As we near Election Day, I’m reminded of a man from a remote corner of the North Country, an individual who was once the right-hand man of a future president—and not just any president. Not everyone loved him, of course, but Franklin D. Roosevelt is one of the few to consistently appear near the top of “our greatest leaders” lists. The right-hand man I’m referring to was known professionally as M. William Bray (Bill to his friends), a native of the town of Clinton, which borders Canada in northwestern Clinton County.
With tongue firmly in cheek, I’ll say this: if you don’t like population explosions, avoid Clinton. Its 67 square miles added 10 new residents between 2000 and 2010, bringing the count to a whopping 737, or 11 people per square mile. Many of them live in the hamlet of Churubusco. Such a sparse population provides little chance of producing influential citizens, but Clinton has beaten those odds more than once.
Born to Irish immigrant parents, Bray developed a strong work ethic on the family farm. He was educated at Churubusco and Chateaugay schools and attended Union College in Schenectady after winning a scholarship competition. During summers and other breaks, he returned home to work on the farm.
After graduating near the top of his class in 1911, he set his sights on Albany Law School. To cover expenses, Bray found work in law offices, including the Plattsburgh firm of Weed, Conway, & Cotter in Plattsburgh. Notably, Conway was Thomas Franklin Conway, who at the time was New York State’s lieutenant governor (1911–12), providing Bray with his first taste of politics.
Within two years, he passed the bar exam and moved to Utica. After working in attorney partnerships, he became corporate counsel for the city and an advocate for the Democratic Party. In 1924, at the age of 35, his developing leadership skills were put to the test. Bill was asked to guide the mayor’s comeback try, a successful effort that boosted Bray into the position of Oneida County party chairman. He also guided the mayor’s next campaign, resulting in a landslide victory.
During that same election, working within a Republican stronghold, he delivered not only Utica but all of Oneida County in support of Governor Al Smith. It was a rare achievement and did not go unnoticed. At the 1926 state convention in Syracuse, several party leaders felt he was ready to take over the state machine.
But when state party chairman Edwin Corning was prevailed upon to remain in the position, Bray graciously stepped aside to avoid a battle within Democratic ranks. He was instead named chairman of the state finance committee and also assigned to the committee on vacancies.
Bill’s popularity in northern and central New York brought increased power to regions that had long been ignored. The media referred to him as “the young Democratic boss of Utica.”
In early 1928, Bray represented the 33rd Congressional District at the Democratic National Convention. Four months later, he was the consensus choice to lead New York State’s Democratic Party. Besides Governor Smith’s backing, he had support in both upstate New York and Tammany Hall, the powerful wing of the party based in New York City. The chairmanship of the Democratic Party in one of the country’s most powerful states was suddenly in the hands of a former Churubusco farmer. And capable hands they were.
The Syracuse Herald reported the elation of Democrats: “… among local leaders and state officials in every section of the state today, there is no question that New York democracy regards the selection of Mr. Bray as the happiest choice that could be made.”
To understand the power that Bray wielded and the scope of his achievements during his career, it is important to define certain individuals within the context of New York and national politics. The five main players affecting Bray were James Farley, Louis Howe, Herbert Lehman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Alfred Smith.
Smith: elected governor in 1918 with Farley’s help; lost in 1920, then won four consecutive terms. Roosevelt: charismatic, powerful, and heir apparent to New York’s governorship in 1928. Howe: with Farley, termed a kingmaker; he was blunt, fierce, and unforgiving in his defense of Roosevelt. Farley: extremely powerful and a brilliant strategist who remains a legend today in the Democratic Party. Lehman: tied his fortunes to FDR and Farley; succeeded FDR and served four terms as New York’s governor. The five men were a power bloc to be reckoned with.
Farley had more than a decade of impressive success on his résumé and was a close friend of Roosevelt, but when it came time to choose the state’s party leader, William Bray of Churubusco had prevailed. Farley was appointed party secretary.
One other critical point for perspective on Bray’s career is the longstanding division between New York City and upstate. Tammany Hall defined the Big Apple’s political machine; the rest of New York was referred to as “upstate.” Tammany men scorned upstaters, publicly referring to them as “hayseeds.” It may have been intended largely for Republicans, who were historically dominant north of New York City, but the comments offended most “upstaters.”
With Al Smith drafted to run for the presidency in 1928, new state party chairman Bray went to work on his behalf, while also guiding the campaign of Roosevelt, the Democratic nominee for governor. Tammany was the leading power in New York politics, but Bray sought to expand the strength of upstate voters, building on the work already begun long ago by James Farley himself (though Farley had, until then, met with only limited success).
By Farley’s own admission much later in life, he played a small role in the 1928 election. As party leader and strategist, Bray was largely responsible for the outcome. His success or failure in securing the upstate vote would have a significant effect on his own future and that of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
While Smith’s presidential bid failed, Roosevelt won the governor’s race. Most importantly, he outpolled Smith in the upstate counties by 73,000 votes. The results delivered by Bray indicated that in the future, Governor Roosevelt might be a better presidential candidate than former Governor Smith.
After the win, Bray spent time with Roosevelt at his famed refuge in Warm Springs, Georgia, where they discussed plans to build a power platform in upstate New York, an area that often seemed disinterested in politics. During the next two years, Bray did much to boost the party’s image up north.
He was also constantly at Roosevelt’s side, earning frequent criticism from Republicans who complained that Governor Roosevelt was doing Bray’s bidding.
Among the critics of his close relationship with Roosevelt was senate majority leader John Knight, who claimed: “The governor’s appointments are dictated by M. William Bray, Democrat State Chairman, who is a fixture in the executive chambers.”
A recent similarity in national politics was the reference to Carl Rove as Bush’s brain. I certainly won’t compare W to FDR, but the suggestion by Roosevelt’s opponents that Bray was calling the shots reveals the power he wielded as chairman of the state party.
Next week: Standing tall in the face of BIG trouble.
Photo: President Roosevelt, Governor Lehman, former Governor Smith, Lieutenant Governor M. William Bray