The group met again on January 23 with the mayor at Gracie Mansion, and suggested that the new chairman be recruited from outside the present commission. It offered some names for consideration. Except for the strike, discreet suggestions to leading editorial writers would have obtained a like result. The group learned that the mayor, too, wanted an outsider and had offered the Job to Robert C. Weaver, Housing and Home Finance Administrator, who turned it down. This information did not become public.
“News and policy discussion gets through by word of mouth,” said Mr. Norton. “New York has become a small town again.”
Political leaders and political parties found it difficult to launch trial balloons. One significant move was canceled because of the strike. It involved the city budget.
City officials were pondering how to raise $175,000,000 to $250,000,000 in new revenue. Among ideas discussed privately were an increase of 1 percent in the present 3 percent city sales tax and the levy of a new city payroll tax of one-half of 1 percent. The Liberal party, often the stalking horse for Mayor Wagner’s policies, was about to propose another idea—a city income tax as distinct from a payroll tax. It would have had a number of advantages, including a broader base and ease of collection. But the balloon was not launched.
“We’re a party that lives by public opinion,” said Alex Rose, party vice-chairman, “Our only role in government is as a moral force. Our role, our influence is at a standstill during the strike.”
City Controller Abraham D. Beame said that the city was stymied during the strike in pressing for a tax on off-track betting on horse races as a citystate revenue measure, A Republican informant said: “On off-track betting, nobody is going to carry the ball for the Democrats if the New York City newspapers don’t. The issue is dead while the strike lasts.”
Reform Democrats complained that the strike stilled their voice in party affairs. Richard Brown, executive director of the reform-oriented Committee for Democratic Voters, said his group got only marginal coverage on radio and television “unless we are willing to be sensational.” The new Conservative party made the same point.
The effect in “feedback,” or comment from the public on civic issues, could be noted at City Hall. In four weeks of January, 1963, only 704 complaints about city government were registered with Mayor Wagner’s “Gripemobile,” formally known as the Mobile Information Center. In January, 1962, there had been 1,079 complaints.
The Mayor’s “issue” mail was up from 1,938 letters in January, 1962, to 2,395 in January, 1963, largely because more than 900 writers wanted to be recorded at City Hall in opposition to Governor Rockefeller’s proposal for a $400 tuition fee at colleges in the State University.
Men in government everywhere missed the running flow of comment by editorial writers, civic groups, the political opposition, and the public, that is dispensed through the city newspapers. Julius C. C. Edelstein, executive assistant to Mayor Wagner, said that operating government during the newspaper strike that blanketed the city was “like picking your way through heavy fog,”
IV. The watchdog function
Newspapers have always taken as a prime function a constant and critical watch over government. This vigilance had to be relaxed during the newspaper strike. There were a number of cases that belatedly came to public notice in which the course of events possibly could have been changed if the watchdog had not been muzzled.
On January 10, the National Broadcasting Company reported exclusively that Hulan Jack, who had lost his job as Manhattan borough president upon conviction of malfeasance in office, had returned to the city payroll for a thirty-day stay that would enable him to apply for a city pension of $3,500 a year.
NBC owed its scoop to Martin Steadman, a Journal-American reporter working for network stations during the strike. Mr. Steadman finally established what he had been trying to confirm since December 27—that Mr. Jack was working at a clerk’s salary in the Department of Public Works.
Mr. Steadman reported that before nailing down the story he had encountered evasion and feigned ignorance. When the story finally broke, Public Works Commissioner Peter J. Reidy asserted he had cleared Mr. Jack’s rehiring with a City Hall subordinate. He said he did “not want to kick a man while he is down.”
Mayor Wagner said he first heard Mr. Jack was back on the payroll on January 10, Others high in Wagner councils insisted they had not been consulted. The story broke late but there was still time for the Citizens Union and other civie groups to demand that Mr. Jack be fired again.