator Lieberman’s defeat Tuesday in Connecticut’s Democratic Party primary election is disappointing for those of us who were hoping that the party of FDR, Harry Truman, JFK, Henry Jackson, and Senator Moynihan had not been totally hijacked by the far left. It seems that primaries are becoming a lot like religion. Unless you are at least as orthodox in your beliefs as the most radical within your party, you may well be doomed.

In a larger sense, Mr. Lieberman is a victim of the primary system itself, a democratic (with a small “d”) idea that often has a negative impact. Those who do not bother to vote allow those more committed to some single issue to dominate a party’s primary for any office providing they are better organized than the rank and file.

In New York City, long dominated by Democrats, the party primary is everything. I was reminded of this the other day when I learned of the death last weekend of a man who played a big role in making it this way. His name was David Levy. In 1962 he was nothing more than the president of the Parents Association of a Bronx elementary school. Yet he shook the New York City political establishment to its core.

Mr. Levy, an attorney, was enlisted to run for Congress against one of the most powerful political figures in New York and indeed in the nation, Charles Buckley. Mr. Buckley had served nearly 30 years in the House and was chairman of the House Public Works Committee. He was also the Bronx county leader of the party and had steered the New York Democratic convention delegation to support JFK in 1960, votes that tipped the nomination to the Massachusetts senator in his razor-thin first ballot triumph. So it was not surprising that even the president of America made it clear that he wanted Charley Buckley to remain in office.

Mr. Levy was part of the city’s growing “reform” Democratic movement, which was led by Eleanor Roosevelt and Herbert Lehman and was an outgrowth of the failed presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson. These “amateur Democrats” wanted their party to be led by the committed and brainy rather than the coarse and corrupt city bosses. Here those bosses included the Manhattan Leader, Carmine DeSapio, and the Bronx’s Charley Buckley.

In 1961, Mr. Buckley and Mr. DeSapio made a miscalculation by attempting to unseat Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr. The mayor seemed to be more interested in running the city well than funneling jobs to the county organizations.To consolidate their power, they tapped the popular state comptroller, Arthur Levitt, to oppose him. Though Mr. Wagner won handily, blood was in the water.

Mr. Buckley never had to face voters in a contested election. He had a poor attendance record in Congress and didn’t even have a telephone listing in the Bronx phone book. The party line was that if you needed a favor from Congressman Buckley, just head on down to the North End Democratic Club on East 188th Street, where the party functionaries would be glad to secure the congressman’s help.

Mr. Levy rented a campaign office in the building next to the one that housed Mr. Buckley’s headquarters on the Grand Concourse. Those were innocent days. Rather than the computerized vote targeting process of today, mailing labels to reach voters were typed by hand using carbon label forms that gave four copies at a clip and had to be affixed by hand. So the size of your sign, particularly on a well-traveled street such as the Grand Concourse, was a big part of your campaign. Mr. Levy tweaked Mr. Buckley by hanging a large sign that charged “Buckley’s seat in Congress holds nothing but thin air.” In an admission of his poor attendance record, Mr. Buckley posted a reply, “Levy’s bid for office must be as thin as air, if all he thinks of Congress is sitting in a chair.”

In the end, Mr. Levy failed to unseat Mr. Buckley, but by coming close delivered a powerful message. If Charley Buckley, who controlled the Bronx party machinery was almost taken down, all of the bosses and their candidates were vulnerable.

In 1964, Mr. Buckley did lose, to Jonathan Bingham, as did another Bronx machine congressman, James Healey, who was defeated by James Scheuer. Suddenly there were scores of primaries across the city and incumbents who never worried about their jobs were suddenly sweating, as many of their powerful colleagues were defeated.

As for Mr. Levy, the ascendant reform Democratic movement was able to secure a State Supreme court judgeship for him, a post he served in until he reached retirement age. But his energetic race he ran in 1962 changed politics in New York City and contributed to the growing movement that gave members of a political party, rather than the party leadership, the final say on who carries their banner. It was that ethic that, on Tuesday, cost Mr. Lieberman the Democratic line.

Unlike the New York Democrats, Mr. Lieberman exists in a much more competitive environment where Republicans and independents can join with his Democratic supporters to keep him in office come November. If so, he may come out of this in much better shape by losing this primary than Charley Buckley did by beating David Levy 44 years ago.

The New York Sun

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