Life is a gigantic swirl for Mayor-elect Joe Ganim whose comeback has gained national attention. He’s fielding interview requests, finalizing a transition team, pondering inner-office appointments and department head positions. What’s certain right now is he will receive the oath of office on the evening of December 1 outdoors on McLevy Green, named for the city’s legendary Socialist mayor who served from 1933-57, where Abraham Lincoln also set foot on March 10, 1860, a plaque on the building to honor the Republican presidential contender and ex Senate candidate from Illinois who delivered “an impassioned political speech against slavery,” according to a newspaper account. In the event of poor weather on inauguration night, the Klein Memorial on Fairfield Avenue is the backup plan.
The Daily Standard of the day described Lincoln as “tall, bony, angular, big jointed figure with a great towering head and a very expressive countenance. His eye satisfies you at once that there is brain … intellectual power in the man, and this is the secret of his success.” Ganim is nearly a foot shorter than Lincoln (elected president in November 1860) but with a stoic countenance that on Nov. 3 connected with a solid majority of city voters.
When Lincoln visited in 1860 the building was known as Washington Hall that also served as City Hall before renamed McLevy Hall in 1967 after most city departments were moved to the more spacious Lyon Terrace building a few blocks away Downtown. The Greek Revival McLevy Hall is still a work in progress after the remaining city departments were relocated to the Morton Government building across the street several years ago. Located at State and Main, the grounds of McLevy Green feature war monuments as well as serving as a popular gathering spot for annual Thursday night summer concert series.
In the latter years of his first tenure as mayor from November 1991-April 2003, Ganim had developed an appreciation for city history in which he could talk with ease about the city’s contributions to world progress that combined immigrant brawn with industrial ingenuity led by the names P.T. Barnum, Elias Howe, Harvey Hubbell, Simon Lake, Igor Sikorsky and many more. So in Ganim’s desire to choose McLevy Green as the site of his inauguration he’s making a statement about making current history with a nod toward distant city history. Who’s Jasper McLevy? He was a roofer by trade, a political reformer who was a central figure during the Depression, government frugality, growth of public housing and increased labor movement.
From my book Only In Bridgeport.
It’s the spring of 1939 and Bridgeport’s Public Works Director Pete Brewster is taking another needling about his tardy snow-removal operations from reporters. The scene is Billy Prince’s bar on State Street, where the truth or the near-truth about city operations flowed freely for a good many years. “Napoleon,” as Brewster’s scribe friends called him, grew angrier with each sip of his beer and each jab from the probing reporters. How, they repeatedly insisted, could Brewster allow so much time to elapse before firing up city snowplows to clear the streets? Brewster, of course, had been smarting since the previous November when The Herald had plowed him for “waiting ’til the sun shines” to clear the streets of snow. “Napoleon fails to fight storm, thousands suffer,” the scandal sheet’s headline declared. “Sole responsibility for the terrible condition of Bridgeport streets following last weekend’s double snowstorm rests with Director of Public Works Peter P. ‘Napoleon’ Brewster,” crowed the story’s opening paragraph. And, for practically every week that winter, The Herald poked fun at Brewster’s snowplowing direction. After all, the city had initially appropriated only $300 in the budget to cover the cost of snow and ice clearance that year.
So, with several months of persistent nagging catching up to him, Brewster picked this moment in Billy Prince’s to break his long-standing silence. “Let the Guy who put the snow there take it away,” he cut loose. Bridgeporters were never satisfied by the excuses given for the lack of snow removal, but this was the Depression, and although many vociferous complaints about mushing through the snow had piled up, residents had by then grown accustomed to their penny-pinching Socialist Mayor Jasper McLevy.
With each passing winter and with more taxpayers’ complaints about the snow-covered streets, the story of how Jasper McLevy said “God put the snow there, let Him take it away,” has been told countless times in front of fireplaces, in snow-stranded vehicles and, yes, in bars. Jasper McLevy, down through the years, involuntarily received the credit for a line coined by his long-time and trusted employee. But for Bridgeport, it represented a sign of the times and the tight spending of a reform mayor who helped lift Bridgeport out of bankruptcy and out of the dog days of the Depression.
Jasper McLevy was Bridgeport’s mayor from 1933 to 1957, one of the longest tenures for a chief executive officer of a city of any size. That feat alone would be worth admiring, but for 12 straight municipal elections, Democrats, Republicans and independent voters marched into voting booths to elect a Socialist as their mayor. Yet the Socialist affiliation was generally meaningless to those who supported him. They were loyal to a man who showed there could be honesty in government; someone who lived up to practically every campaign promise and kept taxes and spending to a minimum … a man who would be known to them as just Jasper.
A few days after McLevy died in November 1962, William J. Walsh, the Bridgeport Post political reporter who covered McLevy for many of his 24 mayoral years, wrote: “To say that his death marks an end of an era is too trite, for this puts the emphasis on time rather than personality. Jasper McLevy was an era all by himself. His imprint on the city was the greatest since a distant predecessor in the mayor’s chair–P.T. Barnum.”
McLevy introduced the civil service system into Bridgeport to cut off the patronage that dominated political power in the past; convinced the state to maintain key city bridges and highways; made garbage collection a city function; revamped the sewage system with trunk sewers leading to disposal plants; supported slum clearance to pave the way for low- to moderate-income housing units; and slashed in half the $16 million bonded indebtedness that he had inherited. Voter confidence in McLevy grew so strong that some even suggested he could grow grass in the streets. And in a way, he did that too–he built esplanades.
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McLevy was born in Bridgeport on March 27, 1878, to two Scottish immigrants. The oldest of nine children, he left school in the eighth grade and went to work in local factories before joining his father’s roofing trade, which he eventually took over years later when his father died from a fall off a roof. His inspiration to join the Socialist cause came from reading Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward.
McLevy was the last–and perhaps best–of the soapbox campaigners. Thirty years before he became mayor, he tirelessly campaigned on street corners and in front of factory gates for various elective city positions, with practically no success. A Scot with a weather-beaten face from his days as a roofer, he took to the streets with cracked hands and a battered felt hat. In those early days, McLevy didn’t command much of an audience, so he’d plant a heckler in the crowd to trigger some give-and-take on the issues at hand. Often the heckler would shout, “If you don’t like it here why don’t you get out?” McLevy would reply, “I not only like it here, but I like it more than you because I want to improve it.”
McLevy’s first political success came in 1903. Although he lost his bid for the city clerk’s position, voters soundly accepted his petition drive for a referendum to ask for the appropriation of free textbooks for elementary school children. McLevy modeled himself after the man re-elected as mayor that year, Denis Mulvihill, the Irish stoker. McLevy admired Mulvihill for becoming the city’s first workingman’s mayor–shattering the white-collar tradition of installing Yankee chief executive officers. In the following years, McLevy ran for a variety of municipal and state offices, including alderman, state representative, and state senator, receiving in some cases a few dozen votes in local races. Nevertheless, he continued to build his name recognition and attended nearly every Common Council meeting after 1900, building his knowledge of city affairs and parlaying his union activities into boosting a small electoral base. He had helped organize the Central Labor Union and was a leader in the Slate and Tile Roofer’s Union, rising to become international president of the organization three times. And through his gritty union activities he learned to out-talk and out-pound the opposition with brilliant political rhetoric.
In 1911 McLevy took to his mayoral soapbox for the first time, maintaining the only cure to the evils of patronage was civil service, an eight-hour workday, municipal ownership of utilities, and tighter spending–the Socialist platform he would continually espouse as he began building credibility with national Socialist Party leaders such as Norman Thomas, the long-time presidential nominee of the party. In McLevy’s first mayoral race, the Socialist drew votes from elements disgusted with the political machine of Republican Town Chairman John T. King (perhaps the greatest political boss in city history), who nevertheless led Clifford B. Wilson to the first of five consecutive mayoral victories. McLevy, riding the fervor of the early labor movement, finished a respectable third, drawing 3625 votes, 2000 votes behind Wilson.
McLevy was up against the most charismatic politician of the times. King, a charming, calculating, brilliant strategist, had formed political clubs throughout the city for the sole function of doling out jobs in his patronage system. King had reversed the Democratic trend of Irish political leaders, building his power base in the Republican Party and becoming a national committeeman. He formed a political friendship with Allan F. Paige, a Yankee Republican in the shadow of the Mulvihill and Edward T. Buckingham mayoral years, and built a powerful patronage machine, a double machine. While King realized McLevy drew some anti-establishment votes from him, he also knew the McLevy factor would siphon off more votes from the Democrats. All the things King stood for–power, patronage, political clubs–McLevy furiously fought against, but King wanted McLevy to run. And McLevy helped King’s candidate become mayor.
McLevy often said the Democrats were “spare tires” to the King machine and someday “when people get sick enough of this municipal circus we are liable to have a blowout that will affect all their tires.” Still King became quite fond of McLevy as a politician and insisted he would make him mayor someday if only he turned Republican. Speculation centered on whether King financed McLevy’s campaigns, since King spoke so highly of McLevy.
McLevy ran for mayor (and a variety of other offices) almost every election year after 1911, his vote generally unimpressive, but still a factor in the King-Wilson victories. McLevy, who married his childhood sweetheart Mary Flynn in 1911, preached the labor movement, and his voice was heard regularly in legislative halls in the battles to establish the Workman’s Compensation Law and the Public Utilities Commission in 1913.
During the King-Wilson era, Bridgeport emerged as a major industrial city and as the country’s arms and munitions center. Parks were beautified, dental programs instituted in schools, and dirt roads given a coating of expensive pavement. But much of the money spent on the city came from King’s bonding policies. King strayed from the commonly known pay-as-you-go system to build up the city. It worked for quite some time, but King’s machine became vulnerable as the city’s bonded debt grew.
In 1921, Democratic Town Chairman John Cornell and his mayoral candidate Fred Atwater convinced voters the city needed spending reform, and King was dethroned, if only for one term. The two became embroiled in a fight for party control, which King quickly exploited, and his precision figuring surfaced once again in the 1923 election. Realizing several hundred Germans were active in the Socialist Party and regularly supported McLevy, he nominated F. William Behrens, a German and local butcher, for mayor. King’s strategy was to borrow just enough votes from McLevy for a victory over the Democrats. That election McLevy received 330 fewer votes than the previous one, precisely just enough votes for King’s candidate to sneak past the Democrat.
During the 1920s, try as he might, McLevy could not convince the voters that both parties were no-good scoundrels and that the Socialist Party presented the only honest choice. McLevy’s tireless love for the soapbox continued on street corners for biennial runs for mayor and governor. Although McLevy would not be elected mayor for another seven years, 1926 became a breakthrough year and resulted in the most radical change in Bridgeport’s government. An investigation by State Tax Commissioner William H. Blodgett found that Bridgeport had not collected more than $3 million in back taxes covering several years and three administrations. Blodgett said $38,000 in abatements had been granted on the night before the 1923 election, in what he described as “clean up night,” and over the ensuing two-year period his investigation revealed abatements amounting to $400,000 for King’s political friends. On top of that, the 1922 city tax book had suddenly disappeared. Blodgett cited 67 cases of illegal abatements and charged the city with flagrant financial mismanagement.
“Bridgeport,” said Blodgett, “is one of those towns that doesn’t collect their taxes very well. That way of doing things came into vogue in Bridgeport years ago; it is ingrained there and people have become tempered to it.” As a result, the state legislature enacted the “Ripper Bill,” which ripped financial home rule away from Bridgeport. Under the bill, the governor appointed the tax collector, tax attorney, and the Board of Apportionment and Taxation, which set the city’s mil rate. The Ripper Bill also cut into the political spoils of John T. King, who died in 1926, leaving no one to rally the Republican Party. McLevy actually denounced the Ripper Bill as “destroying the principle of home rule in Bridgeport,” and he later used it as ammunition to forever blame the Republicans and Democrats.
Behrens managed to win the last of his three terms in 1927, which would be the last Republican victory in Bridgeport until 1971. Behrens’ administration collapsed with the news of a bridge scandal involving the newly constructed Yellow Mill Bridge on the East Side. Charges of graft concerning the construction of the bridge surfaced and flushed out greater revelations. Members of the bridge commission that approved the construction contract had become secret members of a dummy corporation organized by the construction company. Essential bridge materials passed through the dummy corporation, some supplied by a contractor who was actually a bridge commission member. An investigating committee estimated the city made an overpayment of $183,000.
The Democrats seized the opportunity and brought back Edward T. Buckingham, a Yale graduate, who was beaten by the King machine in 1911. Buckingham promised voters no more “cost plus” contracts and won the scandal vote for a victory. While Buckingham banged away at the Republicans’ bridge scandal, McLevy’s chief charge against Behrens was that he increased the city-bonded debt up to $14,828,000. In 1929, the 50-year-old McLevy polled only 1968 votes, yet it was his highest mayoral vote since 1911, and he carried on, running for governor in 1930, gradually earning respect from the electorate through his effective workingman’s political rhetoric. During his 1930 race for governor, he authored the following campaign letter to the live letter column of the Bridgeport Post:
I note by the evening papers that Dean Wilbur Cross declines to discuss with me the issues of the campaign and through his State Chairman P.B. Sullivan says ‘It’s bears, not chipmunks, we want’ and further says that he hopes that I will not take any offense at the suggestion that during this campaign we are gunning for bear and can’t waste any time or ammunition on chipmunks.
But really, are not my Democratic opponents starting out on a very ambitious hunting expedition, for hunters who haven’t even shot a chipmunk for many years? Either the hunters have been poor or the ammunition faulty–or both! Many a good hunting trip has been ruined, however, by the squirrels nibbling holes, in the bottom of the powder pouch.
There are more squirrels in Connecticut than bears, my kindly opponents, so why should I take offense at being labeled a little chipmunk? You will need a lot of little chipmunks, P.B., in this campaign to put your Dean across–so don’t ride too high in your gilded chariot.
Great oaks from little acorns grow and great political parties from little chipmunks grow. A thought that is well to keep in mind, my worthy opponent.
Wilbur Cross was elected Governor of Connecticut, but the patient McLevy would get more than even some eight years later.
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Six months after Buckingham came into power on the crest of the Yellow Mill Bridge scandal, his administration allowed a contract for the repair of the Stratford Avenue Bridge at a cost of $33,000. After months of work, however, the repair costs had run beyond $150,000. Buckingham explained than an engineering contract mistake low-balled the repair figure at $33,000, and that bridge conditions were actually worse. But the public wasn’t buying Buckingham’s excuse. As it turned out, bridge repairs totaled roughly $280,000. Whether Buckingham was telling the truth or not, Bridgeporters had experienced their fill of bridge scams. It appeared that the question wasn’t whether there would be a bridge scam this year, but which bridge would be involved.
Buckingham, meanwhile, had other problems–Bridgeport started feeling the stock market crash of 1929. The slowdown came harder and heavier with each passing month, and the worst was yet to come. Unemployment rose at record rates; the city borrowed millions to meet the welfare crisis. Charges of municipal corruption or the exposure of a political pork barrel may not have overjoyed voters in the past, but they could more easily swallow the scams and forgive the elected officials during times of prosperity. In the eyes of the voters bearing the worst of times during the Depression, this practice grew too costly. With people out of work, they had time to listen to McLevy, who was now emerging as the ‘I told you so’ front-runner. He had warned before the disclosure of the bridge scandal that the city would overspend on the repairs, just as the Republicans had done years before. McLevy earned respect as the champion of the taxpayer. With his battered campaign hat and frayed shirt, his street corner crowds grew and intensified.
“They used to talk about the Socialists dividing up the wealth,” McLevy told the crowds. “That makes the two old parties like the thief yelling ‘Stop, thief’ to detract attention from themselves.”
McLevy also hammered Buckingham’s exclusive use of a black limousine and two chauffeuring police officers during the economic crisis. Buckingham played into McLevy’s hands by sneering at his shabby shirt, questioning this man who would be mayor. McLevy countered, “There are a lot of workmen’s shirts in Bridgeport.”
Still, McLevy was up against Democratic Town Chairman Cornell’s powerful political machine, which had a campaign fund of roughly $60,000. Street money was everywhere for the Democrats, but McLevy had no campaign fund, no organization. He had but the nickels, dimes and quarters of factory workers.
The 1931 poll results garnered Buckingham 17,889 votes, McLevy 15,084, and the Republicans showed a poor third. But McLevy had elected a slate of Socialists: an alderman, three sheriffs and two selectmen. For McLevy, 20 years after he first trumpeted his cause on street corners, it was just a matter of time. People didn’t care anymore that he was a Socialist. McLevy could now build a political organization based on his latest showing. He stepped up his push for civil service to eliminate the political spoils the two parties had exploited, directing his calls to the blocs of ethnic voters. The city’s financial crisis deepened, albeit with some flashes of humor such as public debate over whether the monkeys at the zoo should continue to receive their bananas. But McLevy didn’t find anything funny about the city’s financial situation. Workdays were cut and scrip was handed out. The tax board discovered that $1500 had been used to pay for the private phones of various city officials, including the mayor. On New Year’s Eve 1932 it was announced that the city’s cash had been exhausted and the payroll could not be met. City employees were paid two weeks late when Bridgeport Hydraulic, Bridgeport Gas Light Company, and Southern New England Telephone Company made advance payments of $340,000 on their tax bills. The Chamber of Commerce reached into the business community to form the committee of 100 to determine ways to soften the burden of the Depression.
In the spring of 1933, only months from election time, Buckingham announced he would accept a state job and not seek reelection, leaving James L. Dunn, president of the Common Council as the Democratic candidate for mayor. Voters were now clearly ready for a radical change and they registered their restlessness in the voting booth. McLevy received 22,445 votes, more than 6000 votes ahead of Dunn. It was now official. Jasper McLevy had come into power on the sins of the Democrats and Republicans and he would attack the two parties unmercifully for the next 24 years. The morning after McLevy celebrated his victory with friends and relatives, he stripped the political signs off his battered green truck, loaded his roofing materials into it and drove off to finish a roofing job. Bridgeport citizens blacked in beards on McLevy photographs, comparing “Honest Jasper” with “Honest Abe” Lincoln, but McLevy told everyone he just wanted to be known as “the same old Jasper;” he held his inaugural luncheon in a diner a few blocks away from City Hall. The first action he took as mayor was to discard the black limousine the Democratic mayors had used.
McLevy was not only a patient politician; he was a lucky one too. Eight days after his election, the federal government announced it would assume Bridgeport’s largest Depression expense–1000 persons on city relief rolls. In the years ahead, McLevy became the most visible and predictable Bridgeport mayor ever. Never a desk mayor, he would stop in to his third-floor office in the red brick City Hall on State Street for about an hour in the morning, then make on-the-job inspections at the Public Works garage or sanitation department, and lunch on corned beef and tea at Van Dyke’s on Main Street. McLevy would often saucer his tea–transferring the hot liquid to his saucer, he’d then lean forward to sip. Some Bridgeporters would be absolutely horrified at the sight of their mayor saucering his tea, but they grew accustomed to it. After lunch Jasper would go back into the field until 4 p.m., return to City Hall for an hour or two, return home for dinner cooked by his sister Mabel, then go out to city meetings. Jasper had few friends outside of politics and inside he never groomed an heir. Three of his most trusted employees were City Attorney Harry Schwartz, Comptroller Perry Rodman, and City Clerk and Campaign Manager Fred Schwartzkopf.
McLevy clearly lived up to his workingman’s promise. The 5’9″ mayor wore a wrinkled blue or gray suit, a shirt with frayed collars, sometimes a sweater over his vest, a battered hat and a funny-looking tie. He never owned or rented a tuxedo and always preferred the corner setting of a diner to the banquets he loathed. McLevy rarely went to church except for funerals and retained the rigid marks of a strict Presbyterian upbringing; he never smoked or took a drink. His informal conversation was loaded with pungent curse words rivaling the speech of any blue-collar worker. He was a patriotic mayor, appearing at every parade waving an American flag. Indeed, he was a people’s mayor.
He was also a strictly private man. His 1929 marriage to Vida Steams remained a secret for five years, until the Herald dug up a copy of their marriage certificate from the Office of Vital Statistics. (McLevy’s first wife had died many years before.) They maintained they kept their marriage a mystery and lived in separate houses so Vida Steams could care for her ailing father, Edmund Steams. Some said Edmund Steams had a secret distaste of McLevy’s desertion of Socialist principles, which also created dissension between McLevy and national Socialist leaders. But McLevy clearly was elected as a reform mayor and not a Socialist. He repeatedly lectured people on honesty and morality, but did not often dip into Socialist principles such as the abolition of private wealth.
McLevy and his wife often took weekend holidays to their farm in the hills of Washington Connecticut, with his collie “Lassie,” who was the only living thing (including his wife) who ever received a public demonstration of affection from him.
Locally, McLevy built up layers and layers of trust and honesty, but he also became one of the giants on the state political scene. He continued running for governor many times after being elected mayor, and in 1934 he carried Bridgeport in the gubernatorial race, outpolling his old foe Governor Cross by 4000 votes. He was largely responsible for the election of three Socialist state senators and two representatives, who comprised the city’s entire legislative delegation at Hartford. With seventeen Democrats and fifteen Republicans in the Senate, McLevy skillfully secured the balance of power to win his legislative proposals by dealing with the Republicans, who in turn enacted McLevy’s programs for the return of “home rule,” state maintenance of key bridges and highways, a centralized purchasing department and civil service (the system that would hire prospective city workers based on test results, eliminating much of the spoils McLevy denounced so regularly).
The civil service regulations were compiled by City Attorney Harry Schwartz, one of McLevy’s most trusted advisers. By living up to his word that politics would not control the city, McLevy became the guardian angel of civil service and actually created his own political machine by solidifying the devotion of all city employees whose positions were protected by the strong civil service system. In years past, City Hall would be just about cleaned out after an administration’s defeat. But under civil service, city workers enjoyed the greatest job security, drawing the fire of post-McLevy era mayors and department heads, whose authority to transfer and terminate was limited by the regulations.
McLevy had now become a legitimate state power, but his greatest political triumph was ironically an election he didn’t win. Continuing his biennial pursuance of the governor’s seat, McLevy’s ability to earn credibility through the scent of scandal peaked in 1938. The cornerstone of his gubernatorial campaign stemmed from the revolt against graft scandals involving the city of Waterbury and the Merritt parkway. McLevy received an astonishing 166,000 votes on the Socialist ticket, roughly 64,000 votes behind the new governor, Raymond E. Baldwin, who would later serve as Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. While the Waterbury and Merritt Parkway scandals tainted both of the major parties, McLevy’s image of honesty siphoned enough votes from Governor Cross to swing the election to Baldwin with a 2688-vote plurality. Politically, McLevy had gotten even with Cross who eight years earlier had labeled him a chipmunk.
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In McLevy’s first six years, federal relief spending in Bridgeport reached ten million dollars, yet McLevy seemed to grow more and more frugal on how it, and particularly city money, would be spent. For instance, in 1940 McLevy spent only $10 all year on office supplies and $89.44 on postage, telephone and telegraph service. McLevy retained only one secretary and his initial $7500 mayoral salary was increased quite infrequently, reaching only $10,500 during his 24 years in office. His salary was far below the incomes of mayors running cities of comparable size. Often McLevy never spent unless it was absolutely necessary. For instance, the original snow and ice removal appropriation of 1939, the year complaints bombarded Public Works Director Pete Brewster, was only $300. But the city ended up dipping into the general fund to spend $13,000 to plow the streets.
In 1939, McLevy shot down a proposal to pay $4500 a year toward retaining a full-time school physician, even though federal money would have fully funded the first two years, paid for the physician’s car and would even have added assistance for many more years. City health officials scoffed at McLevy’s argument, insisting an additional $4500 wouldn’t affect the city budget and amounted to a mere 17 cents per student.
When it came to federal money, McLevy said he couldn’t be sure how long it would last. One of the expenditures he did allow was the installation of many miles of esplanades to enhance the city’s beauty. They became known as “Jasplanades.” He also spent money on the expansion of residential sewers that had initially emptied into Long Island Sound. Maintaining the city needed a clean shorefront, he initiated the unglamorous sewage disposal project, laying trunk sewers that flowed uniformly to two disposal plants.
During his 24 years, four federal low-cost public housing projects creating 2539 units were constructed, along with two state developments that added 1280 moderately priced rental apartments. McLevy spoke often of slum clearance, but initial credit for constructing housing projects belongs to Father Stephen J. Panik. As many of the East Side’s framed houses aged and fell victim to numerous fires, Father Panik proposed a predominantly federally funded housing project that would be affordable to the Depression-era citizens. McLevy initially opposed the project because the city’s contribution would amount to 10 percent or roughly $650,000.
Father Panik took his proposal to the people with a public hearing. McLevy threatened to veto the proposal if the council approved it, and there he heard his first chorus of boos as mayor. The battle lines were drawn–Father Panik, a Czechoslovakian immigrant, had the city’s liberal elements, McLevy had the Chamber of Commerce representing the interests of builders and landlords, who viewed public housing as a threat to their businesses. But most of the support grasped the hand of Father Panik. McLevy did an about-face on the issue and successfully appealed to the state to ease the city’s financial contribution to the project. By 1940, ground was broken on what McLevy called “the biggest event in the history of Bridgeport.” McLevy often boasted that his socialist administration launched Bridgeport as a pioneer in the field of slum clearance when actually Father Panik was the force behind it.
McLevy also had some of his toughest battles with city employees, who agitated for better working conditions and more pay–the very things McLevy had fought for during his days as a union organizer. In 1945, the city’s fire department was the first to break the ice with McLevy on the formation of a municipal union and it subsequently became the most active department in the city. In those days, firefighters earned about $43 for 84 hours of work per week. With the grueling hours taking their toll on department members, firefighters Joseph Shanahan, a lieutenant, and Pat M. Sherwin, a private, enlisted the help of Joseph Cleary, a Teamster official with the American Federation of Labor. Reasoning that much of the city’s private sector had been organized, and with the full backing of the Bridgeport Herald‘s labor editor Jack Butler, they convinced McLevy to rescind a 1920 ordinance that forbade the formation of any municipal unions. But a clause in their first union contract forbade the right to strike.
In 1946, firefighters’ weekly hours were reduced to 77.5 hours and in 1948 fell to 72. In 1949 the fire officials received overwhelming support on a referendum calling for a 56-hour workweek, and firefighters’ hours were reduced to 42 in 1957, McLevy’s last year in office. It wasn’t until 1955 that a statewide act was passed requiring all municipalities to recognize unions as a bargaining unit.
In the years McLevy sought re-election, he received little competition from the other parties. In fact, Cornelius Mulvihill and Edward Sandula, the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties, often threw in political unknowns as the biennial sacrificial lambs. Nevertheless, to save face they had to run somebody, so they would generally pick out a local businessman, buy him a pair of new shoes and a suit and send him out for a licking. Any erosion in McLevy’s popularity came painfully slow for the two parties. But some signs of hope came after World War II when several factors began to build up against McLevy.
In 1949, McLevy turned 71 years old and more than ever retained a frugal spending posture. During this period, Bridgeport experienced a housing boom as the city pushed northward. Along with their new homes, residents insisted on the same city services–police, fire, paved streets, sewers–as the rest of the city received. McLevy was criticized for not providing those services. Still others criticized him for not planning for redevelopment, for putting patches on top of patches as factories became antiquated and the city’s downtown aged. McLevy’s supporters maintained no man could overcome the city’s dependence on the war.
In 1951, McLevy’s once-staggering vote percentages started to weaken. His 53 percent of the vote, although comfortably ahead of the other two parties, represented the lowest total since his 1933 victory. But more than anything else, the one factor catching up to McLevy was time. In his first mayoral victory, McLevy received support from various middle- and lower-income ethnic groups who remained faithful as long as they were able to vote. McLevy had outlived his vote base, and the newer, younger electorate didn’t have the same allegiance to him. The Democrats meanwhile drew added strength from Blacks and Puerto Ricans who moved into the low-income housing projects McLevy had helped to bring into the city.
In 1955, the Democrats nominated Samuel Tedesco, a 40-year-old lawyer who had not even been born when McLevy first ran for mayor. Democrats targeted as supporters Tedesco’s numerous fellow Italian Americans and mainstream Democrats and the influx of minorities. Tedesco finished 5300 votes behind McLevy. After that showing, Democratic leaders said it was just a matter of time, and in 1957, with enough voters believing the time was right for a younger man to lead the city, Tedesco defeated the 79-year-old McLevy by 161 votes. In a near-record city election turnout of 53,779 voters, the Democrats smashed the 23-year-old Socialist control of the Common Council. In defeat, McLevy wryly cracked: “I suppose I could go back to the roofing business”–25 years after he last did work on a roof. Promising he would run for mayor as long as his health permitted, he lost to Tedesco by 15,000 votes in 1959, his last campaign for city office.
A stroke in 1960 forced McLevy into political retirement. One of his last public appearances came during the 1962 Barnum Festival, which had always been one of his favorites. Jasper McLevy died November 19, 1962. More than 500 people attended the funeral of the man they called “Champ.” They paid tribute to the man’s honesty when the city so desperately needed it, to his devotion to his city, to his frugal spending, low taxes, 1-cent parking meters. They hailed his open-door policy to the local grocer, political and labor leaders, a carpenter looking for a job, and even to a voter with a leaky roof. A half century later McLevy is either denounced for being too cheap to redevelop the city and plow the streets, or he is revered as Bridgeport’s greatest mayor.