“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Comeback Trials: The Age of Burke 4

For most people 60 was a reasonable age to slow down. But James Burke was just getting started in 1908 and made a quixotic gubernatorial run against Newport timber man George Prouty.
     Only 50 people attended his opening campaign speech, delivered during an August electrical storm. In that campaign he called for revision of the tax system, a license law on liquor, new highways throughout the state and an eight-hour day for workers. The Republicans ignored him and Prouty suggested that so few differences existed between the two parties that “there is danger of more apathy than should be in a presidential year.”
     But Burke’s real problem was that Vermont Democrats had turned away from their party’s nominee for president, William Jennings Bryan[1] and William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s chosen successor, breezed into office.  So did Prouty, who moved up after a term as lieutenant governor under Fletcher Proctor. Nevertheless, just a few months later Burke was major again, defeating Walter Bigelow by 18 votes. It was his first two-year term after the city’s charter was amended.
James Burke
     In spite of his populist activism, Burke’s support waned again and he was defeated in 1911. Two years later he was back in power, defeating A.S. Drew and calling for a major revision of the city charter. Now he wanted a “commission system” that would place management under the control of a small number of elected administrators.[2]
     When Burke became Burlington postmaster in 1915, rather than enter another mayoral race, it seemed a safe bet that his political career had finally ended. During the next years he lobbied for women’s suffrage and promoted war bonds, but local politics proceeded without him. Leadership of the Democratic Party passed to J. Holmes Jackson, a dentist who served four terms as mayor and ran for governor in 1924.
     But Burke’s retirement turned out to be temporary. When he was elected Burlington’s sole representative to the state legislature – the same year Jackson ran for governor – Burke began pushing for state approval of a city retirement fund and a building department. Within a few months he was also running for mayor again – for the 11th time.
     Burke’s political career still had another 10 years to run. But this phase was, in many ways, the most painful. At first his own party didn’t support him, persuading him to run as a Citizens party candidate. He attributed the rejection to the presence of Republicans at Democratic caucuses.
     When Jackson defeated Burke in the Democratic caucus of 1929, the Irish elder protested after the vote. “I have played the game square,” he said. “I came here tonight resolved to abide by the action of the caucus but when I see the place packed with Republicans, I refuse to accept the decision.”
     That year he ran unsuccessfully as an independent; Jackson had both the Democratic and Republican lines. Burke argued in vain that the city was overburdened with loans, overdrafts and excessive bonding, and warned about the consequences of the city’s growing debt.
     By the end of the year the stock market crashed and the Depression was on the horizon.
     Burke was back in the legislature in 1930, and returned to the Burlington scene as a Citizens candidate for mayor the following year. This time, with more than 800 people jamming City Hall for the Democratic caucus, he came out on top. A week later his Democratic opponent, Jackson, was nominated as the Republican candidate, and defeated Burke in the general election.
     The partisan power plays were signs of a deeper, more ideological struggle. Burke and his “working class” allies were disturbed by the boom-town atmosphere in Burlington, characterized by slogans such as “bigger, busier, better Burlington.” During the late 1920s the city had embarked on a building spree in hopes of becoming a convention center. Burke opposed projects such as Memorial Auditorium on economic grounds, and in his mayoral bids called for a “rigid economy,” meaning a lean city budget and a less speculative attitude.
     In 1933 his time came – again. The Depression had reached its depth, and his nemesis, Jackson, was too ill to seek another term. About 1,000 people attended both the GOP and Democratic caucuses. At the latter Burke, by this time 83 years old, handily defeated his former protégé Hugh Finnegan, who immediately pledged “absolute” support.
     The candidate promised a “sound economy and honesty.” Victory over the Republican hopeful, William Wilson, came easily. Handling city affairs in a time of economic crisis, on the other hand, required hard decisions. Expenditures had to be cut, including municipal salaries, and local government was forced to accept the sad fact that almost $100,000 in unpaid taxes was “uncollectible.”[3]
     If there was any doubt that this “progressive era” was over, Burke laid it to rest in June 1934 when 500 workers at the Queen City cotton mill went on strike. Local textile workers were in the vanguard of a national protest. But Burlington’s mayor, who had enjoyed the support of the Building Trades Union in his early mayoral campaigns, ordered the strikers back to work, warning that they would receive no relief from the city if they refused.
     The workers held out until the fall. But once the strike was over the union was left divided by discrimination against ex-strikers, disillusionment and ideological battles.
      Combining conservative and liberal tendencies, Burke ran a tight local administration while, in his role as city representative, proposing a cooperative savings and investment plan and encouragement of para-professionalism. Still, the strains of the time led to disaffection.
     Burke was defeated in his 1935 and 1937 mayoral bids, each time by a larger margin. The latter campaign was his last.

Next: After Burke - The Politics of Cleavage

[1] It was Bryan’s third run for president and his opponent William Taft was running on Roosevelt’s record. At a time of peace, prosperity and Republican trust-busting Bryan’s agrarian radicalism had lost some of its appeal. He didn’t carry a single state in the Northeast. Bryan’s position on evolution was also becoming known. In a 1905 speech, he said Darwinism represented the “law of hate” and that, if it was true, “we shall turn backward to the beast.”
[2] Mayor’s Message to the Board of Aldermen, 1914.
[3] Mayor’s Message to the Board of Alderman, 1933.

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to the next article. Where was Queen City Cotton Mill - I'm going to research that. The "cooperative savings" - this was for city workers?