Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Wilson-Pakula Act of 1947

Vito Marcantonio said the new law had everything but his picture on it.

That's because legislative text has no pictures, otherwise it might have, with a target superimposed over Marc's face. 

But the bill had names affixed to it and they were the names of Marcantonio's enemies.

Among them were Republicans gone apoplectic at the prospect of the leftist radical winning their own primary along with those of the Democratic and American Labor (ALP) party contests.

In 1942, Marcantonio got up the nose of Tom Curran, leader of the New York County Republican Party. Curran said his outfit “had no room for communists” and posted one Charles Mucciolo against Marc.

Mucciolo, and Curran, got their hats handed to them in the process, 2,784 to 291.

That same year, the Democrats nominated Franky Ricca as candidate in the 20th Congressional District, maybe a sacrificial lamb given Tammany's willingness to cut a deal with Marc's ALP over who was to be balloted and for what job. Marcantonio beat Ricca 5,247 to 2,529.

The ALP primary was, of course, Marc's for the taking.

A “New York Times” editorial noted that Marcantonio could not be a communist, as frequently charged, because communism is a one party system whereas the East Harlemite, “can run on three party tickets, and very likely a lot more if there were any.”

Mssrs. Wilson and Pakula
In 1944, Marc repeated the trick in spite of the fact his district had been redrawn to include a constituency less tailored to his progressive brand.

Nonetheless, he defeated Martin Kennedy on the Democratic line 10,311 to 7,761. He bested Republican Robert Palmer by less than 200 votes, but the result was the same.

Alan Shaffer, in his book “Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress,” dubbed him the “all-party candidate” and dedicated a chapter to the phenomenon.

It was not a situation to everyone's liking.

During her testimony before a congressional committee investigating election conditions in East Harlem following Marc's 1946 victory, Republican activist Beatrice Brown testified, “Two years ago he ran on all three tickets and won all three, and that is enough to get any American upset, to have anybody go in on all three. That is the first time it ever happened [it wasn't]. The Republicans were so sure that he could win that they didn't work very hard. I carried my district seven-to-one against him, but a lot of them didn't.”

The forces of reaction found their antidote in the Wilson-Pakula Act of 1947, which was signed by Gov. Tom Dewey (R). Republican Senator Irwin Pakula and GOP Assemblyman Malcom Wilson were the measure's sponsors.

Wilson would one day govern the state for a short time, when Nelson Rockefeller assumed the vice presidency, but fail in his bid to reclaim the job electorally. “The Times” called the law “Senator Pakula's most enduring legacy.”

But we digress.

In an in an April 2, 2013 post, “New York Times” blogger Sam Roberts broke the normal silence associated with Marc's name, noting that, “The legislation was largely aimed at the left-wing parties and their crossover candidates, particularly Vito Marcantonio, who was elected to the House of Representatives from East Harlem as a Republican in 1934, was defeated by a Democrat two years later, but returned to Congress in 1938 after winning on the ballot of the American Labor Party, a left wing party that was linked to the communists. He also ran on the Republican line, but after he won, Marcantonio identified in the House with the American Labor Party.”

In a March 11, 1947 article headlined “Assembly Adopts Marcantonio Curb,” “The Times,” said the bill was intended to “make it more difficult for Representatives Marcantonio and Adam Clayton Powell to enter the primaries of more than one recognized party.”

In “Vito Marcantonio:Radical Politician,” professor Gerald Meyer noted that a secondary provision required candidates accepting second-party help to do so in writing, which is to say, in public.

This, Meyer wrote, “undermined the potential deals between the ALP and the major parties because the recipients of the ALP's endorsements would have to go before the electorate having openly accepted the endorsement of what was increasingly considered a 'communist-dominated' party.”

If you haven't guessed by now, the Red Scare was in full blossom, making the passage of restrictive legislation like Wilson-Pakula an easy rout of its progressive opponents.

The ALP challenged the measure on grounds it targeted Marcantonio, limited voters' rights and enhanced the power of political bosses. A New York Court of Appeals disagreed.

In the end, the law had the impact the ALP said it would. The “fusion” electoral process peculiar to New York State placed party bosses in a position to extract what they could from “outside” candidates wanting to run on the their ticket.

In 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) introduced a package of reform bills that included repeal of the act, but it did not prosper.

The law reared its uglyhead again in the presidential election of 2016, when the possibility of keeping independent socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) off the ballot in the New York State primary became a campaign issue.

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