Keynote Speech, Democratic State Convention

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Keynote Speech, Democratic State Convention

3 September 1946 [Albany, NY]

Mr. Fitzpatrick, delegates to the convention, honored guests:

It is a long time since I have taken part in a New York State Convention, or even in a National Convention.2 I am glad to be with you today because the Empire State has pioneered before and in this year of 1946, when the war has been over a little more than a year, we must face pioneering again. The war is ended, but there is no peace and good will established yet in the world. We are seeing day by day, that the problems of peace are as complex as the problems of war and require from us qualities of heart and mind which we have only evinced in times past during the stress of war.

We meet here as members of one of the two great national political parties. We believe in this State that the Democratic Party is the party which offers the country an opportunity for growth and progress towards the normal aspirations of man—better living and working conditions, good will and better understanding in the family of nations, and a sense of fulfillment in that "pursuit of happiness" which can only come to the party in our country which gives spiritual as well as economic and political leadership.

In the past several years we have had this sense of satisfaction nationally.

You will pardon me if for a few minutes I look back because while I believe strongly that the past must never govern the future, I also believe that we must have the past in mind to help us shape the future.

On the national scene in 1933, we inherited twelve years of Republican government in Washington. The Democrats can be proud of the record of the following years. First we had to pull the country out of a devastating domestic situation. We managed to do this by giving the people back confidence in themselves and in their ability to win through to success. "Nothing to fear but fear itself" was our slogan and we got rid of fear. As we did this, we also prepared ourselves to meet one of the greatest crises in our history which came with the attack on Pearl Harbor. This preparation was done in spite of the constant opposition of Republicans in Congress and of Republican leadership in the Nation. You will remember that the present Governor of New York State at one time stated that it was ludicrous to imagine that we could reach certain stated goals of production.3 The Democrats trusted our people and our people made good.

In this State in 1942, after Democratic Governors served the people of the State for 22 years without a break, and Governor Smith's record of social and progressive legislation and administration4 had been followed by Governor Roosevelt and Governor Lehman,5 we turned over to the present governor not only a government in good running order, but many plans and programs which made possible the best things which have been done under Republican rule in this State.6 None of the policies which were initiated by the previous Democratic Governors from Governor Smith through to Governor Lehman, have been changed. The pioneering done by the Democrats in the State in social legislation which was later carried through on a broader front in Washington, is wholly responsible for the laws which have given the people of the State a sense of stability and protection.

Now the Republicans claim as their main achievement the accumulation of a cash surplus in the State. They neglect, however, to point out that some of this surplus has been inherited from the Democratic administration and that the hoarding of this surplus worked great hardship on cities, forcing them to impose excise taxes and to neglect many governmental functions of value to the people.7

Just let us take one department of the State Government extremely important to the working people of our State. The Labor Department has been reorganized ostensibly to make it less expensive to run and more efficient. In the past the Labor Department's primary interest was to see that labor's interests were safe guarded but subtly that has changed and today the interests of the employer are paramount in the administration of the Department of Labor. This is shown in the fact that they have decided not to police industrial establishments, as they call it. Take for instance, the enforcement of the Minimum Wage Law. In prior years this law was the most effective instrument that our State had devised to improve sub-standards of living in sweated industries and occupations. A Minimum Wage Order, when promulgated, meant something because a thorough enforcement job was done by the Labor Department. The first thing the current administration did in connection with the Minimum Wage Law was to change the method of enforcement. The Labor Department now employs the system of spot checking. The outstanding virtue of this method is that it saves time and money. Its weakness, of course, is that it affords opportunity for many violations to go undetected.8

The present Governor proudly asserts that we have the highest minimum wage rates of any State. He refers of course, to the Retail Trades Minimum Wage Order. He conveniently forgets, however, to mention that this rate applies only to that one trade and that waitresses, laundry workers, hotel workers, dyers and cleaners and beauticians still get the pre-war dolefully low minimums.9

One amusing thing in connection with the enforcement of this Order is that instead of dealing directly with employers and workers, the Industrial Commissioner had the Retail Trades posters distributed to the local Chambers of Commerce with the pious hope that they would be redistributed by them to employers. The only time a firm received a Retail Trades poster from the Labor Department was when they specifically wrote in and requested it. These posters in work rooms are the only way the workers know what the rules are under which they work.10

In the case of veterans' affairs which is of such vital importance, much has been made of the State Division of Veterans Affairs, set up by the Governor. This group could have been of great assistance if it had consisted of really well qualified people, deeply interested in helping the veterans. Cooperating with the federal government it could have prevented, for instance, the buying by veterans of houses at inflated prices which we are now told will not stand up a few years from now. Their position as counsellors and advisers might have been made of vital help in preventing the exploitation of veterans in job training programs. What is happening to veterans, points to one important fact which all of us should recognize, namely, that the best plans in the world have to be carried out by individuals. If the individuals are good, the plans are well carried out. If they are poor, the plans will go awry and the value of state groups cooperating with the national administration is that they can check on the way people are carrying out the spirit of the law and they can make recommendations which will be listened to at headquarters, where an individual G.I. is powerless.11

The Governor's Division of Veterans Affairs could have done much in making the education and the whole employment scene for veterans a better picture. Instead of which it has simply not functioned and therefore the maximum good from the national program is not being achieved and the veterans who gave so much for their country are the victims of poor administration in spite of all the promises which were made to them and which most of us want to see carried out.

In the field of housing the present Governor of the State talks of the difficulties he is under in carrying through the housing program because of the priorities demanded by the National Housing program. He did not have foresight enough to appropriate during the last two years, the money which might have started these programs well on their way, nor had he arranged for close cooperation between the National and State programs so that no difficulties could arise between them.12 He has been silent and failed to support the bi-partisan Wagner-Ellender-Taft Housing Bill.13

In the field of education we, the richest State in the Union, have no state university and rank 23rd in giving educational opportunities to all our children.14 We are behind every state west of the Mississippi in percentage of youth going to college. New York State stands forty-eighth among the states in money spent for education above the high school level and this is probably a greater hardship to the youth in rural areas than in the cities since some cities provide universities with free tuition for their citizens.

In the field of health, we have made no real progress in plans which would make medical care available to all the people. No plan has been forthcoming under the Republican Administration, even though we have had the results of the draft to remind us of our obligation to the health of our young people. It is true that the Governor set up a commission to study the need for a health program for the State and in this case "special interests" prevented the recommendations which logically should have been made because of the findings of the commission. The result was that after 15 months of deliberation and an expenditure of $100,000 of state funds, the committee majority failed to present any plan at all.15 Cities again get on better than rural areas when there is no state program, but a coordinated program using all of our facilities would benefit us all.

In the field of agriculture in which I have a special interest because it was one of my husband's greatest interests from his early days in the New York State Legislature, I feel that while the farmers are undoubtedly at present very much better off, it is due to conditions in the world and not to the administration of matters of interest to the farmer in the State of New York. For instance, it would benefit the small farmer in the State if a real investigation could be made in the spread in the price of milk between what farmers receive and what the consumer pays. Certain "interests" have again prevented this investigation and the same old fight which I have watched for years was waged in the Legislature and the "interests" won both in the Legislature and with the Governor.16

Much praise has been meted out to the Governor because this State passed a Fair Employment Practices Bill, but passing a Bill, which is good in itself, is not of much use unless something happens under that Bill.17 I do not think we can boast in this State that discrimination in employment is over. We do not have to pass, thank Heaven, an anti-lynching bill, or an anti-poll-tax bill in our State. It is significant to note that in the Legislature the Republican Gov. had solid Democrat backing for his fair employment practices proposal. The only opposition votes were cast by Rep[ublicans]. Naturally I do not think there has ever been any question of where the representatives in Congress from the State of New York stand on these questions, but we are far from able to sit back and think that because we have a Fair Employment Practices Law we have no discrimination either in opportunities for education or opportunities for employment. I hope that this convention will pledge itself to use this Law to better advantage in the future.

In Washington today the Administration which has adhered to the progressive ideals of the Democratic Party, has been defeated in putting through many of the measures which represent the real spirit of the Democratic Party by a coalition of so-called conservative Democrats and reactionary Republicans. That is why it seems to me extremely important that we have in the Senate of the United States men whom we have known in this State and can count on to stand on domestic and foreign questions for the progressive Democratic point of view. You are here to consider the nominations for the State ticket, and also the nomination of a candidate for the United States Senate and in all of your nominations I hope you will bear this thought in mind. The primaries all over the country have shown that where the victories go to Republicans they always go to conservatives. Never forget that the Republican Party is the party that looks backward. When the Democrats have taken progressive steps, the Republicans as a rule, in time accept what has been done and simply state that they are not going to make changes, but that they will administer better the laws which have been passed under the Democrats.

Administration is a question of choosing good administrators, but it is far more important in times such as these to put in office men who have the creative spirit and can accept unknown conditions and find solutions without always harking back to the security of something they knew in the past which perhaps is entirely inadequate to meet the present. Whomever you choose for United States Senator this year will have great opportunities for service to the State and to the Nation and you must trust him and back him with your interest and your constant support.

Both major parties in this country know quite well that they do not win in elections through the votes cast either by regular Republicans or by regular Democrats. They win because the growing independent vote of the country is with them. This vote is the deciding factor. Victory comes when the candidates and the policies of a party convince these independent voters of their wisdom and sincerity.

The men whom you nominate will, I am sure, have a keen sense of responsibility to you and I hope that every person here will have an equally keen sense of responsibility toward their nominees. I hope that a real fight will be waged in every district not only for the State ticket, but for the local candidates and candidates for the Legislature of the State and the Congress. Unless a Governor has a Legislature with him, he can hardly be blamed if he is not able to put his program into effect and unless a President has a Congress with a clear mandate to put through progressive legislation, the Executive in Washington is powerless.

Democratic government depends for its success on the strength of its smallest unit. If Democratic government is weak in its smallest unit, if the members of the local and county committees are not truly interested in good government, there is failure at the top because there is failure at the bottom. Every individual who believes in democracy must do his job as a citizen to the limit of his ability. Otherwise our form of government is a failure.

Similarly every individual candidate is a link in the line which makes the success of the State and National government possible. You must win because you know and can persuade the voters in your district of what we must do today to meet our great opportunity as leaders in the world. Reconversion must be hurried here to help reconstruction the world over. We are no longer able to think of ourselves only as a small group of people struggling for our own success. We are citizens belonging to a great political party, planning here for the future of the greatest state in the Union, whose influence is powerful today in one of the strongest nations of the world. With strength and power goes responsibility and none of us can shirk it.

The misery of the world cries out to us for leadership. The hunger of the world demands our sympathy and our production. The lack of opportunity staring so many people in the face today in other nations, shames us unless we grasp our great opportunities and use them to the best advantage. That means assuring everyone of our citizens, through their government, of the help and hope which makes individual and group achievement a certainty. We believe in free enterprise and individual initiative but we want it to benefit all and not just a favored few.

To you, the delegates to this State Convention, I give a challenge—make the people of our State conscious of their greatness, make this, your Party, an instrument which will appeal to people who want greater achievements. In that spirit, may we march to victory in November and justify our victory by our performance thereafter.


1. MD, 29 August 1946.

2. In the 1920s, ER became one of the most influential Democrats in New York State. As a leader of the women's division of the state party, she attended the 1922, 1924, 1926, and 1928 state conventions, where, as a delegate, she took an active role in platform and procedural debates. In 1924, she successfully challenged Tammany Hall leader Charles Murray to have the women's division (rather than the party machine) select the women delegates and alternates-at-large. ER stopped attending the state convention once FDR assumed elected office (Lash, Eleanor, 278-329).

3. In 1940, Thomas E. Dewey, then district attorney of New York, ridiculed the idea that FDR's administration could work effectively with the private sector to meet its ambitious goals for rearmament. Many, including Dewey, thought these goals unrealistic at the time and the pace of rearmament was slow at first, but American factories more than fulfilled the goals by the end of the war (Smith, Dewey, 305; FDRE).

4. Alfred E. Smith (1873–1944), governor of New York from 1919 to 1920 and 1923 to 1928, initiated a period of twenty-two years of progressive Democratic reform in New York State politics during a period dominated nationally by the Republican Party. As governor, Smith pushed through social welfare legislation, such as child labor laws and laws protecting women in the workplace, and worked to increase efficiency through government reorganization and by giving the governor the power to initiate the budget (FDRE).

5. As governor of New York from 1933 to 1942, Herbert H. Lehman (1878–1963) pursued the policies of the New Deal at the state level, including the regulation of public utilities and labor reform. His fiscal policies wiped out the state's debt and left a surplus for the incoming Republican governor, Thomas Dewey, in 1943 (FDRE). See also n3 Document 131.

6. When Dewey first ran for governor of New York in 1938, he declared that he was a "New Deal Republican." As governor he built on the progressive policies of his Democratic predecessors by pushing civil rights legislation, the renovation of state mental hospitals, increased pay for state workers, and funds for education (FDRE).

7. Under Dewey's administration, New York State accumulated a budget surplus of more than $600 million, largely because wartime restrictions prevented the state from initiating building projects. Dewey placed this surplus in a Postwar Reconstruction Fund to be used to help finance local building projects after the war and help ease the transition to a peacetime economy. During the 1946 campaign Democrats attacked the surplus as a "slush fund," proposed using some of it to aid the poor, and argued that Dewey's plans to build the New York thruway would take funding and scarce building materials away from housing and education (Smith, Dewey, 365-66; 460-61).

8. Dewey reorganized the New York State Department of Labor, setting up regional offices and seeking to make it more efficient. He claimed that the state was for the first time "genuinely looking out for the health and safety of its working people" ("Text of Governor Dewey's Review Before State Federation of Advances by Labor," NYT, 20 August 1946, 20).

9. On October 3, 1945, Edward Corsi, New York State industrial commissioner, ordered retail merchants to pay a minimum wage of $21 per week, thus making New York's minimum wage for salespeople, elevator operators, office clerks, cleaners, and messengers the highest in the nation. Although this law extended a minimum wage to employees not previously covered, many workers remained uncovered ("Minimum Pay Set for Retail Trade," NYT, 4 October 1945, 25; "Sets State Parley on a 55—Cent Wage," NYT, 28 February 1946, 17).

10. The 1939 Fair Labor Standards Act mandated that every employer "subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act's minimum wage … provisions must post and keep posted," in a prominent place visible to all employees, "a notice" explaining what rights the employees have in that particular workplace. Building upon the FLSA, New York law mandated a poster explaining state laws be posted when the state minimum wage was higher than the federal standard. These posters were (and are) the main way that workers know these rights. As the law required different posters for different industries, these notices are probably what ER meant when she referenced "posters" related to the "Retail trades" ("New York's Minimum Wage Law: The First Twenty Years," Isadore Lubin Papers, FDRL).

11. Dewey signed a bill establishing the New York State Division of Veterans' Affairs on April 17, 1945, and appointed Edward J. Neary, the district attorney of Nassau County and former state commander of the American Legion, as its director. Neary oversaw the agencies set up to provide services to veterans in New York State communities and hired counselors to advise the veterans. The Executive Board of Review, appointed by Dewey, found in 1946 that most of the counselors were doing a satisfactory to excellent job, but that about 15 percent were unqualified or needed further training. "As a whole, this is a very remarkable showing under the conditions of rapid selection," the report concluded. A shortage of housing and building materials, high demand from returning veterans, the availability of loans under the GI Bill, and the eagerness of some realtors and contractors to exploit the situation combined to drive up housing prices after World War II. Unwary GIs sometimes bought poorly constructed homes or homes they could not afford. Employers also sometimes exploited veterans in on-the-job training programs by illegally counting their subsistence pay under the GI Bill as part of their wages ("Neary Will Direct Veterans' Affairs," NYT, 27 April 1945, 36; "More Scope Asked for Veterans' Aid," NYT, 24 May 1946, 17; "Protect Veteran Loan Group Urged," NYT, 15 December 1945, 10; Lee E. Cooper, "New Dangers Seen for Home Building," NYT, 9 September 1946, 11; Charles Hurd, "Readjustment," NYT, 21 July 1946, 34; "Bradley Condemns Job Training Abuse," NYT, 6 August 1946, 16).

12. In her August 29 My Day column, ER wrote: "All of us will agree, I think, that housing not only for veterans but for many other people is most important now. And it is regrettable to find that our Governor feels that our New York State program is impeded by the priorities which have been set to speed the Federal program. It would seem that there must be some lack of coordination when the State and the nation cannot cooperate to build the housing which is most needed, pooling their efforts rather than desiring, apparently, to have the kudos for being "'the' agency to produce some place for the numerous homeless families to lay their heads!" (MD, 29 August 1946).

13. The Wagner-Ellender-Taft housing bill would have helped support the construction of 12,500,000 homes over ten years. The Senate passed the bipartisan bill on April 15, 1946, but the House Banking and Currency Committee bottled it up until Congress adjourned in August. The Citizens Housing Council and Democratic politicians criticized Dewey for not speaking out in favor of the bill ("Senate Passes Long-Range Bill on Housing with Wage Clause," NYT, 16 April 1946, 1; "Dewey's Silence Scored," NYT, 2 August 1946, 15).

14. In 1946 New York was one of only two states lacking a state university. It provided indirect support to private universities (Columbia, Cornell, and New York University) instead. In 1947 Dewey himself would call for the establishment of a state university (Smith, Dewey, 472-73).

15. Dewey's Commission on Medical Care, which he appointed on September 5, 1944, could not agree on a set of recommendations. Instead they submitted five separate reports which, as Dewey reported to the state legislature, "reflect the sharp disagreement amongst all people as to the means by which a broad program for medical care can be provided" ("Commission Named on Medical Care," NYT, 6 September 1944, 22; "Dewey's Health Message," NYT, 5 March 1946, 20).

16. Although the New York State Commission on Agriculture voted on July 13, 1946, to undertake an investigation of the "spread" in price between what farmers received for milk and consumers paid, the Democratic platform, presented to the convention at which ER spoke, called for a thorough investigation of milk prices. Many milk producers and dealers opposed the investiga-tion ("Veto Milk Price Inquiry," NYT, 25 May 1946, 15; "Inquiry on Milk Voted for State," NYT, 13 July 1946, 2; "State Democrats Offer Housing Aid," NYT, 3 September 1946, 9).

17. March 12, 1945, Dewey signed legislation introduced by New York State Assemblyman Irving M. Ives and Senator Elmer F. Quinn establishing a fair employment practices commission, thus making New York the first state to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin. The Act established the State Commission Against Discrimination to monitor employment practices, authorized "conciliation councils" to investigate claims alleging discrimination, and mandated that all employers delete any discriminatory language when advertising for and soliciting employees (Smith, Dewey, 444-47).

On the Partition of Palestine

On August 28, 1946, Major General George Van Horn Moseley, US Army (Ret.) (1874–1960), wrote ER regarding her August 19 My Day column in which she deplored the recent British policy of forcing illegal Jewish immigrants who attempted to enter Palestine to go to newly opened detention camps on the island of Cyprus. The partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas she wrote presented:

no answer to the problem, since the main objection originally to Palestine becoming a home for the Jews was the grave doubt entertained by many as to whether the land would be able to support any more people than were already there … To an ordinary citizen like myself, the motives that Britain might have … are very difficult to understand. It looks as though we were forgetting our main objective of peace in this world. It is possible, of course, that what we fear is that the Arabs will go to war with us, but that hardly seems possible. It seems to be a case of deciding what we think is right for people from refugee camps in Europe … In Great Britain and in the United States, if we decided what was right, I don't think we would have much difficulty in getting it done.

Moseley, who testified before the Dies committee in 1939 that a "Jewish-led Communist revolution was about to overwhelm" the United States, asked ER for her solution to the Jewish "problem." He attributed the reluctance of many nations to admit Jewish refugees in the aftermath of World War II to "the low traits of character … which have made them outcasts throughout the ages." He went on to say that "the feeling against the Jew in America is growing, and growing fast … My hope is that the problem of the Jews may be settled on a worldwide basis before the American people become aroused and take drastic action against them."1