New York City occupies a strange place in American politics. If you are looking for the most national visibility as a mayor, New York City is the place. Although it has been viewed as a stepping stone to presidential visibility, no New York City mayors have ever served as president. A number of fascinating people have been elected to this position, one of who I’ve written about before (John Lindsay) and they range from highly effective to incompetent and/or corrupt. Fiorello La Guardia, the namesake of the airport, is in the former.
La Guardia is ethnically Jewish and Italian but is raised an Episcopalian in Arizona, giving him the ethnic traits of a New York City politician but also the regional upbringing of a western progressive. He is only 5’2″ and a rather stocky figure, but has boundless energy and becomes known as “the little flower” (a direct English translation of “Fiorello”). During the Theodore Roosevelt Administration, he serves as a clerk in the consulate in Budapest and then is in gets his start in politics in Manhattan with a background in law and given his mixed background he knows both Italian and Yiddish. Although his progressive politics more often match that of the Democratic than Republican Party, the Democratic Party is out of the question as the New York City Democratic Party was dominated by Tammany Hall, an organization he could not bear. As journalist Karl Schriftgiesser (1938) wrote, “He first became [a Republican] because there was nowhere else he could go, except to Tammany Hall. He is a member of that party by expediency, and he joined it years ago, before the phrase ‘economic royalists’ had been used, and before the Democratic Party had been told about the New Freedom by Mr. Wilson”. He runs for Congress in 1914 in a district that covers Greenwich Village, a staunchly Democratic area. Republicans are fine with him having the nomination because they think he doesn’t stand a chance of winning, and indeed he loses to Democrat Michael Farley. However, Farley does not win a majority, but a plurality…in a district that never elected a Republican before. Although Tammany Hall has far more money to bribe and provide benefits to voters than LaGuardia ever could, he as a lawyer helps constituents by giving them free legal advice, which they deeply appreciate. In 1916, he tries again, and this time he wins by two points, but it is also a plurality; a member of the Socialist Party gets 15% of the vote. La Guardia is also only able to win because his campaign closely monitors polling places for cheating, a frequent practice with Tammany Hall.
His first term in Congress is complicated by World War I, so while he participates in the first part of the session, he is fighting in the war in the second part, becoming a war hero. La Guardia votes to declare war on Germany, to protect freedom of the press, and to raise income taxes to fund the war. He is so popular by 1918 that he is reelected with nearly 70% of the vote and even gains the endorsement of Tammany Hall, with only a Socialist running against him. His second term doesn’t last long, as he sees an opportunity with an election for the presidency of the New York City Board of Aldermen. Thanks to splits in the Democratic Party and the presence of a member of the Socialist Party, La Guardia narrowly wins the race.
La Guardia’s ambitions go ever higher, in 1921 making his first run for New York City’s mayor. He loses in the Republican primary and the nominee is easily trounced, but that doesn’t stop him from running for Congress in the next year. This time, La Guardia is running to represent East Harlem, at the time a strongly Italian neighborhood, and wins. He proves aggressively independent, much more so than his predecessor Isaac Siegel. Although on some matters, La Guardia can be thought of as fiscally conservative (he voted against veterans bonus legislation in 1932, for instance), he is also strongly in support of higher income taxes on the rich and is willing to experiment with socialism (as were some western progressives) although he is far from doctrinaire. He is an outspoken opponent of racial bigotry in an era in which such bigotry is often tolerated when not outright practiced. La Guardia goes against the tide of his times in voting against the Immigration Act of 1924, although this is not against the tide of New York City. La Guardia is also the first New York City politician to vote for a version of the McNary-Haugen Farm Bill. The politics surrounding this measure, incidentally, are often only partly understood…it can be regarded as both a left/right and a rural/urban issue, as essentially involved the equivalent of tariffs that benefited agriculture.
Although he played ball with the party in 1920 in supporting Harding, he has different ideas for 1924. That year, La Guardia endorses Robert La Follette’s run for president. This peeves his fellow Republicans to the extent that they are able to deny him renomination, with them nominating Siegel instead. However, La Guardia runs for reelection anyway, running as a Progressive and he wins the Socialist Party nomination as well. In 1926, he wins the Republican nomination again when running for reelection and serves again as a Republican. La Guardia continues to push numerous progressive causes in a time in which Congress wasn’t terribly receptive, such as a federal minimum wage and rent controls. He also is, like other New York City representatives, a staunch opponent of Prohibition. La Guardia was, throughout his political career, a publicity hound, and as he noted about himself, “I am an inconsiderate, arbitrary, authoritative, difficult, complicated, intolerant and somewhat theatrical person” (CUNY, 3-4).
In 1929, La Guardia tries again for Mayor of New York, but is easily beat out by Democrat Jimmy Walker, a corrupt but at the time popular incumbent, who claimed he was a Red. Although for the Great Depression destroys the careers of many Republicans, including some major names, it is only a temporary setback for him. In 1932, La Guardia makes his greatest legislative achievement in the Norris-La Guardia Act, which prohibits “yellow dog contracts”, or employment contracts that have as a prerequisite for employment a prohibition on union membership. La Guardia loses reelection to Democrat James J. Lanzetta, but the following year the full extent of the corruption of Walker and his cronies has been uncovered by Judge Samuel Seabury, resulting in Walker’s resignation.
Third Time’s a Charm: The 1933 Mayoral Election
Given the many scandals of Walker and his cronies, La Guardia has an ample opportunity to make his comeback and he and FDR share an enemy in the organization that backed Walker: Tammany Hall. La Guardia wins with a coalition of Italian, Jewish, and conservative good-government voters, and pledges a non-partisan government, declaring, “there is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets” (CUNY, 2). He even gets unofficial although unsolicited support from the city’s Communist Party. Taking office on January 1, 1934, he is a supporter of the New Deal and is able to secure 20% of contracts for Works Progress Administration projects by quickly balancing the city’s budget through increasing taxes on businesses and imposing a sales tax (a policy he had previously opposed as inequitable); many projects are indeed what we might call “shovel ready”. La Guardia is friendly with FDR; he had known him in his stint as New York’s governor. Roosevelt funnels New York City patronage through him rather than Tammany Hall, rendering the machine severely compromised during the Roosevelt Administration. Working with Roosevelt to secure funds as well as Robert Moses in the building of a modern New York City, La Guardia transforms the city with numerous parks, bridges, public housing, hospitals, and so on (CUNY, 3). He also works with a young, energetic District Attorney named Thomas E. Dewey in combatting the mafia. La Guardia despised the mafia both for criminality and for harming the image of Italian Americans. Indeed, he despised corruption of any form, as corruption had led to the death of his father from eating rotten beef sold to the Army by crooked merchants during the Spanish-American War in 1898 (Schriftgiesser). His and Dewey’s efforts help put Lucky Luciano behind bars. La Guardia also would not likely have been a friend to modern SJWs on social policy given that he was an old-school moralist; he shut down gay bars and banned drag queens from performing at Times Square (CUNY, 3).
Unlike many old-school progressive Republicans, La Guardia is not non-interventionist and comes out early and often against the Nazis, and does so visibly and to such an extent that he is viciously condemned in the Nazi press. However, he does tread lightly around the subject of Benito Mussolini, as Mussolini was for some time quite popular with many Italian (as well as other) Americans. LaGuardia also proves more supportive of civil rights than any previous mayor, and after a 1935 race riot he forms a commission to investigate the underlying causes and there are devastating reports of police brutality. Although he does not release the results publicly, LaGuardia does provide more infrastructure and assistance to black areas of the city. He also supports New York’s Quinn-Ives Act in 1945, which bans employment discrimination based on race.
La Guardia’s Methods
Fiorello La Guardia was very much a take-charge individual, and truth be told, only someone like him could have done all of what he did. As journalist Karl Schriftgiesser (1938) wrote about him, “Because of his impatience with stupidity and his hatred of cupidity he has earned the reputation of an irascible man, a dictatorial individual, and the terrible-tempered Mr. Bang of politics. That he has a temper even his best friends will not deny. They could not, for they have often felt the fire of his scorn”. La Guardia is not hesitant to use his power, and at times uses it in ways that were, one could argue, dictatorial. He on two occasions intervened in strikes on the side of strikers, the first preventing the police from stopping violence by striking taxicab drivers and the second by turning off the water to laundromats to aid striking laundry workers (CUNY, 3). La Guardia would also berate subordinates and dress down and fire incompetent employees. In some ways, you could compare him to Trump, albeit a more left-wing version who lacked the petty corruptions.
La Guardia During World War II
In December 1941, La Guardia started a radio program called “Talk to the People”, in which he directly addressed the public on the issues of the day, and made him a national figure, in a sense, America’s Mayor before Rudy Giuliani. This would continue until the end of his time as mayor. He also enthusiastically supported Japanese-American Internment, calling them “enemy aliens”. La Guardia didn’t say or act similarly regarding Americans of German or Italian extraction (his wife was German). However, during World War II, federal funding was being devoted to the war and with federal money no longer flowing into New York City, debt accumulated and the voters tired of him. By 1945, his popularity collapsed. La Guardia, reading the writing on the wall, didn’t run for reelection, his final day in office being December 31st.
Post-War and the End
In 1946, La Guardia was appointed envoy to Brazil, but he quickly proved that he lacked the necessary diplomacy, so he was instead made head of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. In this post, he proved willing to spread aid far and wide given what he saw of postwar Europe, including most controversially to the USSR, despite being warned that such money was being used to build up its army. In 1947, LaGuardia condemned the Truman Doctrine to stop the spread of communism and aligned himself with Henry A. Wallace, who called for friendly relations with the USSR (Kessner). This was similar to his protege, Vito Marcantonio, who had gone even further by being openly pro-communist. That year, he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (almost always fatal) which kills him on September 20th.
Former Speaker of the House Joe Martin (R-Mass.) had this to say of him in his autobiography, My First Fifty Years in Politics, “Although we were poles apart politically, I liked and admired La Guardia. Many people complained that he was a radical; perhaps he was. That does not alter the
fact that he did a great deal of good” (Martin & Donovan, 50). La Guardia to this day is known as one of America’s great mayors if not the greatest…a 1993 poll of historians and social scientists placed him at #1.
Fiorello H. La Guardia, A Model Mayor? (2017). CUNY.
Kessner, T. (1989). Fiorello H. La Guardia and the making of modern New York. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Martin, J.W. & Donovan, R.J. (1960). My first fifty years in politics. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Schriftgeisser, K. (1938). Portrait of a Mayor: Fiorello La Guardia. The Atlantic.