Politician, Social Worker, and Lawyer. Vito Marcantonio and Constituent Legal Services

Matthew Murtagh

Public Interest Advocacy Seminar
May 18, 2010

I. Introduction

As the winter of 1946 dragged on, Henry Mercher sat in his apartment on East 108th Street in East Harlem, New York.  Unemployed, he was earning only $21 a week from Social Security.  With Christmas a few short weeks away, Mercher felt like he was out of options.  On December 14, he mailed a letter to his congressman, Vito Marcantonio.  “It’s going to be a very unhappy Christmas for my two motherless children a son 9 and a girl 11 years old,” wrote Mercher.  “If you can help in any way so that my two children can enjoy the Christmas holidays, you would render me a great service,” he continued, signing it, “Your Friend As Ever, Henry Mercher.”1

Further south, another family struggled under the weight of poverty, a few blocks and yet a world away from the lights and glamour of Fifth Avenue at Christmas time.  Helen Altut, like her neighbor Henry Mercher, turned to “Marc,” as he was popularly known, for help.  She hoped to receive a ticket for a Christmas basket, an annual holiday service run by Marcantonio’s office.  “Friend,” wrote Altut, “you have been so kind to us in the past.  I don’t know how to thank you and I never can, as there are not very many people like your self in New York who is at all times ready and willing to help the poor.”  Thanking him in advance, she concluded, “God bless you in your wonderful work.”2

When in 1954 the 51-year-old Marcantonio died of a heart attack, condolence messages sent to his widow, Miriam, invariably alluded to the constituent services that were the subject of the letters from Mercher and Altut.  “How the poor will miss him… few gave themselves for others as he did,” wrote Rosalia Manning.3   The Corona Club of the American Labor Party, of which Marcantonio was State Chairman until 1953, sent a telegraph, lamenting, “the meek, the humble, the underprivileged, the voiceless have lost their champion.”4   Even Robert Moses, the “power broker” and master builder of New York, sent his condolences.5   He wrote, “Mary and I were both very fond of Marc and so were our girls.  We all agreed that he was one of the kindest people we had ever met and, while his philosophy was quite beyond us, we shall miss him.”6 

The “philosophy” to which Moses refers is that which turned Marcantonio into a national political figure.  Vito Marcantonio, “the most consequential radical politician in the United States in the twentieth century” according to some, was the seven term Republican, then American Labor Party representative of the mostly Italian, immigrant ghetto of East Harlem, a tenure that spanned from 1934-36, and then from 1938-1950.7   Marcantonio was, during this time, viewed by many as “the national spokesman for the left, or at least that part of the left in some way associated with the Communist Party.”8   John Abt, who served as co-counsel with Marcantonio in defending the Communist Party during the McCarran Act cases, described Marc as “something special,” a “man of legendary proportions” who was “unrelenting in his opposition to any form of injustice.”9   Praised by many, Marcantonio was vilified by his opponents, who often denounced him as “the leading mouthpiece of the Moscow party line,” and as having “accepted, spoken for and voted the Communist line during the last decade.”10   Capturing the polarizing nature of Marcantonio’s political career, prior to the 1948 election even the liberal New York Times editorial board asked the voters “whether they are going to vote Russian or vote American” when they went to the polls to reelect Marcantonio.11 

Both his supporters and opponents, though, recognized that Marcantonio was tremendously popular among his constituents.  “Politicians are dubious about defeating him,” wrote one Times headline in 1947.12   “I canvassed for Marcantonio,” said a former campaign worker, Fay Leviton.  “He was very, very popular.  People would offer you a glass of wine or to come in and have something to eat,” she continued.13   This tremendous popularity, for a man who was the most conspicuous radical politician in the United States, has prompted several examinations of what has been called the “Marcantonio phenomenon.”  Alan Schaffer, the author of the first book-length study of Marcantonio’s life, discussed the concept of the “Marcantonio phenomenon” so:

Considering the almost constant and frequently violent opposition to his biennial

candidacy, in the press and among politicians belonging to the two major

parties, how did he manage to win election after election?  On two occasions

the New York State Assembly attempted to legislate Marcantonio out of office,

once by gerrymandering his district, again by passing a special election law.14

Undaunted, the congressman went back before the voters and with remarkable

obstinacy his constituents sent him back again and again to represent them in

Washington.  In two primary elections he managed to garner the nomination of all

three major parties in New York thus obviating the necessity for any general

election campaign.15

 

Gerald Meyer, the foremost scholar of Marcantonio, described the “Marcantonio phenomenon” more concisely, defining it as the experience of a “a successful pro-Communist Congressman representing a non-radical [heavily Italian, and later mixed Italian-Puerto Rican-Irish-German-African American] constituency.”16

This paper seeks not so much to tell the story of Vito Marcantonio, whose life and career has already been the subject of several works.17   Rather, building on Gerald Meyer’s study of Marcantonio’s formidable political organization, this paper hopes to shed greater light onto the role that legal services played in the building of the “Marcantonio phenomenon”- tremendous constituent support for one of the most left-leaning politicians ever elected to national office in the United States.  In a brief biographical sketch to begin the discussion, this paper will not so much recount Marcantonio’s career in Congress, which the three book-length biographies do very well, but rather his youth and development as a politician-social worker-lawyer.  After a quick overview of the operation of the Marcantonio political organization, the paper will then turn to an analysis of the legal services provided by the Fiorello La Guardia, later renamed the Vito Marcantonio, Political Association, a topic which has never been explored in detail by scholars of Marcantonio.18   Ultimately, this paper will argue that such a provision of constituent legal services, on the same or on a greater scale as that attempted by Vito Marcantonio, should be a necessary element of any progressive movement for social change that seeks to win power through the ballot box.  Putting forward a conception of public interest legal advocacy that is closely intertwined with electoral politics, this paper will urge left-leaning lawyers, law students, and politicians to consider the Marcantonio example in their quest to build a lasting progressive movement for social change in the United States.

This paper, however, does not attempt to provide a comprehensive analysis of the Marcantonio legal services operation.  Because of temporal and spatial constraints, this paper only scratches the surface of the wealth of information found in the four boxes of the Marcantonio archives devoted exclusively to “Legal Cases.”19   If law is construed more broadly to include not only courtroom appearances and administrative proceedings, but assistance in navigating the New Deal and post-New Deal administrative state, the sheer volume of material in the Marcantonio archives would require years of study.

This paper is also necessarily limited in the type of legal work it discusses.  Marcantonio the lawyer was perhaps best known as defense counsel to the Communist Party, and various individuals associated with it, during the McCarthy years.20   Marcantonio’s final legal brief, in fact, was a constitutional challenge to the McCarran Act, one which eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.21   While Marcantonio’s work as a “lawyer for civil liberties,” including his work in the 1930s as counsel for the Workers Alliance and president of International Labor Defense, surely deserves as study of its own, this paper focuses solely on the direct legal services, much of it quite routine, that Marcantonio and his legal staff provided to his constituents during his time in office.22 

 

II. “You Was and Still Are the Bread of the Poor People”: The Life of the Young Marcantonio: Politician, Social Worker, and Lawyer23

 

Marcantonio’s early years had a strong influence on the constituent service model he later developed while in office.  Marcantonio was born in 1902 in the tenement district of East Harlem, then “the largest and most Italian Little Italy in the United States.”24   The son of an Italian-American carpenter and an Italian immigrant mother, Marcantonio distinguished himself academically at an early age.  While attending De Witt Clinton High School in Manhattan, one of only ten Italian-Americans in his class, Marcantonio became active in an East Harlem settlement house, Casa del Popolo, as well as with the East Harlem Tenants Association, where he was a leader of a successful rent strike at the age of 18.25   As a member of an Italian student group at DeWitt Clinton, Il Circolo Italiano, Marc tutored fellow students from Italian Harlem, while also conducting citizenship classes at Casa del Popolo.  In 1921, as a senior at De Witt Clinton, Marcantonio fortuitously found himself on the stage with then Board of Alderman chair, and future congressman for East Harlem and mayor Fiorello La Guardia.26   Annette Rubinstein, a close associate of Marcantonio during his political career, recounted the meeting as such: “Fiorello La Guardia spoke at Marc’s graduation from high school [in 1921].  Marc was the salutatorian and spoke about the need for old-age pensions.  La Guardia said, ‘I’m tearing up my speech and talking about the topic raised by this young man.’  Later, he told Marc to call him for a job after he graduated from law school, which he did.”27

While at New York University Law School, Marcantonio continued to volunteer at Casa del Popolo.  He also began working at Haarlem House, a settlement house in East Harlem that provided social and educational services with an emphasis on “community organization for mutual self-improvement.”28   Marcantonio held numerous positions at Haarlem House, including naturalization director, director of educational work, and director of men’s activity.  It was there that he also met his wife, Miriam Sanders.29 

When not assisting at Casa del Popolo and Haarlem House, Marcantonio clerked at the law firm of Haile, Nelles, and Shoor, known for its representation of radical individuals and organizations.  While there, he worked with labor lawyer Joseph Brodsky, the man who later became counsel to the Communist Party and one of the attorneys representing the Scottsboro Boys.  According to biographer Gerald Meyer, “Marcantonio’s association with the firm, in particular with Brodsky, significantly contributed to his left orientation.  He began reading Marx and Engels and sought every opportunity to discuss political and philosophical matters with members of the firm and their clients.”30   Marcantonio’s political interests also manifested themselves in his role as campaign manager of the 1924 congressional campaign of Fiorello La Guardia, then running under the banner of the Progressive and Socialist parties.31   According to Marcantonio, “LaGuardia asked me to actively participate in that campaign, and together with a handful of our friends and neighbors in East Harlem, we conducted a successful campaign for him and for [Senator Robert M.] La Follette[‘s presidential campaign] in our district.”32   Later observers were much less modest about Marcantonio’s role; biographer Schaffer noted that Marcantonio brilliantly executed his role as La Guardia’s campaign manager, resulting in La Guardia’s “most sweeping victory” to that date.33

La Guardia, who had lost his wife and daughter a few years earlier, grew close with the young Marcantonio, and came to view him “as a protégé and son.”34   Prior to his graduation from law school, La Guardia offered him a clerkship at his law firm Foster, La Guardia, and Cutler.  Although Marcantonio had nearly flunked out of law school, La Guardia was quick to give him legal responsibility at the firm, demanding, for example, that he be allowed to sit in on case reviews.35   The closeness between the two men can be seen in a letter written by La Guardia to Marcantonio, shortly after he joined the firm in 1925.  “Dear Sonny,” wrote La Guardia,

You are going to have a lot to learn and a long way to go before you will be a

lawyer in the real sense of the word… You have an opportunity presented to you

as such as few boys have, other than those who can step into their father’s office

and know that one day it will be theirs.  That is what I am offering you.  You must

make up your mind and be fair with me.  You are either going to be a politician, a

social worker, or a lawyer.36 [emphasis added]

 

Washington-bound La Guardia didn’t exactly follow his own advice; he chose

 

Marcantonio to be his “finger on the pulse of the community” and leader of the nascent Fiorello La Guardia Political Association, a group Marcantonio founded to support the 1924 election campaign of La Guardia.  Honing his skills as a combination of a political organizer, social worker, and lawyer, just what La Guardia had advised against in his letter, Marcantonio “handled complaints, processed visa applications for relatives of constituents, assisted others in obtaining naturalization papers, fought exorbitant rents and evictions, and answered civil service, veterans’ benefits, and other legal aid inquiries.”37

In 1930, La Guardia, entering into his fourth term in the House of Representatives, secured for Marcantonio a job as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.  Marcantonio held the position for two years, specializing in immigration cases.  Unhappy with the work, he resigned in 1932 to establish his own labor law firm of Pinto & Marcantonio.  In 1933, when La Guardia won election to the mayoralty of New York, Marcantonio received his endorsement to be the next congressman from East Harlem.  Marcantonio, using the strength of the La Guardia Political Association he had created, was elected to La Guardia’s seat in 1934, beginning a political career that would last until 1950.38

 

III. “Nothing Too Small For Him to Take Care Of”: Marcantonio’s Political Organization39

 

Of all of the factors that contributed to Marcantonio’s political success, perhaps none played as great a role as his formidable political organization.  Gerald Meyer called the Vito Marcantonio Political Association “the most efficient, effective, and elaborate political machine in New York City.”40   “He was absolutely legendary for providing services,” said Meyer in a 2002 interview.  These services, he said, were “carried out on a colossal scale.  [Marcantonio] sat in his headquarters all day Saturday and Sunday.  People would be given a number and waited.  He would briefly speak to them and refer them to someone on his staff or one of his many volunteers.  It happened every single weekend.”41 

Excerpts from two magazine articles from 1944 offer glimpses into the service operations of the La Guardia, and later the Marcantonio, Political Association.  Richard Rovere, appearing in Harpers, wrote:

The scene in the LaGuardia Club after one o’clock on Sunday looks like nothing

so much as a busy day in the clinic of a great city hospital.  Marcantonio and three

or four secretaries sit at desks on a platform in front of the main hall.  Before them

on wooden chairs are about a hundred constituents, many of them cradling infants

in their arms… as many as four hundred may come and go in an afternoon…

They speak in Spanish, Italian, English, and various mixtures of the three.

Marcantonio can always answer in kind, throwing in a little Yiddish if the need

arises.  Mostly their problems concern money or jobs… Some need legal aid…

Marcantonio sees personally about thirty thousand… in the course of a

Congressional term.42

 

Walter Davenport, writing in Collier’s, observed the following:

 

For an hour before the Honorable Vito Marcantonio trots into the F.H.

LaGuardia Political Club in East Harlem, New York City, the hall reeks with woe.  But not hopeless woe.  Marc will listen.  Marc will know the answers.

In at least six languages the crowd compares troubles… in Italian,

Spanish, Polish, Yiddish, Hungarian and English- the latter in a wide assortment

of dialects: Irish, native Negro, West Indian Negro, New York…

… Gas bills, landlord complaints, complaints against landlords.

Naturalization.  Sickness.  Wayward children.  O.P.A. violations.  Non-support.

Pensions.  Army allotments.  Jobs… Like this for hours…

Somehow, along about seven o’clock the lists are exhausted.  So are the

Congressman and his aides… Three hundred and twenty-seven of Vito

Marcantonio’s constituents have been heard, advised, helped.  Tomorrow it will

start all over again.43

 

According to numbers compiled by Gerald Meyer, Marcantonio personally interviewed some twenty-five thousand people a year at the bi- or tri-weekly intake sessions he attended.44   His aides assisted many more.  Between 1946 and 1948, for instance, the local American Labor Party organization fulfilled thirty five thousand aid requests.  In his biography, Meyer estimated that in 1948 alone one out of every seven registered voters in Marcantonio’s district received help from the congressman’s political organization.45

The Marcantonio service operation, while unparalleled in its size, was not entirely unique in its day.  Meyer noted that “the idea of an urban politics providing services for its constituents was… part of the political culture of the time.”46   Perhaps nowhere was this truer than in New York, where the mother of all political machines, Tammany Hall, had used a strong service model to help win generations of votes.47   George Washington Plunkitt, the famed Tammany leader, famously described politics in the following way:

What tells in holdin’ your grip on your district is to go right down among the poor

families and help them in the different ways they need help.  If there’s a fire…

any hour of the day or night, I’m usually there with some of my election district

captains as soon as the fire engines.  If a family is burned out I don’t ask whether they are Republicans or Democrats, and I don’t refer them to the Charity Organization Society, which would investigate their case in a month or two and decide they were worthy of help about the time they are dead from starvation.  I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them if their clothes were burned up, and fix them up till they get things runnin’ again.  It’s philanthropy, but it’s politics, too- mighty good politics.48

 

Marcantonio’s service operation drew from some of the better aspects of the Tammany Tiger, as it was known, while discarding its more distasteful elements.  The Marcantonio political operation, for instance, mirrored more traditional machines in its structure- district captains and Assembly District leaders- and dispensed patronage, albeit in a limited way.49   Marcantonio also provided Christmas baskets to constituents and coal during the winter, a variation of the Tammany practice of providing turkeys to needy families during the holidays.50   Marcantonio often met such constituent requests for assistance with money out of his own pocket.51 

Unlike Tammany, Marcantonio rejected the old adage of machine politics that you “do not raise issues of ideology or philosophy if you want to remain in office long,” and that a kickback every now and then came with the territory.  Marcantonio, instead, stood diametrically opposed to the old style services-in-exchange-for-votes-and-money model; “no contemporary politician was more ideological, yet none took more to heart the immediate needs of his constituents,” wrote Meyer.52   The Marcantonio machine was also truly unique in that it “attracted people on the basis of ethnic pride and ideological affinity”- leftists in the Communist Party and the American Labor Party, radical trade unionists, civil rights leaders, progressive social workers and lawyers, and “neighborhood Italian Americans,” whom Marcantonio considered to be the “backbone of his political organization- and his friends”- and did not ask for anything in return for its assistance.53   Unlike Tammany pols, who were “in it for the business,” asking for payouts and kickbacks for any services they performed, Marcantonio provided services “with no strings attached.”54   Communist lawyer John Abt stressed that this reflected the truly “grass-roots” character of Marcantonio’s operation, which was, in his view, built on the practical understandings Marc gained while a tenant organizer and on a political foundation that had at its core an un-ideological conception of socialism.55   Sidney Shallot, a reporter for the conservative Saturday Evening Post, agreed; in a 1947 article, he wrote, “the Marcantonio system of personal service is unique… Marcantonio insists almost fanatically that no constituent, however lowly or troublesome, gets the kiss-off.”56 

 

 

IV. “In Another Country, or At Another Time in Our Own, There Would Be Streets Named for Him”: Marcantonio’s Legal Services and the Development of Constituent Support57

Marcantonio, in a 1939 speech on the floor of Congress in support of low income housing legislation, described himself “as one who was born in the slums, who was raised in the slums, and who still lives in the slums.”58   This lifelong residency in East Harlem gave Marcantonio the lawyer a unique vantage point to understand the tremendous, and tremendously underserved, legal needs of his constituents.  He sought to meet this need by personally stepping into the legal void, offering to his constituents his own legal services, and those of volunteer attorneys and clerks.

Legal matters were a major part of services the Marcantonio Political Association provided.  The Association always had at least one lawyer on call, and at times as many as four, with Marcantonio himself handling the most complex legal issues.59   The steady stream of lawyers, most if not all of whom were volunteers, dealt with “ordinary cases… kind of cookie cutter stuff,” mainly landlord-tenant and immigration issues, with some criminal cases sprinkled in.60   The lawyers “weren’t necessarily left lawyers,” but nevertheless often saw themselves as “securing all kinds of rights” for the “clients,” as constituents requesting services were known.61   Marcantonio himself never accepted money for these services, commenting “it’s what I get ten thousand a year for [in congressional salary].  It’s their dough!”62   It is unclear how the lawyers were paid, if they were paid at all.  According to Meyer, at any given time there were five to eight paid individuals on staff, their salaries paid by “Marcantonio himself- his congressional salary and income from his [labor] law practice.”  The rest were volunteers.63

Marcantonio took these constituent legal cases very seriously.  While Marcantonio was known for his zealousness in general with regard to constituent services, he was especially “tyrannical and fierce” when it came to the “cases” and “contracts,” as he termed constituent legal requests, demanding that they, along with all other constituent requests, “be responded to immediately.”64   While the Marcantonio political machine may have been, as one writer noted, “sluggish, inefficient, and inconsistent” in some respects, Marcantonio nevertheless imposed law-firm-like precision when it came to constituent services.  He demanded, for example, that “everything in the pending file should be followed up every ten days.”65  He would also send out associates to find constituents who had requested aid but had missed their scheduled appointment at the Association, demanding a report back on the individual’s location “as soon as you can.”66   Marcantonio would grow outraged if he felt an aide was not doing enough to follow up on constituent requests.  He chastised one unfortunate associate, writing, “your fancy alibis on this case don’t go with me… Am I to believe that you are purposely refraining from reporting on cases in the hope that I will forget about them- don’t try to conceal anything from me as in the long run, I will surely catch up with you.”67

Marcantonio did his own following up with constituents as well.  In 1947, for instance, Marc sent an inquiring letter to constituent Angel Luis Lebron, after having not received a response to a previous letter he had written Lebron “some time ago.”  Marcantonio requested that Lebron “please advise me of the present status of your problem, so that I may follow it up for you if it is not satisfactorily adjusted.  If the matter has been settled, let me know so that I may close the file on this matter.”  He closed the letter asking Lebron, as he customarily did in constituent mail, to “feel free to call on me whenever you feel that I may be of some service to you as your Congressman.”68

 

A. Welfare and Other “Relief” Aid

In a district where nearly half the population was receiving public assistance, requests for welfare help consisted of one of the largest discreet groups of aid requests.69   The Marcantonio Political Association was often successful in obtaining welfare benefits for constituents.  Staff members would assist clients with their welfare applications, helping them stress those criteria that had the greatest weight on eligibility.  The procedure was discussed in a 1949 New York Times article, in which aide Manuel Medina outlined the procedures for welfare intakes: “when someone comes in who’s entitled to relief we send him to the proper welfare station for an application.  He brings it back and we help him fill it out.  If he can’t speak English we send an interpreter back to the station with him.”  If there was an undue delay, a Marcantonio aide would go to the welfare office to “jog the administrator.”  Additionally, Medina or John Pizzo, another aide and future law partner of Marcantonio, would hold weekly discussions with the Department of Welfare community interviewer, discussing neighborhood welfare issues.  Finally, “sometimes [they would] discuss [welfare] policy with the administrator of the district office.”70

Meyer noted that this area “became the most controversial of the Marcantonio Political Association’s services,” in large part due to the success of the efforts of Marcantonio and his associates to vindicate “the rights of individuals to obtain public assistance, and once their cases were accepted to obtain maximum benefits.”71   In 1935, for instance, James Lanzetta, Marcantonio’s Tammany-backed opponent in the congressional election, charged that Marcantonio won only because votes were “bought and paid for by placing on the home relief rolls of the city persons and families who were not needy cases.”  Marcantonio acknowledged that “people came to us at our political club with relief problems, and we did help them when we could, showing them how they could get relief,” but called Lanzetta’s allegation that this amounted to vote-buying “silly” and “ridiculous.”72

Marcantonio’s political organization did not simply assist “clients” in filling out forms to receive the assistance to which they had a right, or hold weekly meetings with administrators.  Often, constituents required affirmative representation before various welfare agencies.  In a 1942 letter, for instance, addressed to Mrs. Carmen Gonzales, Marcantonio noted that Medina “was called at the Non Settlement Division in your behalf.”   This appearance was successful, as Medina “was advised that on December 16th the following considerations were requisitioned for your family: a $14.25 cash allowance, 1 set # 5 and 1 man’s mackinaw.”73

Marcantonio and his associates also found that assisting in welfare cases at times required navigating the byzantine system of federal, state, and local agencies to ensure that the client received what he or she was due.  In 1938, for instance, Marcantonio wrote a letter to Domestic Relations Court on behalf of Mrs. Frances Monturi, who was “having difficulties with her husband.”  Marcantonio was at the time “assisting her in the matter of securing assistance from the Department of Public Welfare (Home-Relief Division)… [but had] been informed that no action will be taken by them unless the matter first clears your court.”  He urged the Domestic Relations Court to “expedite” “this humane case,” in order to ensure that Monturi could receive the welfare assistance she required.74

On other occasions, the dire need for immediate relief took precedence over legal help.  When Mrs. Lynch arrived at Marcantonio’s club on November 4, 1946 with a worker’s compensation claim, she needed immediate financial assistance even more than a lawyer.  The Association gave her $5.00.  In his letter to her, Marcantonio urged Mrs. Lynch “to keep in touch with Miss Grace Cox, my law assistant in order that she may be able to help you with your legal matter.  Be assured that I am anxious to be of service to you as your Congressman.”75

B. Housing

Housing issues, including complaints about landlords, threats of eviction, and requests for public housing, made up nearly one-third of all constituent requests for aid by 1950.76  In the sprawling tenement district of East Harlem, the housing was overwhelmingly of poor quality, most of it having been constructed prior to the 1901 Tenement House Act, which for the first time required such things as a toilet on each floor, minimum fireproofing, and a window in each room.  A typical East Harlem “old law” tenement was a six-story walkup, with four apartments to a floor.  Only after La Guardia’s mayoral election in 1933 were these “old law” tenements required to have a toilet for each family, a workable fire escape, and a lighted hallway.  Often, the only windows in the walkup could be found in those rooms that faced the front and the back of the building.  The buildings were grossly overcrowded, with as many as 150 people living in each walkup, making East Harlem, with 5,000 people to a block, the most densely populated area of the United States.77 

Marcantonio, throughout his political career, made clear that he was an ally of the tenants in their war against the landlords.  In his 1948 campaign, he draped his political club with a billboard reading, “Don’t pay rent increases.  If your landlord asks for a rent increase, report here and I shall help you fight the real estate trust—Your Congressman, Vito Marcantonio.”78         In his unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 1949, Marcantonio burnished his credentials as a fighter for the tenant class, issuing a campaign pledge card, which read in part, “we are tired of living in a city where everybody has a mayor except us- the people.  Real estate kings, landlords, the bankers, business corporations, public utility companies, insurance combines, Tammany politicians and their racketeer friends- they all have a mayor who plays ball with them.”79

Not surprisingly, one of the most common housing issues the Marcantonio Political Association dealt with was complaints about housing conditions, often because of a landlord’s failure to maintain the building in a habitable state.  Usually, the Association would send a letter to the Department of Housing and Buildings, requesting an inspection of the premises.  One such letter from 1946, addressed to Chief Inspector Morris Goldfinger, urged that the inspection be “expedit[ed]” so that tenant complaints of dirty hallways, yard roof, and cellar “be corrected.”80   Another, from a few months later, also addressed to Goldfinger, emphasized that “it is apparent that the building is a dangerous abode and presents jeopardy to the lives and welfare of the residents residing there,” urging once again an “expedit[ed]” inspection.

These interventions were often successful, and usually involved such seemingly mundane issues as a new paint job.  In one 1948 letter to a constituent who received such an intervention, Marcantonio wrote that “my representative, Mrs. Sonya Guddoni, has advised me that as a results [sic] of efforts taken in your behalf, your apartment has been painted.”81  Such small victories were, as Meyer notes, “of major importance in this overwhelmingly tenement district,” and “meant the world to someone obviously.”82   While the Marcantonio Political Association was generally successful in such matters that involved enforcement of the housing code, it was, however, “largely unsuccessful in assisting people to obtain preference in apartments in public housing projects.”83 

At times, Marcantonio and his associates were forced to go to court in defense of their constituents.  Most often this happened after a landlord issued an eviction notice to the building’s tenants.  One such case occurred in 1949, when the landlord of 408-410 East 63rd St. began eviction proceedings against the tenants.  Marcantonio fired off a letter to the tenants on congressional letterhead, writing that, “it is important that you bring the eviction notices to Mr. [Allen] Goodwin” at the Marcantonio club, whom Marcantonio described as his “legal representative.”  Marc also alerted them that, “Mr. Goodwin has filed with the Housing Expediter an application for a review and will take this mater up in court on Tuesday with a view towards obtaining an adjournment of the trial.”84 

One successful intervention by Marcantonio’s legal staff involved an eviction proceeding brought against Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cosentino, of 257 East 74th St.  In a letter from Marcantonio to the Cosentino’s, the congressman wrote that “he was very pleased to learn from his legal representative, Mr. Allen Goodwin” that during the trial challenging the eviction “the perjury of the landlord was fully exposed by Mr. Goodwin, and that as a consequence thereof the landlord was obliged to discontinue the proceeding.”  Marcantonio expressed his pleasure that “Mr. Goodwin’s assistance in this long fight has resulted in a victory,” and urged the Cosentino’s to “not hesitate to call me at any time.”  Marcantonio also enclosed a copy of a letter he sent to the Temporary City Housing Rent Commissioner, as Marc believed the events “warrant[ed] action on [the Commissioner’s] part,” namely revocation of the previously issued Certificate of Eviction.85   In a February 8, 1949 letter, Marcantonio noted that the certificate had been vacated, and that he had “communicated with the Department of Housing and Buildings regarding an immediate inspection so that your landlord may be compelled to remove the stove from the passageway.”86 

Aside from legal support, evicted tenants who sought Marcantonio’s help, or who were sought out by their congressman, could also count on citywide political support as well.  When, for example, the eviction of the tenants of 426-446 East 79th St. was taken up by Marcantonio attorneys Goodwin and Leonard Wacker in 1949, messages of support arrived from American Labor Party clubs all over the city.  In one telegram, addressed to “Mrs Hoffman & Other Evicted Tenants,” the ALP club of the 12th Assembly District “join[ed] other ALP clubs in supporting your fight against mass eviction.”87   The 7th Assembly District ALP club, similarly, pledged “its full support evicted tenants East 79th St to obtain decent housing from O Dwyer New York City Government which cruelly permitted their eviction coldest winter weather.”88

Much as with welfare cases, it appears that the Marcantonio Political Association also fronted rent to tenants when they were unable to pay.  In a contract signed March 27, 1946, handwritten on congressional letterhead, Mae Kahn agreed, “in consideration of the sum of thirty-five dollars… paid to me by Mr. Ray Egbert… [to] release the Vito Marcantonio Political Association from any liability allegedly caused to me by the renting of the apartment at 535 E. 81 St… by Matthew Gerrity.”89   Gerrity, identified as the “Chairman of the Parent-Tenant Committee” in other correspondence, accepted rent payments, for which he issued receipts, noting that “the rooms” for which the rent was received “[are] to be painted and all necessities to the apartment [are] to be furnished.”90   Presumably, Gerrity was affiliated with the Marcantonio Political Association, and when he was short on rent payments from the tenants in the building, he turned to Marcantonio to make up the difference.

 

C. Criminal

The Marcantonio Political Association also provided legal assistance to constituents, and possibly even some non-constituents, facing criminal charges.  In 1946, for instance, the Association received a request for legal representation from Lawrence Lala, a resident of an Italian section of Brooklyn.  Lala had received a summons, and sent it to Marcantonio’s office.  In his letter returning the summons, Marcantonio expressed his “regret that none of our lawyers were able to appear for you.”  He, nevertheless, “trust[ed] that the matter was satisfactorily settled at the hearing… [as] in cases of this kind when it is a first offence, a warning is the only penalty.”91

By far the largest case in the Marcantonio files, in terms of individuals involved and number of documents, concerned a series of police raids of Italian social clubs in East Harlem in early 1947.  These raids occurred in the months after the 1946 Election Day beating of a Republican district captain, Joseph Scottoriggio, by three or four men.  When Scottoriggio died three days later, Governor Thomas E. Dewey called the killing “an attempt by left-wingers to intimidate others working for a free election.”92   In the aftermath, some 1,300 East Harlem residents were taken in for interrogation, and the longest-seated grand jury in the city’s history was impaneled to investigate the case.  Marcantonio was called, and, waiving his immunity, testified.  He was also the subject of a House investigation, as well as a suit filed by his opponent in the Democratic primary charging that his organization intimidated voters. 93   The murder was never solved, but opponents not-so-subtly alleged that Marcantonio, although never found guilty of any wrongdoing, was behind this “political murder.”94

In the aftermath of the Scottoriggio murder, the district was flooded with officers, and the Police Department itself, in the words of the New York Times, was subject to “some of the most drastic shake-ups in [its] history,” with new squads, precincts, and districts formed to “aid the police drive” in East Harlem.  The first targets of this increased presence were the numerous social clubs throughout East Harlem, where men would gather to hang out and play cards.  The police, on the grounds of having received an “anonymous telephone call” earlier in the evening, would enter into the social club, usually located on the ground floor of a tenement building, or in the back of a candy store.  They would then proceed to arrest all present for use of “loud and boisterous language while engaged in games of cards,” or pool, at times for money, “to the annoyance of tenants in the premises and residents in the vicinity.”95   The police often repeated these visits, demanding the club either close by 10 p.m. or close altogether.96

Marcantonio had the chance to witness one of these raids firsthand when on January 27, 1947 the police raided the Monte Vulture Social Club, located across the street from his apartment.  Marcantonio “went to the aid of the fifteen defendants,” reported the New York Times, “advising them from the sidewalk to ‘say nothing’ and promising to protect their rights in the station house and in court.”  He followed them to the precinct, “where he received permission to speak with several of them and… ‘warned them of their rights.’”  The next morning, he represented them at their arraignment, winning their acquittal on the grounds that the charge was “legally baseless,” as the officer could not point to a single individual as responsible for the noise.97

Marcantonio, following the raid, charged that Police Commissioner Arthur Wallander was “harassing” his district, noting that “this sort of thing has been happening every week-end in my district for months.”  Marcantonio was convinced that the police had imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on East Harlem.  He sought to bring this out at the arraignment of the Monte Vulture defendants, but the judge struck these questions from the record.98   Nevertheless, Marcantonio and his associates remained persistent, such as when, during an arraignment for a February 27 raid, Goodwin asked, “haven’t you [the arresting officer] been ordered to make arrests in candy stores and clubs in this neighborhood, where you see a few people standing around and talking?”99

Marcantonio brought suit on February 10, on behalf of fifteen social clubs, seeking an injunction of the police raids, complemented by damage suits of $10,000 for “false arrest and imprisonment” for each individual arrested.100   “The whole area is incensed and outraged,” he said, noting that he was bringing the suit to protect “the civil rights of our neighbors and citizens.”101   While the Police Department charged that “a great many of these clubs’ members have long police records,” a thinly-veiled reference to Mafia connections, Marcantonio countered that the NYPD’s tactics were only proper in a “police state,” and that Wallander had “arbitrarily, capriciously and unlawfully establish[ed] a curfew or closing hour of 10 o’clock in the evening for social clubs in East Harlem only.”102 

Marcantonio viewed the suit in civil rights terms, charging that the police commissioner was exploiting “malicious prejudices” against Italian East Harlem in imposing the curfew.103   In his affidavit, he stated that a judicial examination of the arrests “will vindicate the good name of an honest people and an honest community and I will expose the tactics of those who have used them as a smokescreen to cover up that which has been too long a secret to too many.”104   The Marcantonio Political Association also drafted a resolution entitled “An Appeal to the People of New York,” stating that “we, the people of East Harlem, have been the victims in recent months of a concentrated barrage of newspaper attacks on our good name, on our reputation, and on our well being.”105 

Ultimately, the suit was dropped, with the police denying “that any curfew was established or attempted to be established or enforced,” at the same time acknowledging that the Police Department had no legal right to impose a curfew, except in response to a riot, and that if any curfew was established by “subordinates” it was “unauthorized.”106   In a letter to his clients, Marcantonio called the case a “victory in the interest of the law-abiding citizens of our community.”  At the same time, he urged against gambling in any of the clubs, so as to not “abuse the favorable results of our court action.”107   The damage suits continued, and as late as May 1947 the city Comptroller’s Office was setting up appointments with the defendants to presumably discuss settlements.108   Marcantonio’s zealous, and victorious, defense of his neighbors in the Harlem Social Club cases undoubtedly benefitted his image in the community.  As one club leader stated, “You’ll notice the police have not bothered us since we went into court.  And I guess they won’t in the future.”109

 

D. Family Law and Immigration

The Marcantonio Political Association devoted considerable efforts to family law and immigration cases as well.  Often, the legal advice involved assistance in filling out forms.  John Pizzo, Marcantonio’s aide and future law partner, included in his November 3, 1945 report that he “typed application for correction of name on birth certificate” of a young East Harlem girl, Carolyn Brown.110   Pizzo was also the adviser to Felipe Gonzalez, who, in 1945, wrote on the back of a Marcantonio pledge card “presto servicios durante la guera- reside in il pais 25 ano y giver su ciudadinio,” roughly translated as, “I served in the military during the war- I have lived in the country for 25 years and would like citizenship.”  He was given an appointment with Pizzo the following Wednesday, from 1-2, at the Marcantonio Political Association, to receive assistance with filling out his immigration forms.  This meeting was confirmed in a letter signed by Marcantonio, sent to Gonzalez’s home.111

At times, Marcantonio’s lawyers were forced to represent individuals in family law and immigration proceedings.  In one such case, in 1943, Goodwin represented a mother in an adoption case, facilitating the adoption of the child by a couple after the child’s mother had been “deserted and abandoned” by the child’s father prior to the baby’s birth.112   In a 1949 case, Goodwin represented Muriel Kerton, a woman who was defending herself against an “Action for Absolute Divorce” filed by her husband, who alleged adultery.  Keaton counterclaimed, charging that her husband had abandoned the family, and that she desired a separation with support payments.113

 

E. Quasi-Legal Services: Federal and Municipal Jobs

Requests for work, especially for Works Progress Administration jobs during the Depression, made up nearly one-third of all constituent mail.114   The Marcantonio Political Association, while not able to meet all requests, maintained a rolodex of individuals seeking work, entitled “BPM Job File.”  These index cards, both typed and handwritten, contained the name, address, and job request of the individual, in the event that something opened up.  One such file read as follows: BPM JOB LIST FILE/ DOMENIC FERRARO/ 406 E. 120 ST./ NYC/ Wants a job as an asphalt worker.115

Marcantonio and his associates were often relentless in their efforts to provide suitable employment for their constituents.  In a one year span, from January 3, 1945 to January 3, 1946, Marcantonio’s office sent twelve letters to and on behalf of Gaetano de Angelis, an unemployed East Harlem man.  In early 1945, John Pizzo accompanied de Angelis to the city Department of Markets.  De Angelis refused to work as a maintenance man, the only position he was offered.  Despite his having turned down the offer, Marcantonio and his aides continued to work on his behalf.  On July 12, for instance, Marcantonio sent a letter to the owner of a brewery in Brooklyn, recommending de Angelis for a job.  After de Angelis let Marcantonio know that he did not get the brewery position, Marcantonio told him about a possible availability at the Harlem Garment Center, which had recently opened and was hiring.  Marcantonio followed up with de Angelis in September and in December, and upon finding out that he remained unemployed requested that de Angelis visit the La Guardia Club for a meeting, giving him an appointment on Sunday, January 6 at 2 p.m.116   Such treatment was not unusual; Meyer, for example, documented a case where Marcantonio’s efforts to get a man transferred to a WPA job closer to his East Harlem home led to twenty-four letters and two interviews in a year-and-a-half span.117

 

V. Conclusion: “Marcantonio: A Man To Study”118

In April 2009, a powerful earthquake struck the central Italian region of Abruzzo.  Its capital, the medieval city of L’Aquila, was destroyed in the quake, as were many of the surrounding towns and villages.119   Among those who came to assist the displaced was a group of volunteers from Italy’s largest communist party, Rifondazione Comunista.  They organized themselves into “Brigate di Solidarieta’ Attiva,” Brigades of Active Solidarity, that, among others things, set up two tent cities, built and operated mess halls for each, and assisted in the removal of debris.  “One can say,” wrote Italian journalist Eleonora Martini,

that here, in the so called crater of the earthquake, one can today touch by hand

the fruits of that ‘political work in the territory’ as much theorized as arduously

practiced by parties on the left.  It happens, for example, that at L’Aquila,

in countertendency with respect to all of the rest of Italy, the number of card-

carrying members and militants of the youth section of Rifondazione Comunista

is rising.

 

In addition to the rising membership, many young people, while not party members, became politically and socially close to Rifondazione, something unexpected, even among party organizers, in this historically conservative region of Italy.

Individuals interviewed by Martini were clear in what they felt were the reasons for this new burst of activity on the communist left.  Francesco Marola opined that the work of Rifondazione was “aid work to the population and socialization work done in silence… that, day after day, developed forms of extraordinary participation, moving closer to political action very many young people that even today, even if not card-carrying members, volunteer in our [party] structures.”  Another young man, Simone Vergili, recent to the party, stressed that the concrete service work of Rifondazione made the party attractive even to people who do not hold particularly left-leaning views.  Vergili commented that:

I became close to the party when I saw its willingness to embed itself in the

territory, with the “Brigades” or through legal assistance given to the excluded

by the project C.a.s.e. that became a battle over transparency with regard to

[housing] lists.  And as it happened to me, it also happened to many young people

not really on the left, who however appreciated this type of solidarity so different

from the only one we knew, that of the Church and Caritas. [emphasis added]

 

Journalist Martini noted that through such direct work, often in structures created by Rifondazione, the Abruzzese, with little history of “active politics,” had transformed themselves into a “protagonist of which one must take notice,” marking what may be, in her view, a step towards the developing of “collective consciousness, maybe still pre-political but nevertheless fruitful.”120

Perhaps better than any politician of his day, Marcantonio understood the importance of “lavoro politico sul territorio”- political work in the territory, or, more appropriately in Marcantonio’s case, the neighborhood.  He realized, as Meyer put it, that “human relations, someone being there when you are in trouble,” can be a powerful organizing force.121   Frank Barbaro, a former New York state assemblyman who for twenty-four years represented the heavily Italian neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, agreed.  A labor lawyer himself, Barbaro established a legal services operation out of his district office, because, in his words, “Marcantonio did it.”  In Barbaro’s view, “there was a legislative part [to holding office], but also a commitment to helping people with their problems.”  The former assemblyman called it “a natural progression- it’s ‘I care about people, and how can I use this office to help them.’”  Marcantonio, in his eyes, was the master at such grassroots, practical progressive politics.  “The average rank and file person in the community saw him as their protector,” noted Barbaro, and “they loved him for the services he provided.”122 
This, Marcantonio’s greatest strength, was also the greatest weakness of the political organization he helped create.   Annette Rubinstein put it so: “Marc’s only flaw that mattered to me was that he didn’t really envision what would come after him.  He had a lot of devoted volunteers, but he didn’t build an organization that would live after him.”123   Meyer went further in elaborating a similar point.  “The entire thrust of Marcantonio’s political organization,” he wrote, “was to encourage people to seek its assistance, not to seek resolution of their problems in any other manner.”  The “extreme ‘personalism’” inherent in this image of Marcantonio as problem solver, along with other issues, including: Marc’s failure to anoint a successor; the “total lack of democratic participation” within the Marcantonio Political Association; and McCarthyite repression of the left, all ultimately played a role in the organization’s disappearance after its leader’s death.124

Despite these flaws, some of which were quite serious, the Marcantonio experience is one which is disregarded only at the peril of the public interest lawyer.  Marcantonio was unique in the public interest law world, in that he was a community lawyer with a ballot line.  This multifaceted identity allowed Marcantonio not only to understand the problems facing his community- among them tremendous legal need- but also bring these concerns directly into the halls of Congress and the courts.  And he was able to deliver results, from the countless small interventions on behalf of individuals to the litigation brought in response to the social club raids.

While Marcantonio saw in the law a way to improve the lives of his constituents, he also viewed it in a more instrumental way, as perhaps best expressed in the line with which he always closed letters to his constituents, “please remember, if at any time I may be of further service to you do not hesitate to contact me.”125   Law, especially a case with a successful resolution, Marcantonio knew, could help draw constituents to his organization, and, come November, to the American Labor Party ballot line.  Legal services thus served at least two roles in the Marcantonio Political Association: meeting the immediate legal needs of Marc’s constituency, and laying the groundwork for political support in the next election cycle.

Some contemporary scholars have criticized this model as encouraging passivity, in that it attempted to channel as much activism as possible, including that which was undertaken by the American Labor Party, the Communist Party, and allied groups, through the Marcantonio Political Association, whose main purpose was, ultimately and unsurprisingly, to reelect Marcantonio.126   In part reflecting a New Leftist critique of Old Left political organization, this analysis disregards the many documented instances of individuals either voting for the American Labor Party, or becoming active in left politics, simply because of Marcantonio’s service operation.  As one constituent wrote,

I was in [your clubhouse] on Saturday to talk over my problem with you… I was

very impressed by the way you meet people, your sincere interest, and the general

way you did things.  Although I come from a long line of Republicans, I, and

many of my friends and neighbors will be at the polls on election day casting our

vote for you, a man who is really for the People.

 

Another, in the same vein, wrote, “I would appreciate a picture of you, if possible.  They claim you are a communist.  Who knows?  I know many a little fellow in your district who thinks you are a prince.  I know you are the only man who fights for the rights of the Puerto Rican people.”  One woman went even further, not only voting the ALP line but joining the Communist Party.  She emphasized that she was “so impressed with the help [Marcantonio] provided for people… [that she] joined the Communist Party, reasoning that if Marcantonio personified a Communist, that is what she wanted to be.”127

Unfortunately for the American left, the emphasis on everyday, practical grassroots progressive politics, which proved so successful in the past, has largely disappeared.  The causes are likely many, from the collapse of the urban political machines, to the Cold War repression of the Communist Party and other left groups that emphasized such politics, to New Left antagonism to older forms of political activity, to different forms of party competition.  Officeholders do continue to provide some constituent services, but rarely, if ever, do such services reach the scale of that attempted by Marcantonio.  Furthermore, it would be next to unthinkable for a nationally-known politician to represent constituents in court, especially if the opposing party was, say, a wealthy and powerful landlord who also resided in the district.  This is not to say, though, that such legal advocacy has not been attempted since the days of Marcantonio.  Frank Barbaro, the Brooklyn assemblyman, for instance, organized rent strikes during his time in office, the key strategy of which was to flood the court with demands for jury trials, so delaying the judicial process that landlords would have to give in or potentially face years of unpaid rent.  Barbaro himself, and his staff attorneys, represented these tenants.  According to the former assemblyman, there was a “similar response in Bensonhurst” as there was in East Harlem to such legal advocacy by an elected officeholder and his associates.128

While not every public interest lawyer must necessarily run for office in the next election cycle (although a few doing so surely couldn’t hurt), public interest lawyers should nevertheless at least consider the important, time-tested relationship between direct constituent services, including legal work, and the creation of a lasting progressive coalition for change.  They should, in short, consider the “Marcantonio phenomenon,” and all of that which informed this tremendous experience in grassroots progressive politics.  In his biography of Marcantonio, Meyer stressed that,

Marcantonio’s efforts to solve the everyday problems of his constituents gave the

poor residents concrete reasons to register and vote.  Many East Harlem residents

may not have cared that from Monday through Thursday Marcantonio raised the

sole vote in Congress fighting for Puerto Rico’s independence or against

contempt citations of alleged or avowed Communists.  But they deeply cared that

on Saturday and Sunday he was present in his headquarters, doing everything

possible to get their toilets fixed, to have the landlords provide adequate heat, or

to prevent the deportation of relatives who had run afoul of the law.129

 

This model relied on a cadre of progressive public interest lawyers to meet the everyday legal needs of, to borrow the words of Fiorello La Guardia, a lawyer-social worker-politician’s constituents.  It was not glamorous work, and surely was not well paying.  In the final analysis, though, Marcantonio, and his colleagues and supporters, “demonstrated how deep a mark could be made by the force and integrity of a single people’s politician, working intimately with the people he represented.”130   Most importantly, Congressman Vito Marcantonio, American Labor Party representative from East Harlem, showed that a well-organized, practical, and popular anti-capitalist left could win and hold power, and make a difference in the lives of its constituents in the most concrete ways, on the same small island as the titans of Wall Street.

 

 

1 Letter from Henry Mercher to Vito Marcantonio, December 14, 1946, Folder “General Correspondence Constituency Problems (aid requests) 1946,” Box 2: General Corresp. Constituency Problems (aid requests) 1945-46, Vito Marcantonio Papers, 1935-53, New York Public Library, Manuscripts Division.

2 Letter from Helen Altut to Vito Marcantonio, December 9, 1946, Folder “General Correspondence Constituency Problems (aid requests) 1946,” Box 2, Marcantonio Papers.

 

3 Letter from Rosalia Manning to Mrs. Marcantonio, August 12, 1954, Folder “General Correspondence Death Condol., Sampling of messages rec’d after V.M.’s death,” Box 2,  Marcantonio Papers.

4 Telegram from Jim Taite, Corona Club of the American Labor Party, Id.

5 The term “power broker” used to describe Moses comes from Robert Caro’s biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Knopf: New York, 1974.

6 Letter from Robert Moses to Mrs. Marcantonio, August 23, 1954, Folder “General Correspondence Death Condol., Sampling of messages rec’d after V.M.’s death,” Box 2, Marcantonio Papers.

7 John J. Simon, “Rebel in the House: The Life and Times of Vito Marcantonio,” Monthly Review, Vol. 57, No. 11, April 2006, accessed online on April 9, 2010 athttp://www.monthlyreview.org/0406jjsimon.htm.  Marcantonio was actually first elected as a Republican, as was his mentor and friend Fiorello LaGuardia.  As Annette Rubinstein wrote, “in local New York City politics, being a Republican then often meant, essentially, an anti-machine, anti-Tammany [Hall, which controlled the Democratic Party] position” (“Vito Marcantonio, Congressman,” I Vote My Conscience: Debates, Speeches and Writings of Vito Marcantonio, 1935-1950, New York: The Vito Marcantonio Memorial, 1956, p. 3; 22-23).  In 1937, Marcantonio, along with La Guardia, changed their party affiliation to the newly-formed American Labor Party (Gerald Meyer, “New Introduction to I Vote My Conscience: Debates, Speeches, and Writings, of Vito Marcantonio, 1935-1950,” accessed online on March 20, 2010 at www.vitomarcantonio.org.)

8 Gerald Meyer, Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989, p. 1.

9 John J. Abt with Michael Meyerson, Advocate and Activist: Memoirs of an American Communist Lawyer, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993, pp. 191; 189; 200.

10 “Marcantonio Foe Begins Campaign,” New York Times, July 13, 1948, p. 7; “Marcantonio and the U.S.A.,” Editorial, New York Times, October 12, 1948, p. 24.

11 “Marcantonio and the U.S.A.”

12 James A. Hagerty, “Marcantonio In ’48 Still Is A Problem, Politicians Are Dubious About Defeating Him, Despite Setbacks In Primary,” New York Times, July 31, 1947, p. 14.

13 Jim O’Grady, “The Loneliest Man in Congress,” City Lore column, New York Times, December 1, 2002, p. CY4.

14 In 1944, the New York State Legislature dissolved the Twentieth Congressional District, virtually coterminous with Italian East Harlem and Marcantonio’s base of support.  The Eighteenth Congressional District, which was created in its place, included the area above Italian East Harlem, as well as the predominately German and Irish, and virulently anti-Communist, neighborhood of Yorkville to the south.  In 1947, the Legislature passed the Wilson-Pakula Act, which prevented individuals from running in more than one party primary, something which Marcantonio took advantage of to run, at times, unopposed in the general election.  Gerald Meyer wrote that “the Act (which Marcantonio said had everything but his picture on it) was intended to ‘block Congressman Vito Marcantonio’ from by forcing him to run solely on the increasingly discredited [American Labor Party] line” (Radical Politician pp. 31; 35-36.)

15 Alan Schaffer, Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress, Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1966, p. 2.

16 Meyer, Radical Politician,p. 186.

17 See, for example, Schaffer’s Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress, Salvatore La Gumina’s Vito Marcantonio: The People’s Politician, Dubuque, Iowa: Kendell/Hunt, 1969, and Meyer’s Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954.

18 In his study of the Marcantonio Political Association, for example, Meyer devotes only a few paragraphs to the legal services provided by Marcantonio and his associates.  For this discussion, see Meyer, Radical Politician p. 91.

19 These are Boxes 70-73.

20 For a discussion of Marcantonio’s legal work in defense of the Communist Party, see Abt, Advocate and Activist, pp. 187-200.  Another source is the chapter of I Vote My Conscience entitled “Lawyer for Civil Liberties, 1950-1954,” pp. 440-82, containing excerpts of briefs and testimony from Marcantonio’s defense of W.E.B. DuBois, indicted for failure to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act; CP member William L. Patterson, indicited for contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena for records of the Civil Rights Congress, an organization which was on the Attorney General’s list of “subversive groups”; and Furriers’ union leader Ben Gold, indicted for allegedly making false statements regarding his Party membership on a Taft-Hartley affidavit, a law passed in 1947 requiring all union officers to sign loyalty oaths as a prerequisite to holding union office.

21 This was filed with co-counsel John Abt and Joseph Forer.  Marcantonio did not live to see it make its way to the Supreme Court.  For excerpts of the brief, see I Vote My Conscience, pp. 477-82.

22 The term “lawyer for civil liberties” comes from the title of a chapter in I Vote My Conscience, citation above.  The Workers Alliance was “a Left-led union of relief workers and the unemployed” (Si Gerson, Pete: The Story of Pete v. Cacchione, New York’s First Communist Councilman, New York: International Publishers, 1976, p. 94).  International Labor Defense was an organization close to the Communist Party known for its defense of radicals and labor leaders.  Marcantonio assumed the presidency in 1937.  It was later declared a Communist “front group” by the Attorney General (Id.; Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 14).

23 Folder “Miscellaneous Campaigns,” Box 50,  Marcantonio Papers.  Quoted in Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 179.

24 Meyer, “New Introduction.”

25 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 9-12; Rubinstein, “Vito Marcantonio,” p. 2.

26 Meyer, Radical Politician, pp. 9-15.

27 O’Grady, “The Loneliest Man.”

28 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 14.

29 Id.

30 Id.

31 Schaffer, Radical in Congress, p. 14.

32 Rubinstein, “Vito Marcantonio,” p. 2.

33 Schaffer, Radical in Congress,p. 15.

34 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 17.

35 Schaffer, Radical in Congress,p. 15; Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 18.

36 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 18.

37 Id., pp. 16-18.

38 Id,, pp. 19-24; Schaffer, Radical in Congress,pp. 20-27.

39 O’Grady, “The Loneliest Man.”  For an in depth analysis of the Vito Marcantonio Political Organization, see Meyer, Radical Politician, pp. 87-111.

40 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 87.  The Fiorello La Guardia Political Association, founded by Marcantonio to support LaGuardia’s 1924 congressional campaign, was renamed the Vito Marcantonio Political Association in 1944.

41 O’Grady, “The Loneliest Man.”

42 Richard Rovere, “Vito Marcantonio: Machine Politician New Style,” Harpers Magazine, April 1944, quoted in Rubinstein, “Vito Marcantonio,” pp. 5-6.

43 Walter Davenport, Collier’s, October 14, 1944, quoted in Rubinstein, “Vito Marcantonio,” p. 6.

44 Because of Marcantonio’s congressional schedule, he was able to meet constituents for two or three days a week.  His aides, however, saw people seven days a week.

45 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 88.

46 Gerald Meyer, Interview, March 4, 2010.

47 For a study of the Tammany model, see Richard F. Welch, King of the Bowery: Big Tim Sullivan, Tammany Hall, and New York City from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era, Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2008.  As Welch notes, capturing Tammany machine politics at its most famous- or infamous- “for the working classes and the poor, the new immigrants and their children, [Tammany leader] Big Tim [Sullivan] was a leader, advisor, fixer, banker, employment officer, social worker, and, when the need arose, funeral director” (13).

48 William L. Riordan, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics, Delivered by Ex-Senator George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany Philosopher, From His Rostrum- The New York County Courthouse Bootblack Stand, introduction by Peter Quinn, New York: Signet, 1995, pp. 26-27.

49 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 107.

50 Letter from Altut to Marcantonio; Simon, “Rebel in the House.”

51 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 93.

52 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 87.

53 Id., pp. 107-8; Meyer, Interview; Simon, “Rebel in the House.”

54 Simon, “Rebel in the House.”

55 Abt, Advocate and Activist,pp. 188; 91.

56 Sidney Shallot, “They Couldn’t Purge Vito,” Saturday Evening Post, January 11, 1947, quoted in Rubinstein, “Vito Marcantonio,” p. 7.

57 Abt, Advocate and Activist,p. 200.

58 Vito Marcantonio, Speech in Favor of Housing Bill S. 591, August 3, 1939, quoted in I Vote My Conscience, p. 109.  Marcantonio lived in a four-room, rent-controlled apartment in East Harlem with his wife, and led an “austere” lifestyle, never once taking a vacation during his time in Congress (Simon).  “He had the same attitude towards money as St. Francis of Assisi,” remembered Mark Anthony Varicchia, his godson (O’Dwyer, “The Loneliest Man”).  When he died, the New York Times reported that he had an estate of less than $10,000 (“Marcantonio Estate to Widow,” New York Times, August 19, 1954, p. 31).

59 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 91.

60 Meyer, Interview; Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 91.

61 Meyer, Interview.

62 Rovere, quoted in Rubinstein, “Vito Marcantonio,” p. 6.

63 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 105.

64 Id.

65 This appears in a memo from a resigning secretary to her successor, quoted in Radical Politician, p. 94.

66 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to Leopoldo Lopez, January 12, 1942, Folder “18th Congressional District Cases 1940-42 ‘Gonzalez (Adelia-Juan)’ (1 of 2),” Box 18, Marcantonio Papers.

67 Folder “Aide’s Report, Mucciolo, 1940,” Box 46, Marcantonio Papers, quoted in Radical Politician, p. 94.

68 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to Angel Luis Lebron, July 23, 1947, Folder “18th Congressional District Cases 1947-8 ‘L’ (5 of 7),” Box 18, Marcantonio Papers.

69 Meyer, Interview.  The breakdown of aid requests into discreet groups, including “Welfare,” is based on a table appearing in Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 89.  According to Meyer, requests for welfare assistance made up 12 percent of all aid requests in the period from 1935-38, and 34 percent in 1950.

70 “City Puerto Ricans: Complex Problem,” New York Times, October 3, 1949, p. 11.

71 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 91.

72 “Lanzetta Fights For House Seat,” New York Times, January 3, 1935, p. 16.

73 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to Carmen Gonzales, January 3, 1942, Folder “18th Congressional District Cases 1940-42 ‘Gonzalez (Adelia-Juan)’ (1 of 2),” Box 18, Marcantonio Papers.

74 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to Mrs. A Duffy, Domestic Relations Court, October 13, 1938, Folder “18th CD C-D 1937-1938,” Box 7, Marcantonio Papers.

75 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to Mrs. A Lynch, November 4, 1946, Folder “18th Congressional District Cases 1947-8 ‘L’ (5 of 7),” Box 18, Marcantonio Papers.

76 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 89.

77 Simon, “Rebel in the House.”

78 Quoted in id.

79 Quoted in Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 97.  In 1949, Marcantonio ran against incumbent Democrat William O’Dwyer and Republican Newbold Morris as ALP candidate for mayor.  He received 13.83 percent of the vote citywide, and nearly 20 percent of the vote in Manhattan (Warren Moscow, “Labor Big Factor in O’Dwyer Win,” New York Times, Nov. 13, 1949, pg. E7).

80 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to Morris Goldfinger, January 17, 1946, Box 2: General Corresp. Constituency Problems (aid requests) 1945-46.

81 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to Mrs. Lawson, April 3, 1948, Folder “18th Congressional District Cases 1947-8 ‘L’ (5 of 7),” Box 18, Marcantonio Papers.

82 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 95; Meyer, Interview.

83 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 95.

84 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to the Tenants of 408-410 East 63rd Street, June 9, 1949, Folder “(Legal Case) Condemnation of Block for School- 420 E. 63rd St. Corp. v. Tenants of 63rd St. Rep. Goodwin 1949, Box 70, Marcantonio Papers.  While it is unclear how the case ultimately resolved itself, today 408-410 East 63rd St. no longer exists.

 

85 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cosentino, December 18, 1948, Folder “Legal Case Cosentino ADV: Silver Re: Eviction,” Box 70, Marcantonio Papers.

86 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cosentino, February 9, 1949, Folder “Legal Case Cosentino ADV: Silver Re: Eviction,” Box 70, Marcantonio Papers.

87 Telegram from 12th Assembly District Club, American Labor Party to Mrs. Hoffman and Tenants, March 3, 1950, Folder “(Legal Case) Eviction- 440 E. 79th St. Corp. v. Tenants of 426-446 E. 79th St. (Reps Goodwin + Wacker) 1949-50,”  Box 70, Marcantonio Papers.

88 Telegram from the Executive Committee, 7th Assembly District East ALP Club to Leonard Wacker c/o Vito Marcantonio, March 3, 1950, Folder “(Legal Case) Eviction- 440 E. 79th St. Corp. v. Tenants of 426-446 E. 79th St. (Reps Goodwin + Wacker) 1949-50,”  Box 70, Marcantonio Papers.

89 Contract signed by Mae Kahn, dated on March 27, 1946.

90 Contract signed by Matthew Gerrity, dated March 21, 1946; Handwritten receipt acknowledging payment of $35.00 by Mr. and Mrs. Buttacavoli, undated and signed by Matthew Gerrity.

91 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to Lawrence Lala, November 17, 1946, Folder “18th Congressional District Cases 1947-8 ‘L’ (4 of 7),” Box 18, Marcantonio Papers.

92 “Election Day Captain Dies of Beating; Dewey and Police Pledge Capture,” New York Times, November 12, 1946, p. 1.

93 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 34.  The grand jury was impaneled from November 1946 until December 15, 1949.

94 Id., p. 35.  The term “political murder” comes from “Unsolved Crime,” a New York Times editorial that appeared on January 2, 1947 (“Unsolved Crime,” Editorial, New York Times, January 2, 1947, p. 26.)

95 Summons, Michael Nardone and 22 Others, January 25, 1947; Summons, Frank Naclerio and 10 Others, February 6, 1947; Summons, Joseph Mernone and 10 Others, February 26, 1947, Folder “(Legal Case) Cesarano + Montellaro vs. Nathan Silverstein (PTI) + City of New York Re: Arrests in Harlem Social Clubs 1947 (Rep: Goodwin),” Box 70, Marcantonio Papers.

96 Affidavit of Vito Marcantonio, Monte Vulture Social Club Inc., et. al. v. Wallander, 68 N.Y.S.2d 657 (N.Y. Sup. 1947), p. 5, Folder “(Legal Case) Monte Vulture Soc. Club v. Wallander (Comm. of Police) Re: Curfews in Harlem Clubs (Marc Rep) 1947- (Affidavits), Box 72, Marcantonio Papers.

97 “Marcantonio May Sue Wallander to Bar ‘Harassing’ Harlem Clubs; Police Abridgment of Rights in His District Like ‘Concentration Camp Without Fence’- 15 Seized Monday Freed,” New York Times, January 29, 1947, p. 4.

98 Id.

99 Stenographer’s Minutes, Cross Examination by Goodwin, February 26, 1947, Curran v. Joseph Mernone and 18 Others, Folder “(Legal Case) Cesarano + Montellaro vs. Nathan Silverstein (PTI) + City of New York Re: Arrests in Harlem Social Clubs 1947 (Rep: Goodwin),” Box 70, Marcantonio Papers.

100 “Marcantonio Acts on Clubs’ Curfew; He Obtains Show-Cause Order Against Wallander to Be Argued in Court Friday,” New York Times, February 11, 1947, p. 28; Folder “(Legal Case) Monte Vulture Soc Club vs. Wallander (Police Comm) Re: Curfews (Rep by Marc and Goodwin) 1947- Affidavits,” Box 70, Marcantonio Papers.

101 “Marcantonio May Sue.”

102 “Clubs Protest Curfew; Court Reserves Action on Plea to Halt Wallander Ban,” New York Times, February 15, 1947, p. 30; Affidavit of Vito Marcantonio; “Marcantonio Acts.”

103 “Marcantonio Files Reply; Accuses Wallander of ‘Malicious’ Bias Toward Harlem,” New York Times, March 6, 1947, p. 2.

104 Affidavit of Vito Marcantonio, p. 7.

105 Draft Resolution, “An Appeal to the People of New York,” Folder “(Legal Case) Monte Vulture Soc. Club v. Wallander (Comm. of Police) Re: Curfews in Harlem Clubs (Marc Rep) 1947- (Affidavits), Box 72, Marcantonio Papers.

106 “Suit Over Curfew in Harlem Dropped; Marcantonio Consents to End Action in Court Parley- Jurist Upholds Police,” New York Times, March 30, 1947, p. 1.

107 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to “Friends,” April 2, 1947, Folder “(Legal Case) Monte Vulture Soc. Club v. Wallander (Comm. of Police) Re: Curfews in Harlem Clubs (Marc Rep) 1947- (Affidavits), Box 72, Marcantonio Papers.

108 Folder “(Legal Case) Monte Vulture Soc Club vs. Wallander (Police Comm) Re: Curfews (Rep by Marc and Goodwin) 1947- Affidavits,” Box 70, Marcantonio Papers.  The file contains no information as to the final disposition of these damage suits.

109 “Suit Over Curfew.”

110 John A. Pizzo, November 3, 1945 Report, Folder “(Aide Reports) Fink Reports 1945-6,” Box 39, Marcantonio Papers.

111 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to Felipe Gonzalez, September 27, 1946, Box 2: General Corresp. Constituency problems (aid requests) 1945-46, Marcantonio Papers.

112 Order of Adoption, Deposition of Fusaro (Mother), April 21, 1943, Folder “(Legal Case) Adoption of Julia Fusaro by Robt + Jean Challman (Rep. Goodwin) 1943,” Box 70, Marcantonio Papers.

113 Muriel Keaton, Answer and Counterclaim, August 11, 1949, Folder “(Legal Cases) Kerton v. Kerton Re: Separation (Case handled by Goodwin) 1949-50,” Box 70, Marcantonio Papers.

114 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 89.

115 Domenic Ferraro BPM Job List File, Folder “General Correspondence Constituency Problems (aid requests) 1946,” Box 2, Marcantonio Papers.

116 Letters from Vito Marcantonio to Gaetano de Angelis, Box 2, Marcantoniio Papers.

117 Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 94.

118 This title is taken from the title of Chapter 19 of Pete.

119 Rachel Donadio and Elisabetta Povoledo, “Rescuers Scramble in Search for Quake Survivors,” New York Times, April 7, 2009, accessed online on April 15, 2010 athttp://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/08/world/europe/08quake.html.

120 Eleonora Martini, “Dalla rivolta delle carriole alla nuova militanza comunista,” il manifesto, March 11, 2010, accessed online on April 14, 2010 athttp://rifondazionenichelino.blogspot.com/2010/03/dalla-rivolta-delle-carriole-alla-nuova.html.  Translated from the Italian.

121 Meyer, Interview.

122 Frank Barbaro, Telephone Interview, April 8, 2010.

123 O’Grady, “The Loneliest Man.”

124 Meyer, Radical Politician, pp. 111; 110; 109.  For a discussion on Marcantonio’s ties to the Communist Party, see Meyer, Radical Politician, Chapter 4: Marcantonio and the Communist Party, pp. 53-86.

125 Letter from Vito Marcantonio to Salvatore La Corte, March 16, 1948, Folder “18th Congressional District Cases 1947-8 ‘L’ (4 of 7),” Box 18, Marcantonio Papers.

126 See, for example, discussion in Meyer, Radical Politician, p. 110.

127 Folder “F-G”; Folder “G, 1950,” Box 9, Marcantonio Papers, quoted in Meyer, Radical Politician pp. 108-9.

128 Barbaro, Interview.

129 Meyer, Radical Politician pp. 95; 188.

130 Richard Sasuly, “Vito Marcantonio: The People’s Politician,” American Radicals: Some Problems and Personalities, ed. Henry Goldberg, New York: Monthly Review P, 1957, p. 159.

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