For many fans, Boardwalk Empire is an exciting show with some loose ties to New Jersey. In reality, the show’s origins are based on the very real life of Nucky Johnson. A fine new book by Steven Hart describes the relationship between the Republican Johnson and his contemporary Democratic boss, Frank Hague, the mayor of Jersey City.
As the mayor of Jersey City, a city often personified by Hague’s dark yet in some ways productive past, I welcome Hart’s analysis of these two powerful yet quite different New Jersey political bosses. His book, American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine, is a helpful and enjoyable study describing how the two men molded their political machines through the Roaring '20s and the Great Depression to enhance their power and, of course, their wealth, while also providing previously unavailable services to those most in need.
Hart’s analysis brings up the broader point of effective governing. Certainly both men profited from the taxpayers they were elected to serve. Still, they were brilliant politicians who knew how to build fiercely loyal organizations from previously disenfranchised groups. Both well understood the importance of taking care of supporters in small and large ways.
Hague and Johnson used government as a tool to gain votes that in turn led to power --and illegal profits -- but in doing so helped those who needed it most. But there was a cost to their governance, and not just from the graft. As Hart notes, “Each can be shown, on balance to have done well by his constituents, though in each case the departing boss left his town with long-term problems that went unsolved for decades.” This is right on point. Hague meant to improve the lives of residents who his predecessors typically ignored. Of course, by helping the immigrants coming directly from Ellis Island to Jersey City, he earned their votes and kickbacks for jobs. The seamy side of his rule carried over for decades after he retired. All you have to do is read Helene Stapinski’s Five Finger Discount, the author’s account of her corrupt family’s history in Jersey City politics, to get a feel for his legacy. It’s the Jersey City version of Boardwalk Empire.
Still, Hague built at the time perhaps the nation’s foremost public medical center to benefit every resident of the city. While it added to his personal wealth, the facility is a lasting legacy that attracted countless immigrants to Jersey City with the promise of affordable healthcare that was otherwise unobtainable. Not by accident, Jersey City is now recognized as one of the most diverse cities in America. In building his Atlantic City empire, Johnson cultivated African American voters, who by 1915 made up over a quarter of the city’s year round residents -- a percentage far greater than in any other northern city -- into a loyal voting bloc to keep his machine in power. In exchange for their votes, Johnson made sure jobs were plentiful at a time when other urban bosses disdained them, and in the harder winter months, coal and other necessities were provided at no charge. Keep in mind, Johnson was a Republican and he believed in expanding his party’s base in Atlantic City, not shrinking it like the national GOP leadership seems to be eager to do today.
Both men ruled for decades but the end came hard. Johnson went to prison and Hague resigned from office rather than lose reelection. Their legacies are complicated. Certainly, the rampant corruption and ruthless management have permanently and correctly stained their reputations. But they also helped to make government more of a progressive force in their cities.
The political machines they ran -- as well as those in other northern cities -- came into being because no other entity protected the surging immigrant and minority urban populations. These new citizens were integrated into American society in large part because of what bosses like Hague and Johnson did. It’s a positive element that gets lost in the overwhelming corruption of their system.
Since the time of Hague and Johnson, public officials have used government to create a more democratic safety net that performs far better -- and more equitably -- than the party bosses and their machines, whose time surely has come and gone. Certainly more accountable to the public -- though also not perfect -- government today must be there to protect those who need the most support.
Fortunately, Hague and Johnson couldn’t get away with today what they did nearly a century ago, but they did help start the policy of serving all the residents of their cities, not just the most privileged ones. As we look at issues like immigration, healthcare, and rights for all, government is needed more than ever to protect our most vulnerable residents. It’s a legacy overlooked from these now disgraced bosses.