Joe Crangle and the Democratic Party
Along with many other people in Western New York, I lost a friend yesterday with the passing of Joe Crangle, a long-time leader of the Democratic Party. It is not possible to count the number of local, state and national Democratic politicos whose careers were encouraged, assisted and inspired by Joe’s efforts.
I am re-publishing an article that was originally posted on December 15, 2015. It was one the most viewed of any of this blog’s posts and not a week has gone by in the past five plus years without readers searching for that article.
So here’s some history of Joe Crangle and the Democratic Party.
I have written some posts over the past couple months about the turnout in local elections –some of the reasons for that situation, some of the consequences. I categorized the issue in an election preview on October 30 when I projected a 25 percent turnout: abysmal.
All of this leads me to recall what was going on in years past when turnout was so much better than it is today. That gets me thinking about the man who played such an outsized role in generating those large voter turnouts in Erie County, Joe Crangle.
I first met Joe in 1967, when as a student at Canisius College, I got a summer job at Democratic Headquarters working on the campaign of Mike Dillon for County Executive. It was the campaign when JB Walsh wrote the campaign song, “Dillon will do it,” which still rattles around in my head. Aside: why don’t any candidates have their own campaign song anymore?
Joe Crangle in 1967 was only two years into his 23-year tenure as Erie County Democratic Chairman, so he had not quite attained the image of “Boss” Crangle at that time. He had, however, already figured out all the mechanics of getting out the vote, and throughout his time as chairman he continued to refine and develop the techniques.
Joe did not have the playing field all to himself in those days. Republican Chairmen Tom Ryan, Ray Lawley, Tom McKinnon and others knew their stuff too. But those were the days when Republican leadership in the county was more unstable, while Joe was very effective in solidifying his hold on the party.
There were a whole lot of campaigns for Joe Crangle. Here are notes about some of the more memorable ones:
- In 1965, Joe’s first year as Chairman, there was still an active Republican Party in the City of Buffalo. Joe orchestrated Frank Sedita’s win, reclaiming City Hall for the Democrats.
- In 1968 Joe chaired Senator Robert Kennedy’s campaign for president in Michigan.
- In 1969 Alfreda Slominski was riding high as the Republican candidate for Mayor. Sedita was re-elected.
- In 1973 Stan Makowski succeeded Sedita with a campaign victory.
- In 1974 as Chairman of the State Democratic Committee, Joe led the effort to elect Hugh Carey governor, with an accompanying victory for control of the State Assembly by the Democrats – the first time in decades.
- In 1976 Joe and Congressman (later Senator) Paul Simon of Illinois worked to draft Hubert Humphrey for president. The campaign failed but the effort was recognized. Vice President Humphrey told WBEN at the 1976 Democratic Convention that “one of the real sad points in my life is that I did not have Joe Crangle aboard running my campaign in other years.”
- In 1976 Joe drafted Pat Moynihan to run for Bobby Kennedy’s former Senate seat. Moynihan went on to serve in the Senate for four terms. And a Crangle-recruited campaigner got his start working for Moynihan. You may have heard of him – Tim Russert.
- There were other campaigns that did not work out so well, but the party banner was carried high: the county executive campaigns of Al Dekdebrun, Frank McGuire, Dave Swarts; the mayoral campaigns of Les Foschio and George Arthur.
- In 1980 Joe played a major role in Senator Ted Kennedy’s campaign for president.
- In 1982 Joe was one of three main contenders for national party chairman.
The politicos who got their start with Joe Crangle
When I think about the politicos who got their start or got a boost in their careers through Joe Crangle’s effort, I think about how classic sports coaches and managers extend their legacies through the people who worked for them, people like Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi. The list of officeholders and political leaders who got their start with Joe is very long. At the risk of unintentionally leaving off some names, here are a just a few of the folks whose careers were boosted by Joe Crangle:
- Members of the House of Representatives Henry Nowak, John LaFalce, Brian Higgins
- Mayor Tony Masiello
- Mayor Byron Brown
- County Executive Dennis Gorski
- County Clerks Jane Starosciak and Dave Swarts
- County Chairman Len Lenihan
- State legislators Robin Schimminger, Dick Keane, Vince Graber, Bill Hoyt, Joe Tauriello, Jim Fremming, Ray Gallagher
What we remember
It was August, 1966. The sun shone brightly over Buffalo that day, as befitting a presidential visit to the Queen City of the Great Lakes. The bright sun would have sparkled in the reflected glow of the white marble of Niagara Square – if the square hadn’t been packed with people crammed into the heart of the city to see President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The president was in Buffalo campaigning for local Democratic candidates and was obviously pleased with the mass of humanity that filled the Square. Between waves to the crowd, Johnson leaned over to Buffalo Mayor Frank A. Sedita. “You’ve certainly done a fine job, Mayor,” the president said. “This crowd is magnificent.” Mayor Sedita paused from his own waves to the admiring masses and beckoned over his shoulder to a cherub-faced Irishman standing in the background. “Thank you, Mr. President,” Sedita responded, “but if you want to thank someone, someone who put this whole rally together, thank that young man back there. Thank Joe Crangle, our county chairman.” The president was obviously impressed. As the Buffalo portion of the tour ended and the executive entourage was assembled in the limousines for the drive to the next stop, Johnson asked his advance man “Where’s Crangle?” The aide answered “he’s back in the VIP bus, Mr. President. He’s right behind us.” “Well, I want him here in the car with us,” Johnson said. About that time, Lem Johns, the Secret Service agent-in-charge turned from the front seat and spoke. “We’re behind schedule, Mr. President. Can’t we just leave him on the bus for now?” The president stared into the face of the agent and spoke softly. “Young man, this car doesn’t move without Joe Crangle.” And in a very real sense, that anecdote is an encapsulation of Joe Crangle’s leadership of the Erie County Democratic Party. The vehicle of the party often sped down the byways of electoral success like the well-oiled machine it was called. Sometimes, it meandered a bit, traveling some uncharted and unknown backroads. And once in a while, it sputtered and misfired, limping into another election only to get fine-tuned and back on its way. But no matter what direction or route taken by the party during those twenty-three years, it was always clear that the driving force behind the Democratic Party was its chairman, Joseph Francis Crangle. And all along those twenty-three tumultuous years, three mileposts would recur as the absolute guidelines by which Crangle would steer the party. Those mileposts are the benchmarks of the Crangle era in Democratic politics: dedication, leadership, and service.
Coming to know and respect Joe Crangle
Blog Editor Paul Fisk, who posted an article on this blog recently about JB Walsh, tells a story about how he came to know Crangle.
Back in the 1960’s, before I ever met Joe Crangle, I concluded that the simplistic impression I had formed of him solely from reading the local papers probably cost me an internship with Bobby Kennedy.
To explain – as an undergraduate at UB I was one of two political science majors nominated for an internship. I was told that it was UB’s “turn” for one that year, and I knew that the other person didn’t really want it. I naively thought I was a shoe-in. I thought the interview with a Kennedy staffer was going well when I was asked what I thought of Joe Crangle. I replied something to the effect that the local papers made him sound like a political boss of the old school mold. The interview concluded quickly and I didn’t get the job. Only later did I learn of Joe’s longstanding relationship with the Kennedy family, and of the key role Erie County Democrats played in the convention that nominated John Kennedy.
A few years later, fresh out of graduate school with a master’s degree in Public Administration, I found myself working at Erie County Democratic Headquarters, drafting position papers and press releases for the Frank Sedita campaign for county executive, under the supervision of Joe. At that time, and for a few years thereafter, I sat in occasional meetings with Joe concerning political ads, policy papers and news releases as he fielded unceasing phone calls from all levels of the political world. I marveled constantly at his ability to shift his attention effortlessly between the smallest details of the material at hand, minor squabbles among local committeemen, and calls from Washington seeking his input on such matters as potential vice presidential candidates. I saw him have enough national prestige to pull in to local campaigns the likes of Bobby Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Speaker Carl Albert, House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, even Mayor John Lindsay.
Later, in a new job at city hall, I was in the position of interviewing candidates for management analyst jobs. Three graduate students in Business Administration had worked on an analysis project for us that semester and one of them had clearly done the bulk of the work, and had good training and skills. Still quite naïve, I wasn’t sure I could offer him a job, wondering if there might be some political screening involved and knowing that he was a registered Republican. I mentioned this to Joe, who asked me “Is he good?” (Yes) “Do you want to hire him?” (Yes) “Then do it.” (End of conversation.)
In my years of working on City of Buffalo budgets under the direction of Jim Burns, I got the impression that the process for proposing budgets that were austere and politically difficult often included Jim having a heated discussion with Joe about the necessity of doing politically tough things. When Joe was finally convinced something of the sort had to be done, he would sometimes gather the Democratic council members to explain why some potentially onerous things were necessary and urge them to suck it up and do them without making things worse by publicly complaining.
After seven or eight years in local government and politics and various appointive positions I moved on to a civil service job in the state Budget Division. And after thirty-five years in government and ample reason to become cynical, I probably remain naïve but am optimistic that politics and government can accomplish positive things for people. And I no longer believe that strong, skilled political leadership is necessarily a bad thing. I’ve seen it have positive effects.
A few words from the blogger
I have lots of fond memories of the times of Joe Crangle. A lot of us got our doctorates in political science at Crangle University. We learned that we needed to be accurate and thorough and able to express ourselves in ways that were meaningful and understandable. We learned the importance of thinking before speaking or writing, something that is lacking in the new millennium. Joe gave us some simple and incredibly important advice: never say or write anything that you are not prepared to read in tomorrow’s newspaper.
There is a great deal of grunt work involved in politics – list gathering; envelope stuffing; telephone calls; literature drops; running and serving as a party committee member, etc. It is part of the business that modern politics seems to be returning to in a serious but obviously more sophisticated way. Joe was a master of those essential political duties.
There are sometimes fun times in campaigns, or at least what passes as fun times for political junkies. I particularly enjoyed the opportunities that Joe gave me and others to participate in the presidential campaigns that tried to draft Humphrey in 1976, and the Kennedy for President campaign in 1980. We worked for stretches of 90-100 hours per week and had the time of our lives.
Steve Banko recalls the Kennedy campaign in Michigan:
A large segment of Joe’s crew had been summoned to Detroit. The logic behind the Kennedy campaign was one that would demonstrate the Massachusetts senator’s unrivaled strength in the industrialized states of the east and Midwest as an indication that incumbent President Jimmy Carter was vulnerable both in a primary and in the general election to come. Michigan loomed as the fulcrum in that strategy. Due to strange caucus regulations in that state the entire voting population was about 45,000. Immediately Crangle determined that every one of those 45,000 people would get a minimum of three contacts in behalf of Kennedy. When I arrived, we were in the process of stuffing the first of those three contacts – a letter from Kennedy detailing his worth as the Democratic candidate to oppose Ronald Reagan. I arrived at 7 p.m. at the campaign HQ in Southfield. Work had already begun on the tedium of folding, stuffing, stamping and sealing 45,000 envelopes. Around midnight, I was ready for the sack and virtually everyone else was also. Crangle sensed the lagging in production and started a competition to see which side of the room could hit 25,000 first. In hindsight it was pretty silly. Joe had assembled a pretty high-priced and highly experienced bunch and to think we’d get engaged in some silly stuffing competition was ludicrous. But at 2 a.m. one side of the room hit the magic number after a blizzard of paper cuts and accelerated stuffing.
I stumbled back to my motel room that night bone weary but still marveling at the genius that turned exhaustion into competition. The post script to that story is that we snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat in Michigan, due in no small part to Joe’s deft handling of staff and strategy.
I would add this to Steve’s narrative of that evening: sometime after midnight some of the volunteers spontaneously broke into singing, Frank Sinatra’s My Way. Except that the chorus of the song was changed a bit: “we did it Joe’s way.”
After Joe left the party chairmanship in 1988, he didn’t just fade away. He began a new aspect of a political career, that of commentator. For more than 20 years he worked every primary and general election night, and at various other times of the year, as political analyst for WIVB-TV, Channel 4. Joe jumped into that work with the same vigor that he approached campaigns. He recruited hundreds of party committee members to call in to a bank of experienced hands who tabulated the results. Joe set a very high bar for that political commentating. Campaigns tuned into Channel 4 to find out what and when Joe was forecasting for that evening’s results.
I’ll leave with some final words to Steve Banko:
For the better part of a decade, I learned chapter and verse about campaigning from Joe. While my field was media and communications, it was hard not to pick up the expertise of guys and gals like Ken Kruly, Sheila Kee, Dave Swarts, Sue Hager, and too many others to mention. We didn’t always win but we never stopped competing and we never stopped learning. Under Crangle’s leadership, the Democratic voter in Erie County was never taken for granted. No campaign was ever undertaken without tons of mailings, phone calls and door-to-door contacts. Issues might have been over-communicated in those days but they were never under informed. Voters knew what the truth was and who was telling it.
When Ed Rutkowski was at the peak of his popularity as Erie County Executive, no one was willing to step forward and make the sacrificial run. But Joe would not allow the election to go uncontested so David Swarts was our “lamb.” Margaret Sullivan was a reporter for the Buffalo News back then and asked to accompany the candidate for a weekend. After a hectic Saturday that saw Swarts head from one boundary of the county to the other over 12 grueling hours, Margaret said one day was enough. As she was being driven back into Buffalo, she marveled at the schedule Swarts was keeping “while you guys have no chance of winning.” She was told it wasn’t always about winning. It was about competing, about getting the message out, about showing the party’s colors.
That is Joe Crangle’s lasting legacy to his community and his party. He competed harder than anyone else. He worked harder. He made sure that everyone knew the issues and more importantly, the truth.
We could use a carload more of that these days.