"A leader in the Democratic Party is a boss, in the Republican Party he is a leader. "
I would describe it as a generation gap. When James Pendergast won big betting on a horse named Climax, he invested the winnings in a bar, restaurant and hotel in St. Louis’s West Bottom neighborhood (middle, above). The town was then divided between the uptown establishment Republicans, and the working class Democrats who were actually "on the bottom". James' business was so successful that he became one of the town’s most powerful councilmen. His competition for Democratic votes was Joe Shannon who controlled the police department. But, rather than fight, “Big Jim” cut a power sharing deal with Shannon. To get what he wanted, James' first instinct was always to negotiate.
“You use a saw to shape wood, not a hammer.”
James Pendergast. 1892
James hired his youngest brother, Tom (above), as cashier and bookkeeper at the “Climax” in the early 1890’s. He also schooled Tom in local politics, lecturing him that, “The important thing is to get the votes.” In 1900 James secured Tom the position of Superintendent of Streets. Tom immediately hired two hundred new employees, all loyal goats - as Pendergast supporters were called. And every goat voted the way the Pendergasts told them too. Why wouldn't they? The Republican Party was not interested in representing them, Then, in November of 1911, at just 55, James died of kidney failure. Tom stepped in to fill his brother’s seat on the council, but resigned after just five years. The position was no longer powerful enough for him. Tom’s first instinct was always to go for his opponent’s throat..
“Today, politics may be our friend, and tomorrow we may be its victims.”Owen D. Young. Chairman of General Electric. 1922-1939
In 1916 Tom Pendergast had himself appointed to the leadership of the Jackson County Democratic Party, headquartered in a two story yellow brick building (above, left) at 1908 Main Street. With the votes from the Irish and Italian neighborhoods in his pocket, Tom drove Shannon’s people out of the police department, making him the invisible hand in writing of the new city charter, adopted in 1925. “Boss” Tom could now manipulate both the city and county governments, Democratic and Republican parties, from behind the scenes, following a simple rule; "The important thing is to get the votes-no matter what.”
“Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”
Plato 400 B.C.E.
Boss Tom’s name never had to appear on a ballot. As one St. Louis writer noted, “Pendergast never did hunt ducks with a brass band. It has always been hard to tell what he is doing, but easy to tell what he has done the day after the election.” Tom helpfully described the methods he had learned from his older brother. “Every one of my workers has a fund to buy food, coal, shoes and clothing. When a poor man comes to old Tom's boys for help….we fill his belly and warm his back and vote him our way.” Again, why wouldn't they? The Republicans had nothing to offer these folks except suspicion and attack.
“Politics have no relation to morals.
Niccolo Machiavelli. 1532
James "Blackie" Audett explained the methods Boss Tom developed for himself. “My first job in Kansas City was to look up vacant lots…we would give addresses to them vacant lots. Then we would take the address and assign them to people we could depend on – prostitutes, thieves, floaters, anybody we could get on the voting registration books. On election days we just hauled these people to the right places and they went in and voted…” By implication, the prostitutes, thieves and floaters must have almost outnumbered the honest folk in Kansas, else how could they thrown an election to the Democrats. The truth was no elections in Kansas were ever won by the handful of votes from prostitutes, thieves or floaters, anymore than Republicans ever won an election based solely on votes from Retirement homes.
“The political machine triumphs because it is a united minority, acting against a divided majority.”
With the arrival of the Great Depression, Boss Tom did not wait for Hoover to sympathize with Kansas Cities’ 38% unemployment. In November of 1930 the town voted a $40 million bond issue, for a “Ten-Year-Plan”. What Kansas got for its investment in the future was the “Power and Light Building”, still a landmark in KC., as well as a new City Hall, the Jackson County Court House, a new Police Headquarters, a new Municipal Auditorium, and several schools. When the KC “Star” described all these new buildings as “Pendergast’s concrete pyramids”, Tom merely smiled. The truth was that Pendergast Ready-Mix Cement was probably his only entirely legal business. But in fact what brought Tom Pendergast down, was another legal business; political consultant.
“There are no true friends in politics. We are all sharks circling, and waiting for traces of blood to appear in the water’
Alan Clark. 1974
Since 1922 the State of Missouri and 137 companies had been sparing over rate increases for fire insurance. The difference in any individual policy was small, but after 15 years the amount impounded while the courtroom wrangling continued was $10 million. Then, suddenly, the state agreed to a settlement, giving the insurance companies $8 million, and the right to increase future rates. In May of 1938 Republican Governor Loyd Stark (below, right), a Tom Pendergast pick (below, left), ordered an investigation. This discovered that the insurance companies had delivered a half million dollars in cash to Tom Pendergast as a “political consulting” fee, just before the settlement. Since Pendergast had no direct authority over the insurance commissioner, this fee was legal. However it was politically embarrassing. And in order to avoid the embarrassment, Boss Tom had not declared it on his Federal income tax. And that was illegal.
“The hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.”
The end came quickly. On 7 April, 1939 Boss Tom (above) was arraigned on two counts of tax fraud. On 22 May, 1939 he plead guilty. He paid a fine and served 15 months in prison, and was never involved in Missouri politics again. Maybe he saw it as a handy way to get off the political treadmill.
“An election is coming. Universal peace is declared, and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.”
The reformers patted themselves on the back, and the Republicans reveled in their triumph over Democratic sin. Governor Stark (above) hoped to use the toppling of Boss Tom to propel himself into the U.S. Senate. But in 1940, he lost a nasty contest to Harry Truman, who had also been a Pendergast man. After that Stark was through in Missouri politics. When Boss Tom died in January of 1945, his funeral was well attended, and the only thing that changed about Missouri politics was the names on the ballots.
“If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”
Harry S. Truman.
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