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The Liberal


Growing up on Elaine Terrace on the eastern verges of Yonkers, tucked between Mile Square and Palmer Roads just up from the Thruway cut, there were three historic figures always in open reverence in my grandmother's house - one Italian, and two Democrats. The Italian was the Pope; in that time it was Pope Paul VI, formerly Cardinal Montini, the Archbishop of Milan and, as things went in the Curia of those days, a progressive who built churches and respected labor. One of the two Democrats was John F. Kennedy, recently martyred young President and a ghostly presence whose death came when I was 18 months old in the kind of catastrophic and televised spectacle that made it seem years later that I remembered watching it all. Of course, I didn't. I just remembered the endless conversations. The other Democrat was the real deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt - not just the greatest President of the 20th century but a New Yorker, former Governor, and a political leader whose colossal liberal reach touched my own family deeply and directly.

Those were the three famous portraits in two dimensions that overlooked my early years: the Pope and two American liberals. But there was a fourth liberal, a man whose portrait often included a uniform.

That was the other Democrat, Thomas J. Quinlan.

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 7.06.26 PMMy late grandfather - he died 14 years before I arrived - was a constant presence in childhood despite his absence. His Army Air Corps hat hung from my grandmother's bedstead. His great coat remained in the vestibule between the front porch and the living room. His cigarette case was always in the left-hand drawer of the wide buffet chest in the dining room, along with his lighter and his magnifying glass. His radio remained by his chair, close to the fireplace. The house itself was his, a classic four-square design he'd set with purpose into a Yonkers hillside facing west to catch the afternoon sun on the front porch (the morning sun belonged to the kitchen), built after he returned from France and the American flying corps of the First World War. He was a salesman, in the building supply trade - but he was also a pilot who would serve again in the Second World War. He was the son of Irish immigrants from the southwest of Ireland, and my great-grandfather worked on the New York docks. As a young man, he attended Manhattan College when it was still in Manhattan and worked as a sandhog and later as an engineer, digging the city's subway tunnels for the Interborough Rapid Transit company. When he married my grandmother, he crossed the tracks to do so - to the better side. Her forebears had arrived from Eire earlier, and she came from a family of significant means and called a Murray Hill townhouse home. They lived for time on the Grand Concourse, just below Fordham Road, before decamping after the war for the country air of Yonkers and the start of a family.

My grandfather got involved in Democratic politics early; he came from the labor side of those tracks and knew the challenges of the working poor in America at the turn of 20th century. First, Governor Al Smith and first Catholic candidacy for President in 1928. Smith was the working class crusader, the Tammany man turned reformer after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire tragedy. Then in 1932, another New York Governor - Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By that time, Thomas Quinlan was in his late 30s and ensconced in the 12th Ward Democratic Club, which covered most of the east side of the city. He helped to run the successful Yonkers mayoral campaign of Joseph Loehr, a Roosevelt delegate in 1932, who served in city from 1932-39.

And he basically ran the 12th Ward for FDR and the New Deal.

From what I can tell from the old Herald Statesman news clips, it's clear he was a quiet kind of leader who didn't make too many bold speeches; he worked the back-channel. But he worked it pretty hard. In August 1936, organizing on behalf of New Dealers in the state, he presided over a meeting of the 12th Ward club that put down a revolt against Roosevelt's successor as Governor, Herbert Lehman, a progressive, by Tammany Hall conservatives. Two years later, he was part of a group of FDR men at the state Democratic convention who supported nominating Postmaster General James A. Farley to succeed Governor Lehman (the plan failed, Lehman decided to run again and served till 1942).  And in 1937, he was appointed to the Charter Commission that revamped Yonkers government.

His 12th Ward Democratic Club was hive of progressive New Deal politics and liberal speech-making. "Arrogant" Republicans were not admired. There are a lot examples in old Herald Statesman clips; and they all note who chaired those meetings.

In June, 1936 my grandfather was in the chair when State Senator James A. Garrity "scored the Republican Assembly for failure to paw the Governor's social security program, declaring it necessary to care properly for old people of the state. Discussing national affairs, Senator Garrity declared that President Roosevelt has brought the country out of chaos and into prosperity. He said this is indicated by reports of large industries."

A good, old-fashioned political lashing of Republican callousness toward the more vulnerable in our society, and Thomas J. Quinlan was in the chair.

In July, Lawrence Tasker of Hastings, Roosevelt's campaign manager for Westchester County, ripped into the Republicans again - with Thomas J. Quinlan in the chair.

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 7.08.20 PMAccording to the Statesman, Tasker "urged the cooperation of the members to re-elect Mr. Roosevelt, said that the question facing the voters is whether the policies of the President are a success or a failure. 'There is no use trying to befog the issue,' he said. 'You are for the New Deal or against it. I am convinced—and I think most of the citizens of the United States are— that the Roosevelt policies have put us on the highway of prosperity.' He warned that the Republican Party will concentrate its attack on the cost of the New Deal and will claim that it has cost the taxpayer $13,000,000,000 since Mr. Roosevelt took office." 

At another meeting that year - President Roosevelt's aid to "the common man" was praised by former Alderman Thomas F. Sullivan - with Thomas J. Quinlan in the chair.

It wasn't all speech-making and vote whipping. The political clubs of those days had to deliver bread and circus. So the accounts included some fun and games. In May of 1936, for example, the 12th Ward Club put on a festival, no doubt a fundraiser: "Attractions included Leroy's Circus Side Show include Baby LaFrance, mentalist; Madam Tiny, electric box; Eddie Brown, magician; Mrs. Leroy, sword box; Bob-Bobett; Bedell, with mentalistic dog. Scotty McCrae and A. Lasky on front; Red Nagle and Ernest Truyn, tickets. Prison Show, in charge of Henry (Duke) Hyatt, and Snake Show managed by Joseph Toomy."

Later that year, "nearly 200 persons attended a card party sponsored by the Twelfth Ward Democratic Club last night at the clubrooms, 591 Central Avenue. Forty tables were in play."

That's a lot of Democrats, folks.

And it wasn't just about candidates and politics and counting heads - it was about policy. Through his New Deal politics, my grandfather became a pioneer in public housing in America. He was a co-founder and the first chairman of the Yonkers Municipal Housing Authority, and oversaw the creation of the public agency charged with building affordable housing in partnership with the Federal government. While "Yonkers public housing" later became nationally synonymous with racism and neglect in the 1970s and led to a Federal lawsuit, in the late 30s and early 40s it was the most progressive undertaking in the city's history.

Under his leadership, the city planned and built a development known as Mulford Gardens. Hailed at its opening in July 1940 by the United States Housing Authority as a "symbol of the American way of living," it was racially integrated and aimed squarely at working men and their families. Sadly, it later became a symbol of neglect, as government moved away from progressive ideals. But at the time, it was greeted as a new model; I was surprised in reading the archives to discover that my aunt, Margaret Quinlan Dermako, had been approved as a tenant supervisor for the project, and that my uncle Tom Quinlan (later, my godfather) had also been involved. And imagine my surprise to discover that my grandmother Gertrude Quinlan had also served on the Housing Commission, after my grandfather went back into the service for a second time in World War II (serving as a Major in the Air Corps, and sadly contracting the illness that took his life a few years later). Progressive politics was the Quinlan family vocation. 

Which is not to suggest that it was a radical lefty household. It never was. This was the practical liberalism of Al Smith, Franklin Roosevelt, the Kennedys. When I was two, I paraded around the back garden with a giant LBJ button. The liberalism we inherited was pro development, pro jobs, and pro business (my grandfather's work was selling building supplies), and it leaned pretty heavily on American patriotism. But it also rested on the basic belief that government's job was to actively improve the lives of citizens - that it should be heavily involved in the public welfare of the people. My grandfather the liberal Democrat ardently opposed - indeed, abhorred - take-it-all conservatism, mob bigotry, and small government. 

I never met my grandfather Thomas J. Quinlan so I didn't get to hear about his liberal Democratic politics first-hand. But I still had a great source: my grandmother, who carried the brightest torch for her Tom through my entire childhood, and for his brand of practical and progressive government. I knew how she felt alright, because she survived through Ronald Reagan's first term and never hesitated to call the Republicans the "party of the rich." Nonetheless, it's always worthwhile to look back. As we face an existential crisis in America - the biggest threat to our democracy since the Great Depression - I can't help but make the connection to my grandfather's politics of the 1930s, to organizing and supporting Democrats, to encouraging active and communitarian government, and to winning the battle against fascism.

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