The Business Mayor of Scranton

HAROLD J. HOWLAND November 1 1906

The Business Mayor of Scranton

HAROLD J. HOWLAND November 1 1906

The Business Mayor of Scranton


After a long and bitter struggle, J. Benjamin Diminics became the Mayor of Scranton. His platform was purely and simply the promise of a sound business administration. Mr. Diminick was interested in several imp rtant local industries and his success in these was a guarantee that anything he put his hand to would prosper. So far his administration has been all that could be desired.

THE mayor of the City of Scranton, in the State of Pennsylvania, a few weeks after his election, took the twelve o’clock express for New York. The porter, an old acquaintance, ushered him to his place in the parlor car with his accustomed greeting :

“Here’s your seat Mr. Dimmick.” On the return journey, made by coincidence in the same car, the salutation was slightly changed :

“ Here’s your seat, Mr. Mayor,” with a lingering emphasis on the title. In the smoking compartment a little later the porter offered an explanation.

“ I didn’t know you was our Mayor, Mr. Dimmick. Folks said it was you, but I said, c No, it ain’t. Our Mr. Dimmick’s a gentleman. He/goes around tending to his own business. He ain’t no politician.’ ” However hard the antithesis may bear on the rank and file of America’s governing class, it contains an

apt characterization of Scranton’s new Mayor, Mr. J. Benjamin Dimmick. There are two points in it that need emphasis. First, Mr. Dimmick is not a politician ; his experience in public life is limited to something less than a year’s membership of the Board of School Control twenty years ago ; and his methods are not those that are in common use in political life to-day. Second, men who attends to his own business, and who is now attending to the city’s business as if it were his own, and as if it were a real business to be governed by business rules and business principles.

Scranton is a city of one hundred and - twenty-five thousand people, situated in the Lackawanna valley of north-eastern Pennsylvania. it is the centre of the great anthracite coal region, and one of the principal distributing póints for coal. It has large manufacturing interests and is an im-

portant centre for general trade. To the surprise of the uninformed visitor who had thought of it as a magnified mining town, dingy, dirty, and rough, it has many beautiful streets and fine public buildings. The County Court-House, the City Hall, the Young Men’s Christian Association building, the High School, the Public Library, and two hospitals are excellent specimens of public architecture. The location within the city limits of a score of coal mines, with their towering breakers and their huge black culm piles, built up to a height of seventy or eighty feet by the refuse from the breakers, gives a unique and picturesque aspect to the city when seen from a neighboring height.

The population of: Scranton has two significant elements, one of which certainly, the other probably, has an influence on the character of its public life. Its laboring class is made up of many nationalities. The churches of a city are perhaps as good an index as any of the racial composition of its population; Scranton has churches in bewildering variety, including the usual churches of the average American city, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic; and in addition Italian Protestant and Catholic churches, Hungarian, Slav, German, Welsh, even the Greek Orthodox. In so heterogeneous a working population the opportunities for corrupt politics are unlimited; the problem of arousing the public conscience is correspondingly hard. The other element is intimately associated with the history of the city. Scranton was founded and settled by New Englanders, as was much of the territory around it. The northern section of Pennsylvania was originally a part of Connecticut, and it took

years of warfare and arbitration to establish Pennsylvania’s claim to it shortly after the close of the Revolution. But its people retained New England characteristics, very different from those of the Quaker inhabitants of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Dutch of Harrisburg. It is perhaps not too great a stretch of probability to attribute—as was suggested to me by a prominent Scranton clergyman—the movement for civic improvement, represented by the activities of the Municipal League and the nomination and election of Mayor Dimmick, at least in part, to the persistence of the New England spirit and New England ideals.

For many years Scranton has been politically under the control of one family and the Republican machine dominated by the head of that family. It has had the kind of political government (using the adjective in the debased sense which has become its most usual one) too common among the cities of the country to need description. The administration of the city’s affairs had not become notoriously rotten. It had not reached the low estate of New York when it was under the control of a Broker who "was working for his own pocket all the time,” or of Cincinnati under a Cox, or of Philadelphia under a Durham. But the time-worn motto, "To the victor belong the spoils,” with the corollaries which custom has clustered around it, had the force of an unwritten charter supreme among the written instruments of the city’s government. A mayor or a councilman or the director of a municipal department was held to owe his first allegiance to the men or the machine that had given him his place. To sum it up, I must return to the word politi-

cal, with the unwholesome suggestions which that word so generally implies.

The impulse which started the movement resulting in Mr. Dimmick’s election came from the Scranton Municipal League, which had been working during several years for the improvement of conditions in municipal affairs. A meeting at luncheon of a score of prominent citizens evolved the suggestion of an independent movement to give the city a clean, efficient administration. Mr. Dimmick was proposed as the leader of the movement; the proposal was heartily approved. As he expressed it to me, “It was put up to me. I had been criticising the existing state of affairs for twenty years, and I felt it was time for me to ‘fish, cut bait, or go ashore.’ ’’ He felt that a duty confronted him, and he accepted. It was agreed that he should decide whether he should run as an independent candidate or try to get a regular party nomination.

The group of citizens immediately went to work to secure support for Mr. Dimmick’s candidacy. Petitions were circulated in all parts of the city, and as fast as they were signed they were sent to him. These petitions read as follows :

“The undersigned citizens and electors of the City of Scranton, without distinction of party, realizing the desirability of eliminating as far as possible baneful political influence from the administration of the city government, and of securing a purely business conduct of its affairs, and having confidence in your ability to promote these ends, request you to permit the use of your name as candidate for the office of mayor at the forthcoming municipal election.”

The petitions bore several thou sand names, amounting to a subB.

stantial proportion of the total number of votes cast at the last city election. Some of Mr. Dimmick’s supporters advised an independent ticket, but he, realizing that it was his business to be elected, and strongly urged by other and perhaps more practical friends, registered his name, as required by law, as a candidate for nomination at the Republican primaries.

Mr. Dimmick’s nomination was opposed by the machine, who put up the director of public safety in the then existing administration, Mark K. Edgar. Literally at the eleventh hour of the last day for registering candidates, however, Mr. Edgar’s name was withdrawn, and that of William Corless, the warden of the county jail, and a thoroughgoing labor man, was substituted. The purpose of the move was obvious. Mr. Dimmick was a rich man and an officer in corporations; if the labor sentiment could be aroused against him, he might be beaten. Then began a strenuous campaign for the nomination.

In attempting to give some idea of Mr. Dimmick’s personality and his qualifications for the office which, in response to the popular command, he was seeking, I cannot do better than to quote from the Scranton Times, the Democratic newspaper of the city :

“A gentleman of wealth, of culture, of public spirit, courteous, amiable, dignified; a successful business man. He is president of the Lackawanna Trust and Safe Deposit Co., and of the Scranton Lace Curtain Co., and is interested in a number of important local industries and charities. He is a Republican in politics, but has never been even indirectly connected with any political machine.”

The platform on which he sought the nomination was simple and direct : First and foremost, a business administration as opposed to a political administration ; the recognition of merit in the holders of positions in the city government and the rewarding it with security and permanency; the distribution, on a safe, proper, and equitable basis, among the various financial institutions of the city, of all public funds, and the securing to the city on all such deposits of the interest which had formerly been a perquisite of the treasurer’s office; the laying of sewers wherever investigation showed the need for them ; better construction, maintenance, and cleaning of the city’s streets ; extension and improvement of the park system; the effort to secure the equitable taxation of franchises and public utilities. These were some of the special objects that he would try to accomplish; but, above all and embracing all, he promised a business administration.

It was a vigorous campaign; Mr. Dimmick spoke at meetings every noon and every night, going from one end of the city to the other. The machine fought him hard, for a mayor who should eliminate politics from his programme would be disastrous for their organization. They attacked him as a bluestocking, an aristocrat, a corporation man, an enemy of labor. The labor argument they used freely, for his opponent was a member of a labor union and well known as an advocate of union methods. But Mr. Dimmick had for twelve years been an employer of labor in the curtain factory of which he was president; he had never had a fight with the union; he was known to be what union men call a “fair” employer. When these facts became

known, the labor argument lost most of its force.

In the districts where the foreigners lived he was denounced as a man who had no use for foreigners or for any one who was not a New Englander, or a rich man, or an aristocrat. But Frank Hummler, the vicepresident of the Lackawanna Trust Co., tells with a twinkle in his blue eye how he quickly stilled that cry by a speech in a very German district where it had been most loudly uttered. Speaking in German, he said :

“They say Mr. Dimmick has no use for foreigners and common people. Fifteen years ago I came into the office of the Lackawanna Trust Co. looking for a job. I was a raw German lad without money and without friends. He was the manager of that company. If he’d been the kind of man they say he is, he wouldn’t have had much use for me. But he gave me a job, and kept me in spite of the advice of some of his associates. And to-day I hold the position that he held then.”

But I think the personality of the man must have been the best reply to the things they said against him. He went among the people simply and freely and told them straight what he wanted to do. I’m sure they must have believed him.

Anyhow, when the primaries were over, he had won by over two thousand votes in a total of 10,600. One fight was over, but another was yet to begin.

The campaign for the election was no less vigorous than for the nomination. The Democratic candidate was a thoroughgoing politician, Honest John Gibbons, whose allegiance to his party had been tempered during many years by his loyalty to the Republican boss. He controlled

a group of voters who were said to be always at the disposal of that gentleman when he was personally in a fight.

The Republican machine, as soon as the primaries were over, allied itself heartily and actively with Mr. Dimmick’s forces. But again the alliance was made without pledge or promise from the candidate. The machine allied itself with Mr. Dimmick, in that it accepted him as its candidate; but he did - not ally himself with the machine in the sense of assuming any obligations to it.

Mr. Dimmick made a whirlwind campaign on his simple platform, going directly to the people and asking their support because he promised them business methods in the administration of the public affairs. The result at the polls was close, 'blut business won by a little less than a thousand votes. The total vote was nearly nineteen thousand, an increase of more than forty-five hundred votes over the previous election—a striking witness to the interest aroused by the novel issue.

After the election, Mr. Dimmick, as one of his close friends expressed it to me. “showed his good sense by going away.” He went to his camp in the Adirondacks, where he might consider, free from interruption and solicitation, the appointments to his cabinet which he must make on taking office. He returned only a week before his inauguration, but found there was still plenty of time for applications and suggestions. He discovered that either the politicians had not understood him, or else they believed that he could not stand the pressure when it was skillfully applied. And it was applied with all the skill and force of the veteran politician. It included pressure of the hardest kind for a man to with-

stand—pressure from his friends. It took the form, too, of an appeal to ambition. It was suggested that, with the machine behind him, he might become the boss of Lackawanna County, that he might even aspire to the Governorship of the State. They did not realize how little such baits could tempt him. It was doubly hard to go his own way because the man they wanted in a prominent position in the administration would probably have filled the position well. There was nothing against him personally; but he represented organized machine politics, and Mr. Dimmick had promised to have none of that in his administration. It was a hard thing to do, but he carried it through. He made his appointments to suit himself, and they seem to be considered good ones.

So he began his administration, trying to run it as he had run the two corporations which he heads, efficiently and honestly. He promptly carried out his pledge with regard to the city funds by dividing them among the financial institutions of the city. He secured the payment of the interest on them into the city treasury instead of into the city treasurer’s pocket, or perhaps the pocket of some one “higher up.” It brought a protest from the bank that had held the bulk of the city money, for it made a big hole in its deposits. But it was right, and he had promised to do it. With his director of public works he began to look into the question of clean streets, or rather dirty ones, for that kind predominated. To make them cleaner they tried the simple expedient of making every man on the force do a day’s work for a day’s pay.. It was revolutionary, for under a political administration a good

many city employes substitute a day’s work at the polls (or, more likely, a few minutes’ work) for a good many days’ work at their jobs. It weeded out a lot of men who couldn’t measure up to the new standard, but it cleaned the streets.

He introduced civil service methods into the police and fire departments. Three prominent citizens were prevailed upon to act as an examining board for applicants. The examinations were not complex—reading, writing, and speaking good English, the elements of arithmetic, knowledge of the city. They were, of course, supplemented by the usual physical tests. It was simple, but it insured better men for the forces on which the safety of the people depended.

He eliminated politics from the police force. In other days the men were instructed how they should vote; they were used to make houseto-house canvasses in favor of the machine candidates; under the new regime they were told that they might vote as they pleased, but that they would better not display too much political activity. He let it be understood that merit and fitness were to be the tests of employes in all the departments; any one who did the work he was supposed to do efficiently and well was sure of his place. And the men seemed to like the idea. But incompetents he had no use for, no matter what their politics or affiliations. He said to me, in the course of a conversation

at his Lake Placid camp, “Many good citizens feel that a man who is old or crippled or otherwise incapacitated for efficient work might better be hired by the city to do as much ,as he can than be supported in an almshouse. The theory is as fallacious as can be.”

The problems that are present in almost every city—those connected with the liquor traffic—existed in Scranton under two forms : the

illegal sale of liquor on Sunday and the existence of unlicensed saloons or “speak-easies.” Both practices being unlawful, there was nothing to do, under a business administration, but to put an end to them. The police, infused with the new spirit, went dilligently to work, and convictions for both offenses began to increase. Curiously enough, Mayor Dimmick found that the reputable saloon-keepers were with him in this work. It is natural that they should want the “speak-easies” shut up, for their competition hurt the business of the regular saloons, while they bore no part of the taxation. In the matter of Sunday selling, however, it is generally assumed that the saloon-keeper wants to keep open every day in the year. But liquor men came to the mayor and told him they wanted to close on Sunday, so that they might have a day with their families; but they couldn’t do it if their competitors didn’t close too. If a man shut his saloon while the place on the opposite corner kept open, he would soon lose most of his regular customers to his rivals.