The first mayor of the new Boston

John Hynes ousts James Michael Curley

Sixth in a series

It was the mid-point of the century, and Boston was at a crossroads. For too many years city leaders stood by as Boston gradually lost its place as a great urban center. Its industrial base began to deteriorate and the once vibrant seaport was in the end stages of terminal stagnation. Some city neighborhoods, torn apart by insensitively built transportation projects like the Sumner Tunnel and the Washington Street elevated transit line, became places people longed to escape from. The downtown, depressed by lack of investment, became a place people wanted to get into and out of as quickly as their work day would allow. Middle class jobs were bleeding out of the city, flowing to the South and Midwest. This was the city 75-year-old James Michael Curley presided over as his fourth term in office was coming to a close.

Curley’s lackluster performance as mayor in the late 1940s did not deter him from seeking re-election. After all, he was the dominant political figure of the first half of the 20th century – no local person could match his resilience, his fame, or his capacity to attract loyal troops of support. There seems to have come a time when Curley’s performance in office really didn’t matter – it was his aura, his legend, his mere availability as a one-man bulwark against the frigid bankers and trading barons of State Street that endeared him to the city’s many thousands of poor and middle class citizens. So it was not surprising that he believed, coming off his fourth term as mayor, that the city would once again turn to him for leadership.

Curley was running with confidence. He had won his fourth term in 1945 with the largest margin for any mayor up to that time. He announced that he would avoid active campaigning because he believed his re-election was assured, a bit of bravado that was likely informed by a profound misreading of the electoral dynamics. There were four others in the race, including Patrick J. ‘Sonny” McDonough, himself a rogue in the making, who was characterized by Curley (paraphrasing the poet Wordsworth) as “no violet by a mossy stone.” The possibility that the anti-Curley vote would be split among his four opponents gave Curley some expectation that he would come out on top in a crowded field. Surely he must have thought that re-election was easily within his grasp for his chief opponent was a soft spoken, bespectacled, largely unknown fellow with no track record seeking political office.

John Hynes took a different point of view. Hynes was born in Boston’s South End, the son of immigrants who made his way up the traditional political step ladder. His career was distinguished not by particular accomplishment, but by longevity – he had served in one capacity or another in City Hall since the 1920s. Hynes was by all accounts a mild mannered, competent bureaucrat who made friends easily and offended few. He rose to become city clerk in 1945, as Curley was winning his fourth term as mayor. He had served as acting mayor when Curley was serving time in federal prison. Without any of the usual courtesies one would expect from the courtly Curley, the old mayor once back in his office brusquely pushed Hynes aside. Curley seemed to believe that it was important for him to quickly re-assert primacy over city government, and that the best way to accomplish this goal was to diminish the man who had ably served as caretaker during his five months in Danbury Prison. Later in the day, convening an impromptu press conference, Curley remarked that he had accomplished more in that one day than Hynes had done in five months. It was a disastrous miscalculation. Curley was a master of the political arts, but he made a fatal mistake. He had given the mild-mannered Hynes an invaluable political asset: passion. Hynes would not soon or easily forget the insult – his son would recall that he had never seen his father as angry as he was that day – and 1949 offered him the chance to exact revenge on the aging and increasingly out-of-touch Curley.

Curley was running on a fading legend, not a record. Curley’s campaign would be driven by the same impulses that drove him to four mayoral victories since 1914, impulses that still resonated with many Bostonians, but that seemed to many others an echo of times past. Indeed, Boston during his last term as mayor seemed to be in the grip of an irrepressible tug downward. The historian Walter Muir Whitehill wrote about this period that “[y]ear by year, the city was progressively coming apart at the seams.” The business community was disengaged from civic affairs, demoralized by decades of Curley bashing and disinvestment. The city was adrift, without any focus or plan for revival.

Curley’s approach to governing Boston was, in part, built upon a “divide and conquer” mentality. For Curley, class warfare was a potent weapon in his arsenal, a way to maintain his political coalition by affirming his role as “Mayor of the Poor” and defender of the average citizen. There were many consequences to this approach to governing. Some were positive. Neighborhoods benefitted from Relief Stations bringing health care to their communities. Parks were built, offering residents fresh air and recreational opportunities. Beaches were expanded and cleaned up, and bathhouses built – all improvements that lifted spirits and the quality of life in the neighborhoods. But there were negative consequences to this style of governance.

Curley did everything but declare war on the business community, publicly berating them at every turn. He famously confronted the president of the First National Bank of Boston when the bank refused to loan money to the city. Curley’s threat – to open city water mains and flood the bank’s basement and vaults – may have been apocryphal (or slightly exaggerated), but the point was made and made clearly: he expected the business community to do his bidding, and would seek harsh retribution if they did not. As investment lagged, the downtown degraded into a dark, dreary environment. Such neglect made it easier for city and state planners to look upon downtown Boston as a place people needed to get through, or in and out of, as quickly as possible – an attitude that paved the way for even worse decision-making that took several forms, including the construction of the Central Artery.

His animus toward the business community was not simply a rhetorical device, it was heartfelt and he punished the wealthy owners of downtown buildings and businesses with high taxes derived from significantly disproportionate property assessments. Property valuations during the Curley era were set without regard to any fair or coherent approach. Instead, downtown buildings were assessed and taxed at the highest rates they could tolerate. Lawrence Kennedy, in his important study of planning in Boston, notes that in the first year of Curley’s final term in office, “the assessed value of the Statler Hotel was raised $1 million, while Filene’s valuation was increased by $950,000 and Jordan Marsh’s by $615,000.” Assessments like this were not sustainable, and triggered an attitude of disinvestment on the part of the business community. This issue of property tax assessments, which may seem like rather dry stuff, became the great battleground of reform and restoration during the 1950s.

More than anything else, the times were against Curley – he was old and off his game, and the voters of Boston at mid-century were increasingly people who had little or no recollection of the Curley of the early 20th century. Many of these voters were veterans of the World War II, young men and women golden with hope and taking advantage of what would be a time of significant prosperity in America. Curley’s Boston, a place of deep deprivation for immigrants not fully settled in their new homeland, was a thing of the past. In 1949, he was likely remembered more as the mayor who went to jail for mail fraud than the man who went to prison for helping a friend pass the civil service exam. “He did it for a friend” had morphed into “He did it to himself.”

The election came down to the wire. Secretary of Labor Maurice Tobin (a former mayor and former governor) made a last-minute public endorsement of Hynes, an endorsement that placed on Hynes the mantle of good government reformer. Tobin had defeated Curley in a surprising demonstration of political force in 1937, an election Curley would dismiss as a “beauty contest.” The enmity between the two men ran deep, and Tobin declared in his endorsement that a vote for Hynes would “redeem Boston in the eyes of America.”

Still adept at playing the class card, he attacked Hynes as “that little city clerk” in the pockets of Boston’s rapacious business leaders. Hynes was branded by Curley as a “Republican candidate from the State Street wrecking crew.” Curley raised the specter of rising residential property assessments, underscoring the point that if Hynes were elected, the business community would likely be the beneficiaries of a more balanced approach to determining property values in the city. For Hynes, the campaign was about restoring confidence in the city, and repudiating the last of the city ward bosses. He carefully portrayed Curley as old and out of touch, referring to him as a “tired war horse,” and dismissed Curley voters as those who would be found “in the cemeteries of an era long past.”

A miasma of corruption hung over the election, with Curley fresh out of jail and the City Council, in the words of Curley biographer Jack Beatty, “sodden with corruption.” Hynes called upon the city to elect him as the person most likely to bring “clean, honest, and efficient” government back to City Hall. He capitalized on the sense that things were just not right in City Hall with ads calling on Boston voters to “get rid of Curley gangsters” in government. It was tough stuff, but Hynes was a man provoked – provoked by Curley personally, and provoked by a sense of mission to deliver Boston from the catastrophe that was imminent if it continued to slide downward.

When the votes were tallied, Curley received his highest vote total ever, just over 126,000 votes. But it was not enough. Hynes won the election with an 11,000-vote margin, and his victory marked the beginning of a new era in the city’s history. John Hynes was the last Boston mayor born in the 19th century, but he would become the first mayor of the “New Boston.”

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The election of 1949 presented voters with a moment when the city would either move forward and take its place in the modern post-war world, or revert to the leadership of an old man who had long ago offered people succor and hope but who could not summon the foresight or the vision to respond to the urgent needs of modern times. In choosing John Hynes over James Michael Curley, Boston’s voters took their future into their own hands, and chose modernity over nostalgia. It was perhaps the most important electoral decision they had made up to that time.

Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation. His most recent book is The Vidal Lecture.