« PreviousContinue »
VII. THE CIVIC REFORMER
You say that we might possibly suffer at the hands of a mayor who did wrong. That is so, but we would speedily get rid of such a mayor. What we must have is some one man to hold to a definite responsibility. If he does wrong for two years, then it will go hard, indeed, with the citizens of New York if they cannot put him out of office at the expiration of his term. But now we suffer and are helpless. Some exceptionally bad nomination is forced on the mayor by the board of aldermen; there is an outcry against the aldermen collectively; but no one arraigns them individually, for no one knows who they are individually. No one is able at the next election to defeat such-and-such an alderman because of his special vote, for as a matter of fact no one knows how any given alderman voted; they are protected by their own utter insignificance.
With the mayor it is not so. He stands where the full light of the press beats upon him; he stands in the glare of public opinion. Every act he does is criticized; every important step he takes he knows will be remembered; and, knowing that, he shapes his course accordingly. We have seen with the present mayor what a convenient excuse the board of aldermen has afforded for all kinds of appointments. He has sent in some good man first, and the board of aldermen has refused to confirm him; then he says, “Very well, gentlemen, the decent citizens of New York have elected this board of aldermen as your representatives. I have got to conform to their wishes. Now, I will send in some man acceptable to them, and then they will confirm him." Does any man suppose for a moment that the mayor and aldermen really come together and agree upon an officer to be nominated and confirmed, without outside dictation? Do not we all know that where any given appointment is made, it is because two or three men – because very often during the past few months only one man has decided that such-and-such an appointment had to be made? And, mind you, these are men with whose position the public has had nothing to do; they are really, and not nominally, irresponsible autocrats; and certainly I, at least, would rather have a responsible despot than an irresponsible oligarchy; and the latter is what we are now ruled by, an oligarchy composed of the worst, instead of the best, elements.
I do not propose to defend for a moment the people through whose supineness and indifference to the public weal a state of things has been brought about in New York that makes it necessary for us to introduce such a bill. I think that the so-called respectable voters of New York are to be held accountable for many of the greatest sins that are committed in that city, and that they are responsible for the greater part of our bad government. The people that are always clamoring about how bad our government is, but who are not willing to lift their little fingers to make that government better, those people are the real ones who are responsible for our present misgovernment. The decent citizens of New York, more than any other class, are responsible for having let the rogues have full play. It would be difficult for you, gentlemen, who do not reside in the city, to realize how absolutely the majority of our prominent citizens fail in the performance of their
public duties; and these citizens should know that, where they fail to perform the common duties of freemen, they have little right to complain of the manner in which they are treated by those who do, whether the treatment be good or bad. But we are always obliged to consider a situation as it is, not as it should be, not as things would be in a perfect state of society. Did every man in New York take the keenest interest in political matters, did every man follow rigidly what his judgment dictated, there might be no necessity to center responsibility in the mayor as I propose to do, but, as a matter of fact, in the hurry and press of New York life, in the sharp and harassing business competition that prevails there, and that must prevail in such a great mercantile center, in the midst of the thousand feverish activities that compose the daily lives of our citizens, it is impossible for them to exercise the strict supervision over their representatives that can be exercised where the population is sparser, and the modes of life simpler. It is all that we can expect if they will, when election day comes around, come out and try to do all they can to insure for the next two years
the presence of a man at the head of the government who will devote his energies to administering that government wisely and purely.
And I ask the gentlemen of this House to remember one thing more. It has grown to be a tradition in our system of government that no man should absolutely have the power of making nominations; but that there should be another body to confirm whatever nominations are made. I want for one moment to call your attention to the state of things that formerly existed,
and from which arose the present sentiment. In the old days the governor or ruler was appointed by the king, or at least by some power outside of the people, and the only check that, in turn, the people had over his actions, was by the control of the body elected by them, that is, by their control of the legislature, local or state. The governor, nominated by the power without, made the nomination; those elected by the people confirmed or rejected it. But now things are entirely different; the mayor is quite as much the servant of the people, in the true sense of the word he is far more the servant of the people, than are all the aldermen. The mayor has a larger constituency before which to go; the mayor is held to a more strict accountability for his actions. The aldermen are not held to such an accountability; the aldermen are only accountable to their local leaders. The one man is held responsible by the people; the other men only by the bosses who have saddled themselves on the people. It is true we give the mayor power, but we put with that power, accountability. We say, “You will exercise this power unchecked, and for every step that you take we will hold you rigidly responsible. Not a movement will you make that we do not hold you accountable for making. You will no longer be able to shield yourself behind the board of aldermen; you will no longer be able to put them forward as the excuse for your wrongdoing; you will have to stand or fall according to your own actions. You will have undivided power, and you will have an undivided responsibility." Does any man think for a moment that things could be much worse than they are? Even if we grant that they may become no better, do you think that if we
have one master in New York we will suffer more than we do with the twenty-four who rule us now, or rather, with the twenty-four who register the decrees of two or three outside rulers? Certainly, it seems to me, this is the must thoroughly democratic bill that could be presented; that it is a bill giving the people power; that it is a bill to break the might of the oligarchy that now rules us.
It is said that here in the new world we have no aristocracy; yet I sometimes think that in our great city we have what might be called, were it not a contradiction in terms, an aristocracy of the bad, or, as an eminent traveler put it, "an aristocracy of blackguards," for those that should be lowest – mind you, I do not mean socially, I mean those who, from their vices, should be lowest - rule over us. It is right, and it is our pride, that the banker and the bricklayer, the merchant and his clerk, the millionaire and the day laborer, should be equal. It is our boast that all positions and degrees in life stand on the same plane before the law, but it is not right that those who, by their pursuits, are most likely to be brought into contact with the criminal classes, and who, indeed, often spring from or sink into these classes, should be men who, above all others, are to be chosen to rule over us. Of the last board of aldermen one half were liquor dealers. Does any man suppose that one half of our mayors would be liquor sellers? that a man who was a liquor seller could be elected? The board of aldermen has just chosen as its president a man who, I believe, was removed from the board of education on account of grave charges made against him in connection with the misappropriation of money,