Remembering a 1960s Revolution to Stave Off Political Corruption in New York

Paul Van Buskirk

 

From pandemics to racial tension and political uprisings, the past few months have been a reminder that history is bound to repeat itself. Now, city planner and renowned educator Paul Van Buskirk, PhD, is exposing the untold story behind a 1960s grassroots political revolution that took the nation by storm—one with uncanny parallels with today’s political climate.

In his new memoir, Big Mike, Uncle Dan, and Me: How I Beat 20th Century New York State’s Most Corrupt Political Machine [June 2020], Van Buskirk reveals the never-before-told story behind how, as a 24-year-old college professor, he led the independent Citizens Party to liberate an upstate New York community from 40 years of political corruption.

 

Not long after we took office in 1964, Sam Quimet, a local real estate and insurance agent, volunteered his time to work with the assessors in reassessing properties. A local rag called the Newsweekly ran an article claiming Sam was scamming the city. Another article said that I had stuffed a jacket into a sewer in Manor Heights to clog it up and make the Santspree administration look bad. The paper published several such libelous stories about Citizens Party Leaders.

Sam sued the paper for libel and slander. Meanwhile, I wanted to know who owned the paper, so I brought criminal charges for violations of a state law requiring the names of all publishers of the newspaper to be listed publicly.

A jury trial uncovered the paper’s publishers: Bill Dawson and the Cohoes City Democratic Committee were its principal owners. They were found guilty of hiding their identity and fined several thousand dollars. The Internal Revenue Service took notice and brought liens against the Newsweekly owners for failure to withhold and pay taxes. Poor Sam did not get any money for damages, since after paying the fines, the paper went out of business. But that was not to be the end of the matter.

 

 

Earlier that year, in an article published by his employer, The Troy Record, Dawson was quoted as saying that he and his people would fight long and hard to regain power. He boasted he would win back the two assessor and three supervisor seats he’d lost, saying the Citizens Party supervisors “just make a lot of noise.”

Soon after, the Democratic supervisor from the First Ward died, and the Council voted 4 to 3 to appoint a Citizen to fill the unexpired term. That brought the total number of Citizens occupying county supervisor seats to four, a setback for Dawson.

What really stopped his roll through the Citizens’ ascendancy, however, was losing his chairmanship of the Democratic committee. That happened over the next summer in 1966, after a federal grand jury indictment for personal income tax evasion.

 

 

Federal agents approached me to ask what I could tell them about Dawson. I knew what everyone else knew. He was an editorial cartoonist for a local paper who somehow could afford to drive a big black Lincoln Continental. His wife shopped at expensive stores. And, of course, there was the swimming pool in their backyard. I also knew that even though he was not a city employee and technically had no jurisdiction over city affairs, anyone doing business with the city had to pay Dawson a “tribute” before they could get paid for their services.

I told the guy from the IRS, “I got a couple of affidavits about his using city money to build his pool, if you want them.” He wanted them.

I wasn’t really the informant. It was Red Smith, the son of Warren Smith, who filled that role. Given that politics was the family business, Red was also a Democrat, but he didn’t see eye-to-eye with Dawson. He had made a play for the Democratic committee chairmanship in 1964 and lost to Dawson, creating bad blood between them. Red offered the IRS enough evidence to indict Dawson with a federal grand jury.

 

 

At Dawson’s federal trial that summer in 1967, Dawson’s wife greeted every person at the courthouse doors like it was a party and she was the hostess. One of the feds’ witnesses, a housing developer, testified that he gave Dawson $1,750 in cash. Shortly afterward, the city installed water and sewer facilities at one of his developments.

Dawson actually testified under oath that his word was the law in Cohoes but denied taking any kickbacks. Any money given to him at the Elks Club were tributes and party donations, he claimed. When the party records were presented to the court, there was a stir: Dawson had been keeping them in Japanese.

“Do you or anyone of the committeemen speak Japanese?” the judge asked.

Dawson said he had learned it while serving as an interpreter in WWII. Then Dawson claimed that the money hadn’t come from city vendors at all, but from his great uncle, Mike Smith. He hadn’t been able to claim it because he didn’t know how much there was.

 

 

This is an excerpt from Paul Van Buskirk’s new book, Big Mike, Uncle Dan and Me (Apple Books). Printed with permission.

 

Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

--Courtesy of the author

--cmfg804 (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--Rickey Shore (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--R M Media Ltd. (bluediamondgallery.com, Creative Commons)

--Photo on main page: (Pxfuel, Creative Commons)

Popular: 
not popular
Bottom Slider: 
In Slider

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><div><img><h2><h3><h4><span>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.