Alum’s book tells a story of hard-edged politics from a century ago

O'Donnell

The little-known story of William Sulzer, the only New York governor ever impeached, gets a full telling in a new book by Jack O’Donnell ’10 – a project that began as an independent-study project when the author was at SUNY Buffalo Law.

O’Donnell was working with Professor Alfred Konefsky when he got interested in Sulzer, who in addition to the governorship was speaker of the state Assembly and a member of Congress, even chairing the House Committee on Foreign Relations, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sulzer was governor of New York for less than 10 months in 1913, and was removed from office after accusations of financial misconduct that took place before he was elected.

The book, Bitten by the Tiger: The True Story of Impeachment, the Governor & Tammany Hall, puts the impeachment story in the politically charged context of the times, in particular the continuing political power of the Democratic Tammany Hall “machine.” That political powerhouse was sometimes characterized as a “tiger,” hence the book’s title.

“The more I found out about it, the more interesting it was to me,” says O’Donnell, a longtime political insider and veteran of many election campaigns who currently works as a lobbyist and government affairs professional at Bolton St. Johns, a government relations and public affairs consultant. “It was a lot of work, but it was also a labor of love.”

At SUNY Buffalo Law, O’Donnell got hold of the transcripts from Sulzer’s 1913 impeachment trial, and read voluminous newspaper accounts from the era. One problem with that source, he says, is that “newspapers 100 years ago were intentionally partisan – not just in editorial slant, but the reporting was intensely partisan. It was like watching MSNBC and Fox News in 2013 and trying to figure out what really happened. But that was part of the fun, reading about one incident and having two totally divergent accounts of it.

William Sulzer’s story is richer for the milieu in which it happened – a context that included such political legends as the progressive leader Al Smith, populist icon William Jennings Bryan, publisher William Randolph Hearst, powerful Tammany Hall boss Charles Francis Murphy and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Wagner. “To get into these guys’ minds, you had to know who what and why,” O’Donnell says.

Sulzer himself, O’Donnell says, is notable for the “impressive change that he helped bring to New York and the country.” Among other accomplishment, he says, while in Congress Sulzer wrote the legislation that created the U.S. Department of Labor.

But Sulzer, a popular and loyal worker for Tammany Hall, angered the power bosses of the political machine with his reform-minded agenda as governor, including pushing for open primaries for party nominations and refusing to appoint the machine’s choices to state positions. Tammany Hall turned against him, leading to his impeachment and removal from office.

Comparing the political climate then and now, O’Donnell says, “In some ways it’s exactly the same. You’ve got folks who are out for power and are willing to do anything to exercise that power. That’s the bad side of it. But even some of those same people are really in this for the right reasons. I do think the search for power as well as the search for altruistic goals and ideals is very similar.

“What’s not the same,” he says, “or not on the same level, is the power of the political bosses, the patronage that they controlled across the state. The bald-faced ‘this is for us’ power and spoils system was amazing to see.”

As the centennial of Sulzer’s removal from office on Oct. 17 comes near, O’Donnell is booked on some political television shows, and is planning a book signing Oct. 24 in the lobby of the historic Guaranty Building, 140 Pearl St., Buffalo. (To RSVP or for more information, email BittenByTheTiger@gmail.com. A website, www.sulzerforgovernor.com, tells more about the author, the book and its subject.

An excerpt from Bitten by the Tiger: The True Story of Impeachment, the Governor & Tammany Hall

On August 12, 1912, a few minutes before 10:00 PM, New York State Assembly Speaker Al Smith called the house to order. Throughout the day, Deputy Sergeants at Arms had roamed throughout Albany compelling members to take their seats. A crowd “larger than any that ever stormed the Capitol in the memory of the oldest attendant, poured through the doorways hours before the time set.” They stood eight deep in the gallery and the Albany police were called in to reinforce the Capitol orderlies, hoping to keep the peace.

Rumors were rampant. One had Governor William Sulzer’s supporters rushing the Speaker’s room and adjourning the session sine die. Another had the Governor, as Commander in Chief of the State, calling out the militia and refusing to allow the legislature to sit. Neither likely had any basis in fact but tension was high and access to the floor of the legislature was fiercely guarded.

The floor of the legislature was a battleground. The charges of the pro-Sulzer people went like this: “Everybody knows that the reason why Sulzer is being demanded as a victim is that he had the manhood to refuse to be tied to the wheels of a certain political chariot.” The Governor’s supporters argued also that the Legislature was in Special Session and therefore lacked the power to impeach.* The leaders denied both charges. Impeachment, they maintained, was appropriate—and in fact necessary—whenever there was malfeasance. Sulzer was being impeached because he was unfit to hold his office, not because of who his friends were. The Assembly Leadership (all men loyal to Tammany Hall and Tammany Boss Charles Francis Murphy) insisted, furthermore, that protecting the People knew no limits.

A wave rushed through the Chambers around 2:00 AM with the revelation that Mrs. Sulzer had confessed to “everything”. She had, without Sulzer’s knowledge, appropriated tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations and invested the money in the stock market in a desperate effort to revive the family’s personal finances. She had remained quiet until the last minute, she claimed, because the Governor had “gallantly refused to allow her to be drawn” into the fray.

The Governor’s friends seized on this as the perfect justification to delay the vote. The Democratic leadership declared this just another attempt at delay, noting that Sulzer’s stock speculation had started before his marriage and that correspondence from various brokerage firms was addressed to Mr. William Sulzer.**

The debate on impeachment concluded after 3:00 AM with a two hour speech by Majority Leader Aaron Levy. At that point, one observer remarked, “Those not assuredly asleep were not discernibly awake, save for the party leaders and their active lieutenants.” The roll call vote ended after 5:00 AM and was scheduled to reconvene at 8:30 AM. The vote was 79 in favor—three more than necessary for impeachment—with seven GOP members voting with 72 Democrats. Voting against the measure were 26 Democrats, 16 Republicans and 3 Progressives.

William Sulzer, 42nd Governor of the State of New York, elected in November 1912 with 649,559 votes had been impeached for “willful and corrupt conduct in office, and high crimes and misdemeanors.”

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* According to the New York State Constitution the Legislature, while in special session, could only consider matters brought to its attention by the Governor. Sulzer had clearly not asked the Legislature to consider impeachment.

** The Sulzer forces continued after the vote to insist that Mrs. Sulzer would testify at his trial, telling the truth and ending the inquiry. Her husband’s handlers later put out word that she had a nervous breakdown and was unable or unfit to testify when the time came. More likely the whole episode was a sham.