Community Power in a Postreform City: Politics in New York City

By Robert F. Pecorella | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
Summary and Conclusions

Three distinct political regimes have governed New York City over the past 120 years. They had common historical roots in that each emerged in the wake of a fiscal crisis that destabilized prior political arrangements; each included a unique set of formal and informal political interactions among the components of its governing coalition; each developed its own particular source of political legitimacy; and each was defined by a distinctive balance between central-city and community power.

As a result of the fiscal crisis of the early 1870s, the era of gang rule in New York gave way to a long period of machine rule under Tammany Hall. Machine rule assisted the business elites of the day by imposing a hierarchically ordered system on the city, which, by coordinating government decision making, aided the industrialization process. Coterminously, the Tammany machine's geographically decentralized base and its quid pro quo style of politics made the urban community the focus of attentive nonelite political interactions. Tammany Hall consolidated its power in the early twentieth century under the leadership of Charles Murphy. In the wake of the 1930s fiscal crisis, however, a weakened and fragmented machine, bereft of creative leadership and politically overextended, was defeated by a coalition of urban reformers backing the fusion candidacy of Fiorello LaGuardia.

Reformers geographically centralized the focus of city government while functionally decentralizing administrative responsibility among relatively autonomous city agencies. The reform regime accommodated financial interests with professional government and progrowth development policies while addressing attentive nonelite concerns though the administrative agencies of the welfare city. By 1945, reformers had so transformed the formal and informal interactions defining normal city politics that, despite the election of three consecutive Democratic mayors in the post-LaGuardia years, reform values continued to dominate city governance. Reform reached its apex in New York with the 1961 reelection of Mayor Robert Wagner, who, by running against the leadership of his own party, formally certified reform's consolidation. However, as a result of intraregime conflict and the consequent incorporation of increasingly diverse interests within its governing coalition, the highly fragmented reform regime was

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