[Marxism] Benjamin Davis and Pete Cacchione's Elections to New York City Council

Brian Shannon brian_shannon at verizon.net
Sun Jan 8 15:11:18 MST 2006

The following is keyboarded from "Communist Councilman from Harlem"  
by Benjamin J. Davis, International Publishers, 1969. Any mistakes  
are my own. I added some footnotes and necessary brackets where  
condensing was needed. The whole book is very interesting and  
generally available— in any case through inter-library loan.

Why submit this? Proportional Representation, of course!

Brian Shannon

Chapter Six

When, in 1943, my candidacy for the New York City Council on the  
Communist ticket was announced, the press was unanimous in declaring  
my election impossible. For entirely different reasons, some of my  
friends joined them. The difficulties were considered insurmountable.  
… I had run for office before on the Communist ticket; consequently  
my father was not inclined to attach any special importance to this  
particular instance. But I assured him that this was different—this  
time I was going to win.

… [T]he impossible happened. I was elected. The opposition and its  
two-party machine were shocked and dismayed. They had already had to  
swallow the bitter pill of the election of Peter V. Cacchione,  
Brooklyn Communist leader, in 1941, and they had hoped to get rid of  
him in 1943. Instead, they were now faced with two Communists in the  
city council.
The combination of circumstances and relationships which had led to  
this triumph had thrust upon me the honor of being the first Negro  
Communist elected to office in the history of the United States.
In 1943, the only Negro member of the city council was Adam Clayton  
Powell, Jr., who had been elected as the first Negro member in 1941….  
He was swept into office in 1941 on the crest of a wave of demands by  
the Negro people and their supporters for representation in the city  
legislature. His election was made possible technically by  
Proportional Representation, which had become the law of the city  
under the new Charter adopted in 1936.
… [Powell decided not to run for reelection in 1943 because he had  
determined to run for Congress in 1944.]
… The accomplishments of our party, which numbered less than 2,000  
[BD must mean Harlem, for later he says that there were approx. 6,000  
communists in Manhattan.], were nothing short of miraculous. Only  
hard work, devotion and skill—climbing six and seven flights of  
stairs, tramping the streets in the roughest weather, seeing  
ministers, arranging conferences, holding street meetings,  
distributing literature, and so on—could achieve such  
“miracles.” [Several pages of details regarding the 5-week campaign,  
meetings and endorsements.]
When the pools closed, our task had just begun. The count began next  
morning and was to last about eight days. [Before voting machines and  
computerized voting, counting ballots under Proportional  
Representation, which requires follow-up tallys for alternative  
choices, was a long affair.] … One had to be on his toes against …  
every conceivable brand of trickery—as well as some honest errors.  
The Democrats and Republicans held all the official positions as  
counters, tellers, etc., and they did not want me to win. And it  
later appeared that they planned to count me out.

 From the first day of the count, I was leading the field. Radio  
commentators blasted out that this was the upset of the election.  
Actually, they were counting those districts which included Harlem.  
But after the first two or three days, my vote began to level off as  
the count reached other parts of the city. I remained among the first  
three, however, and five were to be elected.

On the fourth day, Pete Cacchione, his own election in Brooklyn now  
assured, brought his entire staff over to the Manhattan court to  
assist me. … One of the ablest of our party election workers … dug  
through the huge pile .. and found not only the missing votes we knew  
of but also some unknown ones. In all, 1,500 votes had been stacked  
away, stolen right before our eyes…. I won by a little over 2,000 votes.
The solid vote of Harlem was not enough to elect me; I needed the  
trade union and white progressive vote. That was shown clearly after  
the ALP candidate was counted out, when I received enough second- 
choice votes from him to assure my election by a comfortable margin.

…The [Negro people] showed great solidarity and a high degree of  
political maturity. Cacchione’s vote was scattered widely over the  
Borough of Brooklyn, while my base vote was largely in a single  
community,* which rebuffed solidly any red-baiting during the campaign.
The campaign also showed that only a progressive Negro candidate  
could serve as the symbol of unity. A conservative Negro spokesman  
identified with either of the major parties could not have united the  
Negro people. Such a candidate would have led to disunity, to certain  
defeat and to the loss of the council seat. The ruling class can  
unite only on a reactionary program, the working class only on a  
progressive one.

Chapter Seven

…[T]here were only a few threats to refuse me my seat. These came in  
the form of the perennial and anonymous “taxpayer’s suit.” This paper  
tiger had been routed by the people two years earlier when Pete  
Cacchione took his seat.
Altogether, during my first term, Pete and I introduced about 175  
pieces of legislation. Only about 15 were passed, but nearly all of  
them had a salutary effect on the actions of the council.
…[There are very interesting passages that I omit, including the role  
of Paul Robeson and others in integrating American baseball. Other  
important issues covered are the fight for local and national FEPC  
laws and the “Teheran perspective”** of the party.]

Chapter Eight [a mini-biography of Davis’s remarkable father]
Chapter Nine [the CP’s role in the fight against post WWII racism]

Chapter Ten

[Peter Cacchione dies on November 27, 1946.]
The hypocritical tributes of the bourgeois politicians were belied by  
the fact that just three weeks prior to Pete’s death, proportional  
representation had been defeated by the Tammany-republican machines  
under the slogan: “Kick Cacchione and Davis out of the city council.”  
During that campaign, we were called every conceivable name, and Pete  
had spent mountains of energy campaigning in Brooklyn. It was said  
that we were “subversive,” that we were “allied with Satan,” that we  
were traitors, that we were seeking to undermine the city government  
and that we were agents of a foreign power with a barbaric political  
philosophy. The only way to keep us out of the council was to defeat PR.
[Cacchione’s] initial election in 1941 was the first breakaway of any  
considerable segment of New York voters from the two-party system and  
constituted a break on the highest political level thus far. Never  
before had any one been elected whose party stood for socialism and  
who campaigned on the defeat of the two-party system.^ … Utilizing  
the relatively democratic electoral weapon of proportional  
representation, he had cut through the two-party monopoly, which  
became progressively weaker during succeeding elections—until Tammany  
had a majority of one in the council after the last PR election in  
1945 and was compelled to collaborate with the Republicans or the  
Liberal Party in order to steamroller a two-thirds majority measure  
through the council.

And Pete had contributed to this situation by running as a Communist,  
meeting the redbaiters head-on and leaving no doubt that he had been  
freely chosen by the electorate. It was his bold snatching of victory  
from the stranglehold of reaction in 1941 that prepared the way for  
my election in 1943.

In many respects, the political and ideological conditions which  
faced him were more difficult than those which faced me. At the time  
I ran, the country had for two years been engaged in the war. … A  
high degree of national unity existed…. Such an atmosphere made it  
more difficult for the fascists and redbaiters, and less difficult  
for the democratic and anti-fascist forces.

When Pete ran in 1941, however, America had not entered the war and  
the reactionaries were still effective and powerful. A great debate  
was taking place as to whether America should enter the world  
struggle against fascism.

* Proportional Voting requires a much larger geographic area than  
single-district elections. Its opponents often point to this as a  
defect because it overlooks the attachment of voters who identify  
with a smaller geographic area. This shows that voters can choose  
whether to vote by program or by some other form of cohesion.
** Davis is writing from a historical perspective that condemns CP  
leader Earl Browder’s erasing of the class lines during the later  
years of WWII. Davis calls a 1945 “flirtation” with Tammany Hall an  
^ Davis overlooks socialist victories during the Debs period,  
including some in NYC even though a few pages later he mentions five  
socialists elected to the Assembly 20 years earlier.


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