La Guardia, Fiorello H.
LA GUARDIA, FIORELLO H.
Fiorello Henry La Guardia (December 11, 1882–September 20, 1947) was born in New York City to immigrants Achille (Italian) and Irene Coen (Jewish) La Guardia. He grew up in Arizona, where his father was a bandmaster in the U. S. Army. During the Spanish-American War, Achille became seriously ill, probably from eating tainted beef. His health broken, Achille was discharged and returned with his family to Europe.
There, Fiorello obtained a position with the U.S. Consular Service, becoming fluent in five languages, which he used in political campaigns in polyglot New York. In 1906, La Guardia quit his job and returned to the city of his birth. Employed as an interpreter at Ellis Island immigration station by day, La Guardia studied law at night at New York University, gaining admission to the bar in 1910. The short (5' 2"), rotund attorney represented primarily poor immigrants and embattled labor unions. He joined the Republican Party because he could not stomach the graft-ridden Tammany Democratic machine and because an Italian-American's chance of political advancement in the Irish-dominated organization was miniscule.
In 1914, La Guardia, running as a Republican for a U.S. House seat from a lower Manhattan district, almost beat his Tammany opponent. Two years later he won. He remained in Congress until 1919, with a brief absence during World War I for army service. That year, he was elected president of New York's board of aldermen and married Thea Almerigotti. He lost this municipal office in 1921. Tragically, that same year, Thea and their infant daughter died of tuberculosis. The grief-stricken La Guardia blamed New York's airless tenements for their deaths.
Winning reelection to congress as a progressive Republican from a mostly working-class Italian and Jewish district in East Harlem, La Guardia joined a small bloc of urban liberals and midwestern and western progressives in bucking the policies of the business-dominated Republican administrations of the 1920s. He denounced prohibition, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon's tax-cuts for the wealthy, and electric power monopolies. A New Dealer before there was a New Deal, he advocated federal development of public power, child labor laws, old-age pensions, and unemployment insurance. Once the Depression started, he demanded government insurance of savings bank deposits, regulation of the stock market, and federal relief for the destitute. La Guardia's most important legislative achievement was the Norris-La Guardia Act, which curtailed the use of yellow-dog contracts (agreements that employers forced their employees to sign, swearing that they would not join unions or strike) and injunctions against labor unions. In 1929, the crusading congressman made an ill-timed run for mayor against the popular incumbent, James J. Walker and was badly beaten. He also married his devoted secretary, Marie Fisher, with whom he subsequently adopted two children.
THE DEPRESSION YEARS
Despite his progressive record, La Guardia lost his House seat to Tammany's James Lanzetta in the 1932 Democratic landslide. He decided to run again for mayor in 1933. When La Guardia had charged, in 1929, that the Walker administration was riddled with corruption, New Yorkers, still basking in the afterglow of prosperity, didn't care. By 1933, things were different. The city, with a million jobless, was devastated by the Depression. There had also been three investigations of the municipal government, led by Samuel Seabury, that revealed the truth of La Guardia's accusations. Walker resigned in September 1932, but Tammany continued to run the city under his successor, John P. O'Brien, who proved incapable of handling the economic crises. To stave off bankruptcy, first Walker and then O'Brien had borrowed money from New York bankers, who exacted control over municipal finances as a condition. Whatever relief funds the city had, Tammany dispensed to its loyal supporters. These dire circumstances finally brought together anti-Tammany Democrats, good-government reformers, and Republicans in the Fusion Party. The backing of Seabury and Roosevelt brain-truster Adolf A. Berle, Jr., secured the Fusion nomination for La Guardia, who in a three-way race against O'Brien and Recovery Party candidate Joseph V. Mc Kee, won the election, aided by an outpouring of Italian voters, eager to see one of their own as mayor.
La Guardia took office on January 1, 1934, determined to revitalize his city. The federal government's willingness to spend on pump-priming and employment-creating programs, as well as La Guardia's special relationship with President Roosevelt, provided the opportunity. La Guardia's cooperation with the Roosevelt administration had begun when, as a lame-duck congressman, he had introduced bills for the president-elect. As early as November 1933, Mayor-elect La Guardia helped Federal Emergency Relief Administrator Harry Hopkins plan the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and presented him with a host of carefully drawn projects. As a result, by January 1934 New York's unemployed held 20 percent of all CWA jobs and 4,000 CWA projects were rehabilitating the city's neglected parks, streets, and playgrounds. However, the CWA lasted only four months, and the metropolis needed much more aid. Mayor-elect La Guardia had approached Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes for Public Works Administration (PWA) funding, only to be told he must first balance his budget. By slashing municipal payrolls through layoffs and salary cuts, and imposing new taxes, the city managed to balance its 1934 budget. This enabled La Guardia to renegotiate earlier loans, reducing the rates of interest and returning control over fiscal policies to elected officials instead of bankers. Ickes then loosened his purse strings. By June 1940, New York had obtained more than $250,000,000 from the PWA. The Mayor fared even better with the freer-spending Hopkins and his Works Progress Administration (WPA), launched in 1935. Anticipating the new program, La Guardia instructed his parks commissioner, Robert Moses, and his engineering committee to prepare blueprints for thousands of projects. Thanks to their quick initiative, by October 1935 the metropolis was receiving more than one-seventh of the WPA's expenditures, and 208,000 New Yorkers were employed.
La Guardia presided over the repair of two thousand miles of streets and highways and construction of fifty miles of expressways, three major bridges, one hundred smaller bridges, and the New York City Municipal Airport-La Guardia Field, which was renamed La Guardia Airport in 1947. Five thousand acres of new parks were developed and seventeen public swimming pools built, as well as ninety-two schools, 255 playgrounds, fifteen clinics, and additions to municipal hospitals that increased bed capacity by eight thousand. Old tenements were razed and thirteen public housing projects, surrounded by landscaped grounds and play areas, provided apartments with bathrooms, heat, and electricity for 17,000 working-class families. While La Guardia captured the lion's share of New Deal largess for his city, he also, as president of the U. S. Conference of Mayors from 1935 to 1945, became the recognized spokesman for more aid and closer ties between Washington and urban America. La Guardia helped convince President Roosevelt that rescuing cities was a federal responsibility.
Besides promoting the federal-urban connection, La Guardia cleaned New York's government. Inefficient and grafting political appointees were driven out and replaced with energetic, capable people. The proportion of city jobs filled through civil service competitive examinations rose from 55 percent in 1933 to 74 percent by 1939. In making appointments not covered by civil service, La Guardia did reward supporters, but rarely compromised his insistence that they must be as dedicated, hardworking, and honest as he was. He also attempted to open municipal employment to minorities, who had been largely ignored by Tammany Hall. The result was a major shift in the ethnic and racial composition of New York's bureaucracy; the previously dominant Irish gave way to Jews, Italians, and blacks. In 1934, the city had three black firemen; by 1941, there were forty-six. After La Guardia took over the subways, African Americans were hired for the first time as conductors, dispatchers, and motormen. There were limits, however, to La Guardia's achievements. The mayor's war on gambling and slot and pinball machines barely fazed organized crime. Continued discrimination against blacks provoked major riots in Harlem in 1935 and 1943. Nor did La Guardia always respect civil liberties. Burlesque theaters and pornography were banned. Cops were encouraged to "mess up" criminals, but not to rough up strikers or demonstrators.
Whatever La Guardia's shortcomings, he was reelected in 1937 and again in 1941. All previous New York Fusion mayors had been kicked out after a single term. La Guardia triumphed because his honest, effective administration continued to recommend him to good-government advocates, while his caring, activist policies won him the gratitude of Jews, Italians, blacks, and union members, many of whom voted for him on the American Labor Party line.
THE LAST TERM AND THE WAR YEARS
La Guardia's last term was his least fruitful. Washington's assistance to cities dwindled after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Without federal funds, the building projects halted, and New York found it impossible to maintain its new facilities and continue expanded services without unbalancing its budget. La Guardia increased borrowing rather than impose politically unpopular cutbacks. Further, he was distracted from governing New York by his futile quest for a cabinet post or military commission and by his brief tenure as Director of the Office of Civilian Defense. Still, there were accomplishments: The city passed the earliest laws against housing and employment discrimination in the nation; conceived the first managed health care program, Health Insurance Plan (HIP); and convinced the United Nations to make New York its permanent headquarters.
La Guardia ended his mayoralty in 1946, then briefly directed the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. He died of pancreatic cancer on September 29, 1947. During the worst depression in the country's history, La Guardia had forged an unprecedented federal-urban partnership, revitalized New York, and given it the most honest, effective government it had ever known.
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