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The Early Career of Mayor Frank Hague

Chapter 6 - Hague’s Rise to the Mayoralty

By Mark S. Foster

Copyright 1967

Web version, edited by GET NJ.
Copyright 2002

After the Democratic primary in September of 1916, the Jersey Journal editorialized, “No one can remember when the Democratic party in this county was so completely demoralized and shattered as it is now.” 1 Three weeks later, after the results had been thoroughly digested, it added, “…the big leader who can dominate a county organization is conspicuously lacking.”2 In the past, Hague had several times been thwarted in his bids for county leadership, but now he sensed a new opportunity. Wittpenn’s defeat in the gubernatorial election in November was his second consecutive setback. It was clear that he could not deliver the votes. His influence was no longer the magic touch needed for the election of a subordinate. He was unwilling to accept judicious compromise, and his star was falling fast. Hague instinctively realized that many of Wittpenn’s associates would be seeking new leadership, a new star to follow. This void in county leadership would have to be filled and it seems clear that Hague meant to fill it.

Patrick Griffin, Mayor of Hoboken, was the first to jump on Hague’s bandwagon, just as he had been one of the first to climb aboard Wilson’s five years earlier. As we have seen, he supported Hague’s slate of candidates in the fall election of 1916. But most other local politicians did not envision Hague as a winner quite that early. Indeed, it would take Wittpenn’s chief lieutenants some time to recover from their shock and seek a new leader.

A look at Hague’s changed approach to member of the board of commissioners is revealing. As noted earlier, for the first two years of his term, Hague often had fought with the other commissioners. The result was that he found himself outvoted and impotent on sometimes critical issues. By 1916 or 1917, he was for the most part a master of diplomacy, even though he did suffer an occasional relapse. When Commissioner Byrne leveled vicious charges of fraud and corruption at Commissioner Brensinger, it was Hague who tried to act as peacemaker.3 This was a hitherto unheard of role for Hague, who had nearly always been all too willing to pick a fight. Now he only picked fights when he was sure of being on the side of the people.

We have noticed that Hague asserted a tremendous amount of power over his two departments, the policemen and firemen. The PBA had appealed Hague’s persecutions to the board of commissioners on a number of occasions. In the last year, the board had upheld his actions in a majority of instances. By 1916, his argument to his fellow commissioners was basically that since they were directly responsible for the results achieved by their respective departments, they needed a far more autocratic type of control over them than might otherwise be necessary. The specter of opposition within their own departments and the desire for a “united front” may well have often been the decisive factors in the minds of the commissioners.

These factors were not always decisive by any means. Mark Fagan and Henry Byrne were for the most part anti-Hague throughout their terms as commissioners. However, a three to two majority was as good as unanimous. Commissioners were bound by majority rule. By 1917, Commissioners Hague, Brensinger and Moore comprised this solid and decisive majority on most issues. It is interesting to note that until Wittpenn left office in 1913, Moore had been his personal secretary and one of his most trusted confidants. In his first days as commissioner, he had been against Hague in almost every instance. One cannot forget the tumultuous scene at the commission meeting which was previously mentioned. Wittpenn had long since been discredited as a “machine politician,” and Moore had soundly resented the implication that they were partners. Moore was, according to one account, “a baby kissing glad-hander,” a masterful politician and vote getter, but hardly the type to mastermind any sort of complicated political intrigue.4 He was also, apparently quite prone to personal flattery. On one occasion, Hague saw to it that Moore was given a brand new cherry-topped wood desk. He felt that the desk befitted Moore’s new position in the government, and Moore was very pleased. Hague went out of his way to ask both Moore and Brensinger to campaign with him in the fall election of 1916. Both men must have been impressed by their fellow commissioner’s huge and enthusiastic following.

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