Teaching Cleveland

Lesson 25

Handout 1 - Heelers, Boodlers, and War Bummers: Political Bossism in Cleveland

...In 1891, after many years of agitation, Cleveland received a new constitution, incorrectly named the Federal Plan. Essentially simple, it eliminated all the old boards, consolidating executive power in the hands of the mayor, assisted by his appointed cabinet of six directors. Furthermore, by giving the mayor and cabinet voteless seats in the council, the charter provided for executive leadership in legislation.

The new plan was received with great enthusiasm. Elroy Avery was convinced that there was "honor now [in serving] in the council" and agreed with the Leader that it was due mainly to the "substitution of strict business methods for the often corrupt jobbery that characterized the conduct of municipal affairs under the old board system." The Press celebrated the new municipal constitution with a cartoon showing triumphant gladiators returning with the document while politicians in chains bring up the rear. Atrocious verse added the final touch to this expression of Cleveland sentiment:

The heelers, boodlers, and war bummers they;
No wonder that they wish to break away;
Their occupations gone, their pockets drained,
'Tis natural that they must needs be chained,
Else for the plan that knocked them gally west
They would not be marching with the rest.
For the first administration the respectable and popular William G. Rose was recalled from retirement to serve as mayor, and a number of sincere, public-spirited men were elected to the council. All indication pointed toward more efficient municipal government operating in the interest of the people. Streets were actually cleaned, and road builders were forced to comply with the terms of their contracts. The vigorous law director, Edward S. Meyer, brought the Cleveland Gas Light and Coke Company to terms which were favorable to the public. Rates were lowered and the city guaranteed a share of the gross receipts. Such success, however, turned out to be most transitory. Four years later Cleveland was subjected to the most thorough going kind of bossism and irregular machine politics of the entire quarter century--a striking indication of the extremely naive analysis by sincere Clevelanders who never understood the relationship between bosses and boodle and the materialistic industrial urbanization of post-Civil War America. These reformers failed because their outlook rarely extended beyond the New England immigrants to the city. They ignored the interests of great masses of Clevelanders, not merely in political objectives, but in the daily problems which occupied the machine bosses. They asked ward heelers to withdraw but made no effort to satisfy the human wants of the immigrant, such as advice, aid, encouragement, or friendship, all of which were important functions of the machine. They looked with horror at the idea of giving these common folk any political favors and they expected the larger privilege-seekers would retire. The naive image prevailed: "good men" would legislate and administrate with a sort of public-spirited detachment. There simply were not enough of their sort of good men who were prepared to make the sacrifices demanded of them. They persisted in approaching urban problems with a village mind. The result was that bossism and the political machine were adapted to the new form of government. Indeed, the new, more centralized constitution enhanced the opportunities for efficient bossism.

The individual who was most responsible for the new machine politics was a young lawyer named Robert E. McKisson. Born in Pennsylvania in 1863, he was a relative newcomer who had become permanently associated with the Forest City around 1887. Entering politics, his rise to power was meteoric; by 1894 he had won a seat on the city council, and the following year, he was elected mayor. Reelected in 1897, he served four years and in that time he constructed a machine which employed almost all the schemes in a politician's bag of tricks, and which committed most of the usual abuses, again on a relatively small scale. McKisson was a man with political ambitions, not a professional grafter, and this was fortunate for Cleveland because it meant the irregularities were restricted to the necessary accompaniments of the machine rather than being the primary objective of office holding.

As usual the organization began at the ward level. It was a period when Czar Bernstein and his brilliant young lieutenant, Maurice Maschke, were busy controlling votes, and when "free beer, free lunch, and a free concert" were essential to every well-conducted campaign. If necessary, the regular vote was increased by illegal voters: absentees, dead men, and criminals with fictitious addresses which placed them in saloons, vacant lots, or empty houses. Party funds were collected ruthlessly, with assessments of five to seven percent of the officeholder's salary. Money was extorted from applicants for jobs on the public payroll. A typical report involved an ex-policeman who testified that McKisson considered his restoration to the force worth five hundred dollars; an offer of two hundred was refused. The McKissonites also made free use of the spoils system. There were numerous exposures of patronage and disregard for the principles of civil service in the machine's attempt to fill offices with its following.

Other irregularities, which helped keep the machine well oiled, had an adverse effect on the operation of the city government. Legal violation by the saloonists were ignored. Evil resorts were wide open, brazenly flaunting the law and the righteous protests of well-meaning church leaders. When policemen were asked why they turned their backs on these illegal activities, they explained, "they did not want to chase butterflies in the suburban precincts." The Citizen complained that under the shadows of Dr. Hiram Haydn's church on Public Square there were "bawdy houses, gambling hells, opium joints and rum holes running in full blast, night and day...in defiance of the law." No policeman in the Tenderloin would think of making himself ridiculous by denying it. Contractors and provision houses, selling goods and services to the city, took advantage of political pull, and lax, extravagant methods of operation to obtain business on favorable terms--and at public expense. Investigations by the Municipal Association, often verified by council investigations, disclosed overpayments on garbage disposals and sewer contracts, and payments for supplies which were never received. It further charged that favoritism in letting contracts had cost the city thousands of dollars--and mismanagement, juggling of figures, and incomplete records of financial transactions made it impossible to render an accurate statement covering expenditures of street cleaning or paving funds.

McKisson's power was broken in 1899. The flagrant disregard for principles of good government shocked a growing number of Clevelanders. Some may have been especially conscious of the abuses because they followed so rapidly on the heels of the enthusiastic reception of the Federal Plan. For many, however, it was a reflection of the growing national resentment against the activities of selfish interests, many of which appeared to be centered in municipal management. For perpetual reformers like the city ministers or the left-wingers, McKisson was the target for a vigorous onslaught almost from the beginning. Ministers like I.A. Banks or William Knight fought the mayor's tolerance toward saloons and evil resorts. The Franklin Club attacked corruption and mismanagement, and the Citizen--representing Cleveland labor--joined both clerical and lay opposition.

Their persistence was, at times, an annoyance to McKisson, who responded with blustering and rather undignified replies. Undoubtedly these groups added to the clamor of the opposition, but they were not successful in effecting reform or overthrowing the regime. Perhaps more influential was the Municipal Association of Cleveland, formed in 1895 under the leadership of Harry Harfield and other idealists, such as Frederick C. Howe. It's voice carried greater weight for two reasons: first, its membership was drawn from eminently respectable Clevelanders; and second, it was part of a national movement. Other cities were building similar associations to fight

for municipal reform, and the first annual conference of a National Municipal League for Good City Government met in Cleveland during the same year. The organizers of the local group "felt it was time for a permanent organization which should stimulate attention to public affairs on the part of private citizens." Non-partisan, it investigated candidates, fought for such reforms as Waring's White Wings or elimination of the smoke nuisance. Municipal government was observed, and abuses of political power were investigated and exposed. Mayor McKisson was not the inspiration for the Municipal Association--at least not the only one--but it was inevitable that he became the symbol of municipal mismanagement and corruption for this group as well as for other reformers.

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