When Bernie Was Growing Up Congress Had An Amazing Congressman, A Democratic Socialist From Harlem Named Vito Marcantonio
Yesterday Little Marco triumphed in the Republican primary in Puerto Rico. Although only 36,393 people voted, he won an impressive 73.8% and all 23 delegates, despite being the self-appointied senatorial spokesperson against Puerto Rican bankruptcy in the name of robotic Austerity. He probably won because he was the only Republican who campaigned there and because, unlike Cruz, he's somewhat popular among Hispanics.
Rubio is anything but a champion of Puerto Ricans. The last Member of Congress who really was, was a Democratic Socialist from Harlem named Vito Marcantonio, one of the most fascinating leftists in the history of Congress. My grandfather told me about him when I was a little boy and said he was the best politician in America. He was betrayed by the Democrats when they teamed up with the GOP to run a joint candidate against him. His kind of principled independence made the rest of them look like the crooked self-serves most of them were. But I'm getting ahead of myself since I'll bet most DWT readers don't know who he was. (To me, of course, he was a precursor to Bernie.)
When he was born, in 1902, East Harlem was an impoverished ghetto filled with... Italians snd Puerto Ricans. He was conversant in both Italian and Spanish. Young Vito joined the Republican Party, the Democratic Party of the day being a cesspool of corruption, far worse than it is today. His political idol was Fiorello LaGuardia. When he was 18, still a student, he first met LaGuardia who was drawn to a speech he made advocating for something that the conservatives of the day said was "impossible": Social Security.
If it is true that government is of the people and for the people, then it is the duty of government to provide for those, who, through no fault of their own, have been unable to provide for themselves. It is the social responsibility of every citizen to see that these laws for our older people are enacted.Ironic that his wife, from New England, was Miriam Sanders. He served as LaGuardia's campaign manager when he was elected mayor of New York. (By the way, LaGuardia was nothing like phony progressive Bill de Blasio, a Hillary Clinton Democrat.)
At 32, he was elected to Congress as a Republican but was defeated after one term by corrupt Tammany Hall Democrat James Lanzetta-- who had originally beaten LaGuardia for the seat-- and was beaten taken out by Marcantonio first in 1934 and again in 1938, after Marcantonio had ditched his GOP membership and joined the American Labor Party, a better fit for him. He served from 1939 until 1951, a champion of Puerto Rican independence, of immigrants and of civil rights for blacks long before that became a thing. He was colossally popular with his constituents and often won the Democratic Party and the Republican Party primaries as well as the American Labor Party primary. He refused take any dirty campaign contributions and self-financed his own campaigns, working as an attorney while he was in Congress. Also while in Congress he was investigated by the FBI for being sympathetic to communists. From John Simon's Rebel in the House: The Life and Times of Vito Marcantonio"
Just thirty-two years old, Vito Marcantonio must have cut a figure in startling contrast to the drawling Southern gentlemen in white linen suits who ran the House. Marc’s high-pitched, nasal, machine-gun rapid delivery bespoke the accent and street smarts of East Harlem. His three-piece, off-the-rack, broad-striped suits and beige fedoras-- they resembled the wardrobe of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls-- did little to soften his persona of self-righteous belligerence. An unlikely Don Quixote had arrived to tilt at the windmills of power.Vito Marcantonio was defeated in 1950 by James Donovan-- who was backed by both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as the Liberal Party-- allied against him because he opposed the Korean War and because the establishment saw his independence as a threat to themselves. After leaving Congress, he practiced law but had a heart attack and died in 1954, age 51.
In 1935 Congress met under extraordinary circumstances. It was the fifth year of the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had been buoyed by relief programs passed during the celebrated “Hundred Days” of 1933 and by the president’s radio rhetoric. But the economic recovery he had promised was still nowhere on the horizon. More than a quarter of the work force was still unemployed. Despair was rampant. To many, the Democrats and Republicans seemed bankrupt, a view held even by the few radicals who had been elected to the House. Marc began to stake out a political position not only far to the left of the major parties, but of the most zealous of the other radicals. Marcantonio opposed the military appropriations bill of 1935. He saw the ROTC provisions of the bill as “forcing American youth to goose step through the classroom,” as stifling “liberal thought in our institutions,” and as part of “a strong tendency toward government by edict…an urge for regimentation.” Marcantonio attacked the FDR administration’s Social Security bill as inadequate and supported a doomed alternative that provided for unemployment insurance covering all, to be administered by unions and farm organizations.
Marcantonio took up the gauntlet for a stronger National Labor Relations Act; he called for a wealth tax; and he championed the outlawing of privately owned public utility holding companies. It was in support of this legislation-- the Public Utilities Holding Company Act-- that Marc took the floor and, in a speech which later became legendary in East Harlem and on the left as well, announced that he was a radical:
If it be radicalism to believe that our natural resources should be used for the benefit of all of the American people and not for the purpose of enriching just a few…then, Ladies and Gentlemen of this House I accept the charge. I plead guilty to the charge; I am a radical and I am willing to fight it out…until hell freezes over.Marcantonio’s Congressional accomplishments were notable for a lawmaker outside the two-party machinery that superintended the Congress. In part his success was due to his diligence. Throughout his fourteen-year tenure, his attendance record was outstanding. He never missed a debate on important legislation and, whether a nominal Republican or, as he was after 1938, the sole representative of the American Labor Party (ALP), he was often the informal floor leader for liberal Democrats and others on crucial bills-- organizing Congressional and public support, planning and directing parliamentary strategy.
Marc was practical. Despite his view of administration funding requests for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and other relief agencies as inadequate, he would fight for them as better than nothing at all. In 1939, an FDR request for $150 million was bottled up in committee by conservative Southern Democrats. Marc forced the bill to the floor (and to a vote) by daily tacking an obstructing amendment on every piece of minor legislation to come up. When one congressman asked for $400,000 to fight the pink bollworm in his state, Marcantonio retorted, “One week from today 400,000 pink slips will be delivered to WPA workers. How about the $150-million for the unemployed?”
Marcantonio’s greatest legislative crusades were on behalf of two civil rights bills: the Anti-Poll Tax Act and the Fair Employment Practices Commission Act (FEPC). Marc introduced the first Anti-Poll Tax bill in 1942. When the bill was pigeonholed in the Judiciary Committee Marc began a slow campaign to obtain 218 signatures on a petition to force the bill to the House floor. He ensured that each signature, as well as the impassioned floor debate received maximum press coverage. Arguing that the abolition of the poll tax would extend “democracy to disenfranchised Negroes and whites,” he connected the bill’s passage to the war effort, saying, “The continuance of the poll tax is discrimination and makes for disunity….Abolition of the poll tax abolishes this form of discrimination and makes for unity that is vital to victory.”
The bill passed the House, only to die in the Senate. Marcantonio succeeded in having it passed in the next session, using the same tactics, but it suffered the same fate.
Marcantonio used similar tactics to garner support for legislation with strong enforcement provisions outlawing employment discrimination. Marc also clamored for a federally supervised absentee ballot for soldiers (to ensure that black GI’s would be able to vote in the 1944 presidential election). The opposition to both measures was led by the racist Mississippi Representative John Rankin who said “the Gentleman from New York…is harassing the white people of the Southern States.”
Because the Democrats’ margin in the House grew smaller with each election, it made sense for the Democrats to court Marc. By 1942, Marcantonio had become the leader of the New York County American Labor Party. ALP endorsement, which Marc was in a position to determine, often was the margin of victory for Democratic candidates. Moreover Marcantonio had become nationally recognized. Civil rights, effective price controls, the rights of organized labor, and preserving the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union were all topics he addressed on nationwide radio broadcasts. In 1944 Harper’s magazine ratified Marcantonio’s growing status:
At forty-two Marcantonio is well on his way to becoming a first-class national figure, though one of the most unorthodox sort. Heretofore, his influence in the Congress has been that of a gadfly, not a leader….Lately, however, he has shown real genius in turning his liabilities into assets, in playing the political interstices for all they are worth.But by 1946 FDR was dead, and his successor, Harry S. Truman, pursued an anti-Soviet Cold War foreign policy. Running on the slogan “Had Enough?” Republicans won both the House and the Senate for the first time since 1928. The New Deal coalition was dead. Despite this, Marcantonio was still able to weave his political magic. In April 1945 he had called on Secretary of Commerce Henry A. Wallace to investigate discrimination against African Americans in professional baseball, setting off a campaign that was to break the color line in the national pastime. In 1947 he supported an amendment offered by Adam Clayton Powell to desegregate public facilities in the District of Columbia. When Southern opponents of the legislation charged that the Bill would provoke race riots, Marc replied,
Now we hear the same cry…in respect to a simple request that this Congress rise up to the dignity of the nation-- the dignity the world expects us to rise up to, of practicing the fundamental precepts of Democracy for which men died, both black and white….This is Washington which many would make the Capital of the world. Are we going to hesitate to remove from the Capital of the United States the blot of discrimination and segregation?Unfortunately, Congress responded, yes.
1946 found most workers with sharply reduced real wages, a result of inflation during and especially after the war. Unions in auto, steel, electrical, coal, and oil industries struck, causing the loss of more working days in 1946 than in any year since. With increasing frequency, Marcantonio rose to oppose attempts to repeal the gains that had been made by organized labor. Marc told the House,
Men do not strike for the fun of it. [They are] provoked by the scheming, uncompromising, unreasoning tactics of profit-bloated, tax-benefited corporations…beating the drums against American workers in order to intimidate Congress to pass anti-labor legislation.Marcantonio’s last leadership role in the House was his fight against the Taft-Hartley Act, the turning point in a formidable anti-union campaign that has lasted to this day and has reduced the U.S. labor movement to its current pitiable state. He spoke against the bill on the floor, asking, “What is your justification for this legislation?” A labor union, he explained, is a worker’s “only defense against exploitation,”
You are making him “free”-- and impotent to defend himself against any attempt by industry to subject him to the same working conditions that existed in the United States 75 years ago. You are giving him the freedom to become enslaved to a system that has been repudiated in the past not only by Democrats but also by outstanding progressive-minded Republicans….Under the guise of fighting communism you are, with this legislation, advancing fascism on American labor.Marcantonio’s greatest contribution in the fight against the bill was tactical. Convinced that public opinion could sway the Congress, he tried to hold up a vote to give citizens time to write, wire, or phone their Representatives. Employing a rarely-used procedural rule, Marc demanded a reading of all sixty-nine pages of the act, plus the lengthy report on it from the House Labor Committee. The national media, almost without exception supporting the bill, attacked him bitterly as a left-wing obstructionist.
Marc continued to fight for labor, civil rights, and public housing. He spoke against Truman’s Cold War programs and was the only member of the House who refused to join a standing ovation for the President when he called for Marshall Plan aid for Western Europe. Seeing the Marshall Plan as Cold War legislation designed to bolster anti-Soviet policies, he consistently tried to revive the war-time alliance of the major powers.
In 1948 he was the informal floor leader for the opponents of the Mundt-Nixon Bill, which effectively outlawed the Communist Party and required the listing of “Communist front” groups by the attorney general. But Marc was leader only by default; others were afraid to do more than cast a vote against it. Knowing there was no way to defeat the legislation, Marcantonio asserted, as he had done on other occasions, that history would judge the bill. He spoke not only to his colleagues but for the historical record.
I know many will succumb to hysteria and others will give us the usual flag-waving and red-baiting, but let us look back in retrospect: 1798-1948, 150 years. The men who opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts-- Livingstone, Madison, Jefferson-- they constitute the bright constellations in the democratic firmament of this Nation; but those who imposed on the American people those tyrannies of which this bill is a monstrous lineal descendant have been cast into oblivion, relegated where mankind always relegates puny creatures that would destroy mankind’s freedom.In his remaining years in the House, Vito Marcantonio would speak his mind and vote his conscience, but he was alone. In 1950 he lost his seat. The same year, Richard M. Nixon won election to the Senate by asserting that his opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, had a voting record that was similar to Marc’s.
This morning, the Seattle Times, in an inspiring endorsement of Bernie Sanders for president, described him in terms reminiscent of Marcantonio.
"Authenticity and consistency are so rare in politics these days-- no wonder a strong number of voters are supporting U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ bid to become the Democratic candidate for president."
Sanders’ signature candor is a refreshing change from status quo politics.
Many Americans share his frustration over the fact that more and more power is being concentrated today in the hands of a few.
He is the only candidate in this race, on either side of the aisle, who has spoken forcefully-- and over years-- against Wall Street’s willingness to take enormous risks while expecting public bailouts.
Sanders advocates for breaking up big banks now and bringing back a new version of the repealed Glass-Steagall Act that would prevent financial institutions from spending customers’ money so recklessly in the future.
Sanders bravely calls out the role of big money in politics and supports a repeal of the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision. He has long warned about the dangers of media consolidation, which limits the range of information citizens need to maintain a strong democracy.