Life’s Lessons Learned #49: Local Politics

“All politics is local.” – Tip O’Neill

I guess it began with my rise to the top as President of Arroyo High School’s freshman class. It also came tumbling down as Willie Leighton sent me to ignominious defeat in our race to become the first “Commissioner of Clubs” in our senior year. As a saving grace, I did hang out a lot with Jack (our senior class President) and Kim (our student body President). I lost track of Jack, but Willie and Kim, although far flung away, are Face Book friends.

My Dad entertained two Presidents of the United States, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy. Dad’s trio played at the White House for President Truman on the occasion of the dedication of the building’s rear porch. He played for JFK, prior to his election, at a rally in Salt Lake City. He also recorded a song, The JFK March, that is archived in the JFK Library in Boston.

In the early 1970s I almost got to work with Ronald Reagan. Some businessmen were developing an animatronics based ride/tour on a bus for the battlegrounds at Gettysburg. The narration for the tour was to be recorded by Ronald Reagan, and I was to record authentic Civil War period folk songs to be background music at various points in the tour. Alas, it never came to pass.

At one time I had an unvoiced desire to someday be the Mayor of Lancaster. My great-great grandfather, J. P. McCaskey, after spending 50 years as a teacher, had been Mayor of Lancaster from 1906 through 1910. The closest that I ever got to that was serving as the campaign chair for Thomas J. Monaghan’s reelection campaign in 1969. We were successful, but it turned out that he was crooked, and pled nolo contendre to bribery charges. The center of the campaign was the slogan “Keep Building With Monaghan”. That referred to the complete demolition of all of the buildings (and businesses) in the second block of the downtown business area, and the erection of a new downtown square. This was all based on what was then called the Philadelphia Model of redevelopment. In the process dozens of 18th and 19th century storefronts were torn down. In the long run it was an abject failure. Some of the investment money had come from a Judge in Philadelphia and his wife. They were subsequently convicted of illegal payoffs, including one to the Mayor of Lancaster.

I had said yes to Tom when he asked me to chair the campaign because I felt that I had a family debt to pay off. My maternal grandmother was a simple and plain person. She was a big fan and supporter of Tom Monaghan. He had also been Mayor of Lancaster from 1958 to 1962, and when he was first elected in 1958 there were patronage jobs to be distributed to his faithful supporters. He asked my grandmother what sort of job she would like. Well, grandma had not gone past the third grade, and could not read. She realized that there was nothing that she could do in city hall, but asked for a job in maintenance. She got the job cleaning the public toilets in the town square. Now this is not all that much to brag about, but I remember how time and again she would talk about how her friend, the Mayor, had given her a job. I’m not sure, but I believe that it was the only job, besides housewife, that she ever had. I paid back that debt, for the sense of pride he gave my grandmother, by helping him get reelected again.

This was my second time as a campaign manager. The year before (1968) I was asked to co-chair a campaign for John Pittenger, a candidate for the Pennsylvania State Assembly. I was not asked because of any special talent that I brought to the job. I was asked because I was a local “banker”. I was probably the only “banker” in Lancaster that was a registered Democrat. Lancaster County was a solidly Republican county. The few elected Democrats in the county were from the city, and they were quite rare. Mayor Monaghan had put together a coalition of union workers from eighth ward (Cabbage Hill), the African-Americans from the seventh ward, and the college faculty from the northwest end of town. John was an amazing retail politician who fully subscribed to all politics being local. In the buildup to Election Day he actually visited every single household in the city, and he always asked for their vote. He also taught the Lancaster City republicans how to split their ticket. I think that he won by something like 300 votes.

John later lost his reelection bid when he faced, in one of the only two heavily democratic Wards (8th Ward), the local issue of scattered site public housing. At that time, the only public housing was in the only other democratic Ward (7th Ward) The 7th Ward also happened to be the only area with any sizable minority population. In a town hall meeting the republican candidate race baited with the suggestion that public housing would significantly lower property values. When John was asked his opinion he said that it was a personal value issue, and that he would never have to legislate on in the Assembly, and then didn’t answer the question. It cost him his reelection. Years later John was being courted to run for the U.S. Senate by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party leadership, and met with me with an offer to work on the campaign. I declined. He eventually chose to not run, and accepted the position of Dean of the Rutgers’s Law School.

During the late 1960s I was elected the Democratic Committeeman for my precinct, 2nd Ward – 1st Precinct. The precinct was heavily republican in those days. It is now strongly democratic, as is most of the City of Lancaster. Pittenger’s old seat is now a “safe” seat. When he first won (my stint as co-chair), it had been republican for many decades.

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