Gov. Alfred E. Smith was a model for our times – By George J. Marlin

The following appears in the January 28-February 3, 2011 issue of the Long Island Business News:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a powerful statement his first day in office when he took down the portrait of Theodore Roosevelt in the Capitol’s famous Red Room and replaced it with one of Alfred E. Smith. Unlike Gov. Roosevelt, who was a patrician from Manhattan’s Silk Stocking district, Gov. Smith was a street-smart guy from the Lower East Side.

Decades before the birth of the “poverty industry” and public policy specialists, neighborhood pols like Smith realized that the job of local government was to provide basic services. Ideology did not enter the picture. The need to forge alliances did. The system worked because, as more than one historian pointed out, immigrants trying to gain a foothold in their new country received a helping hand, not a handout.

It was Smith who, as governor of New York, managed to implement a state government agenda based on the neighborhood principles. Unlike the progressives, he was not embarrassed to deal with local politicians and to bargain for programs that enhanced the quality of life in neighborhoods. His record proves it, featuring as it does the construction of hospitals for the indigent and mentally ill, a state teachers’ college, a network of parks and 5,000 miles of roads, as well as social legislation that eliminated sweat shops, regulated child and female labor, established a 48-hour work week, created workmen’s compensation and widow’s pensions, instituted a primary system and restructured the state’s government and tax code.

Smith was born in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge on Dec. 30, 1873. Upon the death of his father, a manual laborer, 13-year-old Al dropped out of the Lower East Side’s St. James Parish grammar school to take on various menial jobs to support his penniless family. After spending years rolling fish barrels at the Fulton Fish Market (in later years he would boast that his alma mater was F.F.M.), Smith was hired by the clubhouse as a county process server. He advanced to municipal court clerk, state representative, speaker of the Assembly, Manhattan sheriff, president of New York City’s board of aldermen and, in 1918, election to the first of four terms as governor.

Described in Franklin Roosevelt’s 1928 nominating speech as the “Happy Warrior,” Smith went on to be the first Roman Catholic nominated for the presidency by a major party.

Throughout his career Al Smith had felt the back of the hand of New York’s Knickerbocker crowd, which was repulsed by the waves of Irish, Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans that had invaded New York’s shores. But not even Smith anticipated the viciousness and hatred unleashed by the dark powers of prejudice in the ‘28 campaign. Anti-Catholics and anti-urban bigots portrayed Smith as a captive of the Tammany Hall brothel and the “whore of Babylon” – Pope Pius XI. Smith lost badly to Herbert Hoover, receiving 40.7 percent of the votes cast.

In January 1929, Smith turned over the keys to New York’s executive mansion to his hand-picked successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. After 32 years of public service, Citizen Smith became president of the Empire State Building Corp.

In 1936, Al Smith, disgusted with the excesses of the New Deal, “took a walk” from the National Democratic Party. “The regulars were out on a limb holding the bag, driven out of the party,” he declared, “because some new bunch that nobody ever heard of in their life before came and took charge and started planning everything.” The party of the neighborhoods was becoming the party of the social engineers.

This “new bunch” has dominated Albany for over a half-century and is responsible for the state’s fiscal plight.

When the Albany budget battle begins in February, one can only hope that elected officials reflect on the virtues of this legendary figure whose plain talk and common-sense actions made government responsible, affordable and accessible to his beloved common man.

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