Inside the Polish Hall in downtown Albany one mid-October night, the babble of voices from the middleaged to elderly crowd was incessant, and candidates who rose for speeches spoke mostly to themselves. The real focus of attention was a potbellied old man in a rumpled fedora and shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries.
That man was Daniel P. O'Connell, the man who built and ran one of the most successful -- longevity measuring success -- political organizations in American history.
Another ritual of those October nights -- O'Connell believed you shouldn't start a political campaign until the World Series was over -- was the journalists present asking after O'Connell's election prediction. His answer rarely varied: "The usual," he said, meaning a Democratic sweep. With few exceptions, he was right.
For the last 61 years, Dan O'Connell's Democrats have run the politics in Albany. For 41 of those 61 years, Democrat Erastus Corning has been mayor of the city, the longest one-man administration of a major American city in history. O'Connell died in 1977 at 92, and for the last several years of his life, Mayor Corning's already strong role became dominant in the organization. Corning became party chairman when O'Connell died, survived some challenges and continued the party's political hold.
Yet questions about the future of the party arise with growing frequency now in Albany. Corning, 73, is in a Boston hospital, suffering from a lung ailment. He is still corresponding with and receiving regular visits from Albany officials and politicans -- in effect, running the city from 175 miles away -- but it is not clear how long this arrangement will last. There are several candidates, but no clear successor to Corning as party strongman, hence doubts are heard about the continued success of the "O'Connell machine."
Any discussion of the organization must start with Dan O'Connell, known to generations of Albanians as "Uncle Dan." He was by most accounts a man of the people, living modestly in a clapboard house. His money came from a brewery the family came to own, and the beer, Hedricks, became the leading brew in town, although many thought it thin and watery. He was almost reclusive concerning the press, granting no interviews until his last years.
Although not well schooled, he was apparently well read. Charles Dickens and O. Henry were among his favorites. He was considered an expert on baseball, played on an Albany semi-pro football team, boxed a little and loved cockfighting. "You can trust a cockfighter, but you can't trust a politician," one party regular remembers him saying, and he raised some fighting roosters as well as roses at his summer cottage in the Helderberg Mountains west of Albany.
He spent some time in jail for an undefined involvement in an illegal baseball pool, but that had no apparent effect on his powers as a political boss. As a boss he was superb, and he liked it. A politician once complained to him about his boss label, and O'Connell replied: "But I am the boss."
To his detractors -- and the Albany newspapers were principal among them -- he personified the worse traits of a political leader. Favoritism, disregard of the law, willful, manipulative, even bigoted, according to one opposition leader. His success was unquestioned, but the opposition criticized his methods and the kind of regressive and oppressive government that they think resulted.
One of four sons of an Albany saloonkeeper, O'Connell was probably drawn to politics through his father, "Black Jack" O'Connell. Although he mildly disapproved of his father's business, Dan tended bar at the saloon, a center of information where politics was a dominant topic. Dan, then 28, became a Democratic precinct committeeman in 1913 in a Republican-controlled city.
He served as a Navy cook in World War I, and, returning to Albany, got the Democratic nomination for assessor in 1919. Campaiging in his Navy uniform, he charged the incumbent administation with the same kind of abuses his organization would later be accused of. He won by 145 votes out of 41,000 cast, the lone Democratic winner that year. It was the only elective office he ever held.
O'Connell established an immediate style: He was available to everyone. Building an organization with his brother Ed and Edwin Corning, father of the present mayor, they swept all the city offices in the 1921 election.
Opposition waned over the years, and it was not until the late 1960s that they were successfully challenged. After losing a few elections (congressman, district attorney, state senator and assemblymen) the machine regrouped to win again through the 1970s.
The ties between the O'Connells and the Cornings run deep. As a boy, Dan O'Connell used to go to cockfights staged on the Corning estate south of town, and Erastus Corning was six years old when he first came to know O'Connell. Several of the Cornings used to drop by the O'Connell saloon, and Erastus Corning's father was a principal mover in the early years of the party.
The incumbent mayor is named for his great-grandfather, who was instrumental in merging several short feeder lines to create the New York Central Railraod, of which he was the first president. He made a fortune as an iron merchant, had the town of Corning named after him, served in Congress and was mayor of Albany from 1834 to 1837.
The descriptions of his great-grandson run to "brillant, a true student of government" as well as "aristrocratic" and "aloof." "He has a far-reaching mind on just about every subject," says Democratic State Sen. Howard Nolan, his unsuccessful 1977 primary challenger, "and he is an astute political leader."
His governmental wizardy was tested in 1962, when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller dropped a bombshell: He appropriated 98.5 acres in the center of town for a governmental office complex, the South Mall. Some 9,000 people were displaced in one of the most strongly Democratic sections of the city.
It was the mayor, however, who devised the scheme to finance the mall. It was a complicated lease-rental agreement under which the state deeded the land back to the county, which leased it back to the state for the cost of the construction. It enabled Rockefeller to get around a statewide bond issue, actually a referendum on the project, which was almost sure to lose.
The financing arrangement has proved profitable for the city; the South Mall pioneered a residential and trade resurgence in downtown Albany, and the displacement of the people had no visible impact on the machine's power. The Republican governor publicly acknowledged and praised Democrat Corning's unusual solution.
In the conduct of his office, Corning followed O'Connell's lead by being available to the people and responsive to their requests. "When he was in City Hall, he probably saw 50 people a day," says Thomas Whalen, 48, current president of Albany's Common Council, the legal successor to Corning should he relinquish the mayoralty. "He also personally answers every letter he gets."
At the same time, most agree that Corning is a very private person. He has a very small circle of friends, his wife rarely appears in public, and his two children have no apparent interest in politics.
Corning graduated from Yale in 1932 as a Phi Beta Kappa, was elected to the New York state assembly in 1936 and went to the state senate in l937. He ran Albany Associates, an insurance firm, and, at 32, was elected mayor of Albany by 46,000 votes out of 69,000 cast. He has served ever since, winning his 11th four-year term in 1981.
O'Connell's political control was rooted in the extremely efficient committeeman and ward leader system. Dan O'Connell did thousands of favors: $5 or $10 here and there, maybe as much as $100. A bag of groceries, a ton of coal when the cold whistled through the Wohouse, a job.
"Dan would break his back to do you a favor," remarks one person who has long observed the Democratic organization at work. "But you would have to ask him for it, and that way you knew and he knew that this was a favor. That got him loyalty."
From that beginning sprung the committeemen and ward leaders, who were charged with almost absolute knowledge of their districts and wards. The committeemen structure, says Common Council president Whalen, "was a network within the system. If the blue-collar people in town needed assistance, they learned they could go to the committmen. . . . The feeling grew that the Albany County Democratic Committee can do things for people."
William F. Keefe, 70, Mayor Corning's executive assistant and a committeeman for 30 years, remembers meetings with his ward leader when the voter registration books would come out and the ward leader would run down the list of voters. Each committeeman was responsible for about 400 voters, and the ward leader would ask: What does this person do for a living? What kind of problems is this family having? How many kids do these people have? "Some committeemen would say they didn't know or they forgot, but the ward leader would say 'You don't know your district. Learn it.' "
Richard J. Connors, 72, who was president of the Common Council from 1961 until his election to the state assembly in 1976, remembers that on the Wednesday or Thursday before an election, the committeeman would go over his list of registered voters and predict how they would vote. Those lists then went to the ward leaders, who looked them over and made changes if they wanted.
The ward leaders would gather the Sunday before the election -- for years the gathering place was the site of the old O'Connell saloon in the South End of town -- and tally up the lists. For years and years, those forecasts were unfailingly accurate.
The Albany voting practices and elections drew other kinds of attention: investigations. Gov. Thomas Dewey, who promised to break up the O'Connell machine, ordered a probe of allegedly padded registration rolls in 1942.
O'Connell countered with a request that the Republican towns in Albany County and the Republican-controlled state legislature be investigated. The confrontation ended three years later in a relative standoff -- some guilty pleas from low-level people in the machine and no convictions.
Sen. Nolan also notes that "rumor has it that Election Day brought substantial dollars into the streets of Albany." It was called the "$5 vote," and state legislative committees looked into the vote-buying allegations in 1965 and 1966. Considerable steam went out of the investigation when John T. Garry, then the district attorney, announced that he would prosecute those who received money as well as those who gave it.
Voters came to believe the Democrats somehow knew how people voted, just as they believed that Democratic committeemen could get tax assessments on houses lowered if the owner voted Democratic. Assessments were nearly always raised when a house was sold, and the committman would come around to the new owner, talk about the Democrats and mention that he might be able to do something about the assessment. He usually could by filing an appeal and getting an adjustment, but then so could anybody. The fact that that wasn't general knowledge was of great advantage to the committeeman and, eventually, the machine.
"Even if we didn't play the assessment game," one Democrat says, "people thought we did, and that was just as good."
Jobs, however, were another matter. County jobs, city jobs, state jobs. If you wanted to be a cop or a fireman or work in the city government or the county government or even the state government, you went to see a committeeman or Uncle Dan.
Many of those jobs were low-paying, but O'Connell believed that they gave the recepient a feeling of pride not matched by welfare. The jobs also generally resulted in the person's vote, as well as that of his family. Republican Proskin recalls an O'Connell dictum: "If there is one $30,000 job I don't want it. What I want are 15 jobs paying $2,000."
The city parks blossomed with workers, mostly older, during the spring, summer and fall. The newspapers once did a study of the number of custodial workers for Albany City Hall's four floors versus the 20 floors of a nearby office building. City Hall had 37 custodians, the office building had 39.
The more important jobs all went through Uncle Dan. They were channeled through the party headquarters at 75 State Street in downtown Albany. The jobs, in turn, became a source of income for the party. In general, two weeks' pay was contributed to the organiztation.
Apparently, money also came in from operations like the baseball pool. Trial testimony held that O'Connell extracted 2.5 percent of the gross take in return for letting the pool operate. O'Connell stonewalled during the 1929 investigation of the pool, refusing to tell the federal grand jury in New York City much of anything.
The machine also channeled city and county contracts to certain businessmen who made sizable party contributions, sold tax- deliquent property to friends at unannounced auctions and made sure tax assessment reduction cases went to certain lawyers.
While the organization had trouble with some of the investigations conducted over the years, it had very good luck with the courts. In many instances juries failed to indict or convict, and rulings from several judges -- who had been put in place by the orgnaization -- invariably favored the machine.
The makeup of the grand juries and well as trial juries in the city and county also sparked a probe in the 1960s, this time by the Republican opposition. They found that about 77 percent of the names on the jury lists were those of city residents, even though the city contained less than half the population of the county. The names on the prospective juror list, routinely screened for political affiliation, contained a high proportion of Democratic party workers and committeemen.
In 1964, the state courts decreed a change in that system, and the jury lists now reflect a better cross-section of the area's population and its politics.
It was not until the mid-1960s that the political dominance of the machine was challenged. In 1966, Dan Button resigned his position as executive editor of The Albany Times-Union, ran an imaginative campaign and upset Common Council President Connors for the area's congressional seat.
In 1968, the machine failed to regain the congressional seat, lost the district attorney race and was beaten in races for three state legislative seats. "We caught them asleep at the switch," says Joseph Frangella, the Republican county chairman at the time. "They didn't take us seriously."
The elections of 1969 were critical to the organization. The entire county legislature was up for election, and the O'Connell machine stirred. New young candidates emerged and a real campaign, long a missing ingredient for the Democrats, was staged. The organization won without much difficulty and continued control.
The mayor also survived challenges in the 1970s and, at the end of September, was reelected to another two-year terms as party chairman with barely a murmur of dissent.
But the mayor's prolonged hospitalization has had its effect. "I'm sure people are making moves now that they wouldn't if the mayor were more visible," says Common Council President Whalen.
The one person who sees the mayor every day is his longtime confidante Pauline (Polly) Noonan, currently president of the Albany Democratic Women's Club. She has become the principal conduit for the mayor's political decisions and thus a power, although her tough competitiveness has brought her many enemies in the party.
The factions in the organization are becoming more sharply defined, and there has been an intramural battle over committeemen. The mayor has triumphed in these skirmishes; he endorsed Mario Cuomo in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and won, and a committmen slate put forth by Noonan, and thus the mayor, in one city ward beat that of another faction. The machine's Republican opposition is relatively weak.
Yet, as Sen. Nolan and others note, "times change, people are different." Dan O'Connell is dead, the committeemen who made the machine what it is are retiring or dying, and the people who replace them don't harbor the same loyalties or committments.
Civil service has replaced political appointment in the police and fire departments as well as other city agencies. Welfare has long since replaced O'Connell's informal maintenance system, and the various investigations have had some impact -- such as the jury selection system -- over the years.
Prominent organization politicians, asked to pick a natural successor to Mayor Corning should he relinquish control, go through up to a dozen names, illustrating the dimension of the problem. "There is no real replacement for Dan or for Erastus," says Sen. Nolan.
So the future of the O'Connell machine is unpredictable, as is its ability to maintain its strength. Asked to define that future, the 72- year-old Connors, who has seen 20 years service as an alderman, 15 as president of the Common Council, and six as a state representative, replies: "I don't think I want to know. It's been my life. I'm just not sure I want to know."