FDR tried hard to become a New York politician while still working in Washington, battling the powerhouses of Tammany Hall and eventually succumbing to defeat. Part 2 of our Frank and Al miniseries shows how FDR's loss brought about an unlikely ally.
The story of Franklin Roosevelt’s coming of age as a politician — the years he spent in Washington serving as President Woodrow Wilson’s assistant secretary of the Navy — is relatively well known. He left his position as a state senator in New York in 1913 to accept the job his cousin and uncle-in-law Theodore Roosevelt held at the outbreak of the Spanish American War. During the ensuing eight years, FDR had access to the new Democratic progressives who dominated the Wilson administration. He made friends and allies who would prove valuable when the time came for Roosevelt to make a move on the White House himself. He transformed himself from a local Albany lawmaker to a national figure schooled in national and international politics.
All of that is true. But history has forgotten how much time and effort Roosevelt devoted to his political ambitions in New York during his time in Washington. Roosevelt methodically used the contacts he made and the patronage power he wielded to build a power base of his own in the Empire State as he looked to the future and a return to electoral politics. Ironically, some of these maneuvers resembled the sort of tactics he regularly condemned when they were used by the state’s most powerful political machine, Tammany Hall.
Roosevelt spent slightly more than two years in Albany, from early 1911 to March of 1913, before moving on to Washington. His time in New York’s state Senate coincided with the passage of historic legislation designed to better protect workers and families from exploitation, unsafe working conditions, tragedy and misfortune. And in later years, Roosevelt and his loyal aide, Louis Howe, would put FDR in the middle of the push for these reforms.
In fact, Roosevelt had little interest in issues like a bill limiting the number of hours women and children could work in a single week. A good deal of his time in Albany was spent trying to obtain funding for a road project sought by a wealthy New Yorker who hired Roosevelt’s law firm to lobby for the project.
Meanwhile, the push for milestone social welfare and workplace safety reforms was being led by two men who had been sent to Albany by the Tammany Hall machine. Their names were Al Smith and Robert Wagner.
They were from the city. They were from Tammany. One, Wagner, was an immigrant. The other, Smith, was the grandson of an immigrant. Smith was a leader of the state assembly, and Wagner was president of the state Senate. Together, they led a special legislative commission that investigated working conditions in New York after the catastrophic fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in March 1911, when more than 140 workers died. Some were burned alive at their sewing machines. Others hurled themselves to their deaths from ninth-floor windows.