Volume 19 Issue 41 | Feb. 23 - March 1, 2007
The club that toppled Tammany turns 50
District leader candidates Jim Lanigan and Carol Greitzer celebrate beating Carmine DeSapio in 1961, signaling the end of Tammany Hall. Ed Koch is at right.
By Ed Gold
It’s hard to believe that Village Independent Democrats, which made history by turning out of office the powerful Tammany leader Carmine DeSapio in the ’60s, is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Although I have a hard time remembering what happened last week, I have a fairly vivid memory of early V.I.D. history. Those early days were filled with a wide range of experiences, from the sublime to the ridiculous, with humor, disappointment, high drama, embarrassment and the unexpected all as part of the political mosaic.
The club’s formation flowed from the disappointment in the 1956 presidential election when Adlai Stevenson, the hero of reform-minded Democrats, was routed once more by the war hero Dwight Eisenhower, while receiving only lukewarm support from the dominant old-line Tamawa Club in the Village, where DeSapio called the shots.
A group of dejected Stevensonians from the Village Stevenson campaign gathered in late 1956 or early 1957 and decided the Village deserved better than Tammany leadership.
I believe about 40 or 50 of us could be considered founders but some of the survivors of that period put the number closer to 100.
The early decision was to draft a constitution providing for democratic club rule and an extremely anti-patronage policy, with the intention of contesting the party leadership in a race for district leader against incumbant DeSapio easily the most important Democrat at that time in the state in the 1957 party primary.
Unofficially, some of us set a minimum goal of getting 30 percent of the vote in the district leader race to help keep the club afloat.
There was early discussion about naming the club. Some thought Village Democrats would do but reconsidered when they realized that V.D. might not sound too good.
From the beginning there was a division in the club between the purists, sometimes called the “hardheads,” and the moderates or pragmatists. An early leader of the purists was Herman Greitzer, an attorney and former husband of Carol Greitzer, who would later spend 22 years in the City Council. Herman apparently didn’t find Eleanor Roosevelt pure enough, since she once referred to him as that “rude young man.” But he stuck to his guns and ran against DeSapio in 1957, getting 36 percent of the vote.
In 1961, when I was president, Herman once accused me of “rushing through a meeting,” which had begun at 8 p.m. and wound up at 11:30. “That’s the last time you’re going to end a meeting before midnight,” he warned.
And when Sen. Herbert Lehman persuaded Mayor Bob Wagner to abandon his mentor, DeSapio, and run under a reform banner, Herman, leading about a third of the club, voted against running with Wagner.
There were occasional splits in the club, some bordering on the ridiculous. A headache developed in 1961 when an anti-DeSapio ally from Murray Hill donated 40 folding chairs to the club. But she hated Wagner and when we endorsed him she demanded I ship back her chairs. I told her that was a membership decision and she would have to make the appeal in a formal resolution. She dropped the issue but never forgave me.
Because of the strong anti-DeSapio feelings among Lehman, Roosevelt and their friends, we were able to raise some respectable money from Democrats who had it. At its peak, the club had almost 1,000 members with more than 200 really active.
The purist-pragmatic split popped up again in 1963 or ’64 when Assemblyman Bill Passannante decided to leave Tamawa, where he had spent his entire political life, and join V.I.D. His family had been close friends of DeSapio, who no doubt was responsible for Passannante being in the Assembly. Politically, he belonged in V.I.D. because he had a record that was much more liberal than positions held by most of DeSapio’s close supporters.
The V.I.D. purists insisted that Passannante personally denounce DeSapio or they would oppose his membership. He refused. Once more, the moderates prevailed.
Certainly the most important political figure to emerge from V.I.D. was Ed Koch, later to become three-time mayor of the city. But early on, Koch had difficulty deciding on his political affiliation and he could well be called a flip-flopper. He joined Tamawa before V.I.D. existed, and then joined V.I.D. when it formed. But in 1958 or ’59 he had a change of heart and went back to Tamawa. In 1960, he was back in V.I.D., running a losing race against Carol Greitzer for club president.
Koch of course has always been unique, single-minded about his political future and fully dedicated to public office. A clue to his personality may have been best described by his close friend Dan Wolf, founding editor of the Village Voice, who once said: “When Ed Koch looks in the mirror, it’s the greatest love story since ‘Tristan and Isolde.’”
When V.I.D. backed Koch against Passannante in 1962 in the Democratic Assembly primary, the club had to run against Wagner and Lehman, who wanted to heal the wounds in the Italian community after beating DeSapio. Passannante, with a liberal record in Albany, whipped Koch, 62 percent to 38 percent, at which point Koch became a very bad loser (although he would later look back at his loss as a godsend).
Koch blamed V.I.D.’ers for not focusing enough on his race, singling out Steve Berger, later director of the Port Authority; Micki Wolter, who ran the city’s bible, the Green Book, during the Koch administration; George Delaney, an attorney who now dabbles in Westchester politics; and this writer. Koch lost by a whopping 24 percent. It was the biggest political compliment ever paid us. By Koch’s math, each person he blamed cost him 6 percent of the vote.
More than a few club members felt Koch never could have beaten Passannante, feeling he had mistakenly chosen to run because of political ambition.
In the battles with DeSapio, the devotion of the Italian-American community was of vital importance. Once, at a V.I.D. rally in Father Demo Square, a friendly Tamawa captain whispered to me: “Everything was all right until you Americans moved into the district.” I gave him a look and he realized he had misspoken.
Very few Italians joined V.I.D. But one, Helen Iannello, was conspicuous before John LoCicero, who became Koch’s top political aide in City Hall, came aboard in the mid-’60s. Iannello, who was very outspoken, ran for Executive Committee in 1963 and contended that, “It’s very hard to get elected to the Executive Committee if your last name ends in a vowel.” A man jumped up in the rear of the room and shouted: “I haven’t had any trouble.”
“What your name?” Iannello asked.
“Shapiro,” he shot back. It eased the tension. She got elected, and later would be president of the club.
In 1959, the club ran Charlie McGuinness, a lawyer who had been a leader in the Stevenson campaign, against DeSapio. With Roosevelt campaigning for him, McGuinness did well, getting almost 48 percent of the vote, losing by 600 votes.
In 1961, V.I.D. took over the old Limelight Cafe, near Barrow St. and Seventh Ave., for the primary night count. The kitchen was turned into a pressroom and the district leadership race drew national attention. V.I.D. ran Jim Lanigan, who had been a White House aide and had worked with the Stevenson campaign in Washington. The boisterous crowd in the restaurant violated all the fire laws. A platform was set up against the kitchen wall and an election district chart was attached to the wall so we could record the results as E.D. captains brought them in.
I was at the mike as the first result arrived, the Sixth E.D., a historically strong DeSapio district. It showed DeSapio winning by 30 votes, less than half his margin two years earlier. We felt confident we were on the way to victory; it was just a matter of time.
In the middle of the count, a loud noise rose from the middle of the jammed room. There was Adlai Stevenson, looking a bit lost. I jumped from the platform, took him by the arm and brought him to the microphone. He raised the winning hands of Lanigan and Carol Greitzer, who ran for the female leadership, and asked with a smile: “Where were you people when I needed you in 1952 and 1956?”
The results showed V.I.D. winning by more than 1,300 votes out of 11,000 cast, an extraordinary number of votes in a district leadership race.
While all these reform battles were going on, V.I.D. was heavily active in the two national issues of the ’60s: civil rights and the Vietnam War. A V.I.D. delegation went to Selma to support voting rights, and an impressive contingent cheered Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Washington.
Koch would be the candidate against DeSapio in 1963, and despite alienating Wagner and Lehman a year earlier, he squeaked through by 41 votes. Koch wisely changed his attitude and tried to unify the club by appointing some of his critics to important club positions. Two years later, he ended DeSapio’s hopes of making a comeback as district leader, this time beating him by 600 votes.
The discipline in early V.I.D. activity would raise eyebrows today, as the club probably has about 50 active members. My recollection is that Executive Committee meetings used to be held weekly. We had over 20 standing committees, and they were supposed to give weekly reports.
The triumphs over DeSapio had heightened V.I.D.’s political status through the ’60s and ’70s. The New York Times called V.I.D. one of the really powerful clubs in the city. This led to claims by new political figures that they had indeed been founders of the club. In one election race for Executive Committee, a young, ambitious fellow wound up his speech claiming he had been a founder.
Quick math revealed he would have been about 8 years old when the club was formed.
Ed Gold, now retired, was a former columnist and book publisher with Fairchild Publications.