Born Alfred Emanuel Smith (but was known as "Al") on 30 December 1873 in New York City, this American politician is not so much known for his achievements but for what he failed to achieve (and a main reason "why"). Rather than for his own merits, he is most often referred to as a footnote, a bit of trivia, as a religious precursor to John F. Kennedy.
For all he accomplished in his lifetime, Al Smith will always be the first Roman Catholic to run for presidentand who lost.
Early life and career in politics
Far from the privileged sort who tends to be a politician today, Smith had working class roots. His parents were poor and his grandparents had only come over from Ireland in 1841. He lived in a tenement house in New York City and only graduated from the eighth gradethe death of his father made it necessary for him to quit school and go to work to support the family. He spent several years working long hours at the Fulton Fish Market.
His first real brush with politics came during a local election in 1894, when he supported a candidate opposed to Tammany Hall. Dating from the Revolutionary era, Tammany societies (named after a generous DelawareLenni Lanapeleader named Tamanend) were patriotic political societies that gathered together to push their causes and agendas. The best known (and infamous) was the one in New York City.
While many good things came out of the group, help and aid to the poor, particularly the immigrant population, the growing power that was bolstered by giving out priviledges and gifts (even bribes) led to a great deal of corruption and graft. This hit its height with William "Boss" Tweed, which resulted in overt scandal and attempts at reforms to rein in the abuses of power. It worked some but the taint remained and corruption was never completely rooted out. By the early twentieth century, much of its power was gone, though it continued to be a presence for decades into the century.
His candidate lost, but when an anti-Tammany hall candidate did won, Smith got appointed a process server for the office of city commissioner of jurors. He did little in politics for a while, marrying Catherine Dunn (of the Bronx) in 1900. He ran for his first elected office in 1903. He was elected a state assemblyman (with Tammany help). At the time, he had never been out of the city and his trip to the capital in Albany was his first time.
He was politically naive to say the least. In his early years, he had to work and study hard to understand the nature of the bills that he was voting on (later admitting that the first couple years he mostly voted the way Tammany told him to). In his third term, he won seats on the Committee on Banking and the Committee on Forestryhe confided in a fellow politician that he hadn't ever been to a forest and had only been in a bank on an errand.
Over time, he became more aware and knowledgeable, eventually able to make his own informed decisions and becoming politically independent (of influence over him). He continued to be reelected assemblyman through 1915 and became Democratic leader of the Assembly in 1911. It was that year that he served on a commission that investigated working conditions at factories. From this, he gained a great deal of knowledge and became concerned with the economic and social problems of the people (it's doubtful that he had forgotten his own humble beginnings).
In 1915, he was appointed a delegate to the state constitutional convention. There, even republicans were said to praise his work. That same year, he was elected (again with some help of Tammany) New York County Sheriff. Two years later, he was elected president of the Board of Alderman of Greater New York. Al had come a long way from his roots and was still at the beginning of his career.
Smith resigned in 1918 in order to shoot for higher stakes: governor of the state (as a Democrat). Most felt he had little chance of winning the election but was voted in by a narrow margin. Rather than use the office for power or material gain, Smith used it as a means to serve the people (which is what it is supposed to be used for). And the people tended to like him. He was one of them in many ways, down to the "Lower East Side" accent. While he lost by a lot in the 1920 election (the "mood" shifting to the Republican party), he was reelected in both 1924 and 1926.
Despite having to work with Republican-controlled house, he was able to get passed numerous legislation, often with a social-minded intent. He worked for housing, better factory laws, care for the mentally ill, child welfare, and state parks. Civil and political rights were important to him and he worked to reorganize and streamline the state government and got a (state) constitutional amendment adopted that took 187 agencies and consolidated them into nineteen departments. He also established an executive budget.
Because of the number of electoral votes, governors from New York were often offered as possible candidates for the presidency of the United States. It was first suggested of Smith in 1920 but there would be no attempt until later in his career.
His first run in with a presidential nomination came in 1924 when Franklin D. Roosevelt put him in nomination for the party (Roosevelt called him the "happy warrior"). Smith did have a large number of supporters but when he attended the convention he discovered a formidable opposition.
Suddenly religion became an issuesomething that had probably been unimportant given New York City's large mostly Catholic populations of Italian and Irish people (having a Tammany seal of approval no doubt helped as well). It didn't help that other candidates were heavily supported by members of the Ku Klux Klan (Catholics being another on their list of undesirables). More trouble came because of his opposition to nationwide prohibition, something that wasn't yet politically safe.
Smith's candidacy became deadlocked with a William G. McAdoo (who was a "dry" candidate). With little chance of breaking it, Smith withdrew and supported John W. Davis (who got the nomination and subsequently lost the election to Calvin Coolidge).
The 1928 election was different. Klan influence was mostly gone and his supporters worked harder. The nomination came without a great deal of opposition. It was felt he was the Democrat challenger to Herbert Hoover. He was fairly well liked and had a good record both for the business of government and the advocacy for and service to the people. He was easily recognizable, wearing his brown derby, smoking a cigar, and the accent. Even used "The Sidewalks of New York" as his theme song.
On a national level, it would be much more difficult. The anti-Catholicism propaganda and disinformation started full force. Rumors were circulated that, if elected, he would give the Pope an office in the White House, all children would have to attend Catholic schools, and that he would make it the national religion. A pro-Hoover campaign button from the election reads:
The implication is clear.
Smith lost by a landslide: 444-87 electoral votes (on the other hand, the two split 58.3% to 40.8% in the popular vote, still a loss but not as overwhelming). Smith took six southern states (actually less than typical for a Democratic candidate), Massachusetts and Rhode Islandhe lost his home state of New York by over 100,000 votes. Four of the southern states were decisiveArkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia (only by 12%). The others were within only a few percentage points (the anomaly being South Carolina where he won 91.4% to 8.5%at a loss for an explanation for that, being the largest margin of victory for either candidate).
While one cannot discount the religion issue, as it looms so large, many historians believe that it was unlikely any Democrat could have won the election that year.
Al would never run for office again.
In 1932, Roosevelt got the nomination and won. The depression, which took place during the Hoover administration, gave the democrat a better opportunity at the White House. It seems worthy to note that he was Protestant (Episcopalian). Smith later broke with him, a key point being opposition to the New Deal. Some feel that his break and later support for Republican opponents in 1936 and 1940 came due to "bitterness" over the loss in 1928 and Roosevelt's election in 1932. While within the realm of possibility, it would be going against his character to hold a grudge and his history of fairness and working together in politics.
Following the end of his political career, he became president of Empire State Inc. This was the corporation that built and operated the Empire State Building. In 1944 (4 October), Al died in the same city he was born in: New York.
Sixteen years later the first Roman Catholic became president.
(Source: gi.grolier/presidents/ea/side/smith.html; www.msys.net/cress/ballots2/smith.htm; www.britannica.com; www.bartleby.com/65/ta/Tammany.html; election statistics from www.multied.com/elections/1928.html)