Frances Perkins and Today’s Progressives

Where are today’s progressives?

By Gary Tilzer

Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary, was the principal architect of the New Deal. (Credit: francesperkinscenter.org.)

Today’s elected progressives have converted the progressive movement into identity politics away from the original values and mission of its founding woman Frances Perkins.  The progressive movement started during in the 1890’s under Theodore Roosevelt and hit its full effects during the reign of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his labor secretary Frances Perkins.  Perkins was the first woman cabinet member, who helped to develop and shape’s FDR’s New Deal, including social security, minimum wage, 40-hour work week and an end to child labor.

In the early 1900s, Frances Perkins, who was a social worker at Hartley House Settlement House, met the local democratic district leader Thomas J. McManus of Hell’s Kitchen.  This meeting started Perkins’ career of lobbying Tammany Hall politicians such as Governor Al Smith and his successor Franklin D Roosevelt to embrace her progressive solution to problems including lifting Americans out of poverty and restoring economic security and safety to working families and their children.

The progressive’s New Deal began on March 25, 1911, the day of the Triangle Shirt Factory Fire in New York City.  Perkins exposed dangerous working conditions in factories after the fire. She became instrumental in working with Governor Roosevelt, Mayor Wagner and the political bosses in turning this tragedy into progressive legislation that broke control of political bosses and their real estate and business clients in blocking fire and worker safety laws.

Now in what is called by many a progressive city, developers are going after the Hartley Settlement House, the place where Perkins started her career that changed America.  “The loss of Hartley House would not only be a loss to the local community, served by the settlement house, but also a significant loss to the political history of the progressive movement in a city that claims to be the most progressive city in the world”, said Jim Kaplan, the President of the National Democratic Club.  Kaplan, a published historian of New York City, is deeply concerned that the settlement house building located in trendy Hell’s Kitchen could be destroyed for another condo apartment building. He is currently working with the local community board to change the street name in front of the Hartley House to honor Perkins. If these progressives understood their own movement and history, they would be marching on City Hall and demanding that the building be landmarked.

New York’s government, crippled by corruption and incompetence, needs changes that are as effective as the reforms that Francis Perkins implemented with the progressive movement of the early 1900s’.  Modern progressives have done nothing to stop lobbyists at the center of the pay-to-play corruption in City Hall and Albany. Today’s progressives are organized around important social issues such as gay, transgender and immigrant rights, building bike lanes and calling for more transparency in a city where there is none.  However, in a city where most elected officials call themselves progressives, a growing number of homeless live on the city’s streets, lack of affordable housing and rising rents force thousands out of their homes and public housing tenants freeze in the winter time. Perkins’ progressive mission was to get the job done. The public is better served when the special interests’ control of government is kept in check and blocked if necessary, just like Frances Perkins did in her day.  Modern progressives create an illusion of tackling problems such as the lack of affordable housing by tweeting and issuing press releases. They deliberately fail to solve problems for fear of harming the clients of political bosses and lobbyists that got them elected.

Government corruption is at a crisis level because the norms that prevented lobbyists from running campaigns have been broken.  In an apparent conflict of interest, many recent progressive’s campaigns are run by lobbyists and funded by the developers and other city contractors who are clients of these lobbyists.  DUMBO developer Two Trees employs lobbyist and campaign consultant BerlinRosen, who has run over a dozen Working Families city council campaigns and is one of de Blasio “secret agent” campaign managers.  Berlin worked for de Blasio’s PAC, Campaign for One NY, which was shut down after the start of the FBI investigation. It appears that today’s lobbyist-campaign managers are akin to the landlords and their political bosses of Tammany Hall era, who blocked fire safety laws before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy, prior to Hartley House’s Frances Perkins.

As the late journalist Wayne Barrett said, “lobbyists make kings, so they can make deals with the kings they made.”  Modern progressives do not push to resolve problems like Francis Perkins strived to do in her day. On the contrary, these new so-called progressives rely on the city’s lobbyists and party bosses — the kings — to stay in office.

Gary Tilzer is a Brooklyn-based blogger who writes True News and can be found on Twitter at @unitedNYblogs.

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