The Ghost of a Political Machine: Frank Hague & Jersey City

Frank Hague. The name looms large in the political culture and public imagination of Jersey City and Hudson County, New Jersey. A few weeks ago on a Saturday morning, I attended a forum exploring the man (and his ally-cum-rival John V. Kenny) at the Five Corners branch of the Jersey City Free Public Library.

The forum included: a short documentary on Hague and Kenny, an audio recording of a speech by Frank Hague, a pair of short lectures, and a panel discussion. The program was smart and engaging. Most impressively, a roving department of the public library, displaced by seemingly endless renovations of the main branch, organized the event.

As Jersey City mayor, Frank Hague dominated Hudson County politics from 1917 until 1947, delivering reliable and large blocs of votes for municipal, county, state, and national elections and leading a highly effective–albeit corrupt–political machine famous for delivering services, aiding the poor, and providing free medical care.

Frank_Hague
Frank Hague, c. 1920 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

By the end of Hague’s political career, his political acumen had grown tired, and Hague himself failed to adapt to the changing demographics of Jersey City. Still, longtime residents and newcomers alike recount the Hague era with pride and nostalgia. Hague built the Jersey City Medical Center and Roosevelt Stadium. During Hague’s reign, Jersey City was the power in state politics and a major player in national Democratic circles. The same cannot be said about contemporary Jersey City.

While watching the film and later listening to the panel discussion, a few particular thoughts wedged themselves in my mind.

Frank Hague mastered the world of big city machine politics. Boston, Kansas City, Chicago, and New York were controlled by agile, canny, and, yes, disreputable, political machines. Frank Hague perceived himself and his machine as equals to their counterparts in Boston or New York in power, status, and reach. Furthermore, he saw his hometown, Jersey City, as equal to any great American city.

Frank Hague’s Jersey City—dominated by flashy, pugilistic, willy, Irish Catholic politicians–has passed. One library panelist, James T. Fisher, author of On the Irish Waterfront bluntly stated: “That world is gone.” The citizens of Frank Hague’s world disappeared into the suburbs and shore towns. Although diminished in numbers, Irish-Americans exerted an out-sized influence in Jersey City politics until very recently. Prior to the 2013 municipal election, Irish politicians held the mayor’s office and the city council presidency. Currently and likely one of the rare times in the past century, not a single Irish-American serves on the Jersey City council. As Jersey City continues to change, a new Irish-American order will not likely emerge.

Beyond local history buffs and niche scholars, Frank Hague remains unstudied and unknown. I suspect that the acceptable anti-Jersey prejudice partially explains this gap in scholarship. Sadly enough, a lack of hard documentary evidence might prevent aspiring authors from attempting to pen an authoritative biography of Frank Hague and his era in Jersey City.

Why is the story of Frank Hague important to today’s Jersey City, especially its growing minority, non-white, and very non-Irish populations? Frank Hague reveals the past swagger and pivotal position of Jersey City and hints at its future possibilities. Jersey City needs to think big again. Our current mayor, Steven Fulop, set the goal of making Jersey City the “best mid-sized city” in America. Although maladroit in his phrasing, Fulop aspires for a greater role and stature for Jersey City. It’s a start. The question remains: Will we need another Frank Hague to get there?

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