After years of loyal service to his party and resisting against the most powerful men in American politics, M. William Bray was unceremoniously dumped from the New York State Democratic ticket in 1938. The strategy was questionable at best, considering the support he enjoyed in 40 upstate counties.
It was Bray’s growing influence that they feared. For years, Roosevelt, Farley, and others had tried to erode his power base but were unable to do so. In fact, by all measures, Bray was more popular than ever. In 1936, during his third run for lieutenant governor, he had outpolled Governor Lehman by nearly 60,000 votes (3,028,191 to 2,970,595).
It was embarrassing to party leaders that he was favored over the state’s chief executive, and galling to Farley in particular. But dropping a candidate who attracted three million voters seemed akin to political suicide. What could the Democratic Party leaders have been thinking?
Actually, they were executing a carefully devised plan to continue the Democratic dynasty, but with State Supreme Court Justice Charles Poletti instead of Bray. Late in his term, Governor Lehman would resign to run for the US Senate, handing the reins to Poletti just before the next election. From the governor’s chair, Poletti would thus be empowered to win a full term.
The abandonment of Bray was decried by his supporters, and his power was still feared by Farley and Lehman. As the backlash within the party gathered strength, Bray was invited to the governor’s mansion for dinner. It was a conciliatory gesture, acknowledging Bray’s political strength and his value to the party.
Shortly after the dinner, he announced his backing of the current ticket. Bray, of course, would not abandon his party or his upstate supporters. After all, much of their power and political voice came through him. And for that reason, his offer to support the governor came with a price.
In the future, there would be many influential posts to fill. Based on his abilities, Bray would be an excellent choice for any of them (it was rumored he sought the chairmanship of the Public Service Commission). The greater power he wielded, the better he could serve his constituents. Bray may have been a dairy farmer from Clinton, but he had proved beyond doubt that he cowed before no one.
Ironically, when Lehman won re-election and Poletti became the state’s new lieutenant governor, Bill Bray found himself briefly in the governor’s seat, running the state while Lehman vacationed for a few weeks in California prior to his inauguration.
In 1940, Roosevelt announced a third run for the presidency, a decision that threw New York’s Democratic Party into disarray. On principle, Farley opposed a third presidential term for anyone, causing a rift between him and Roosevelt. Farley also had his own presidential aspirations to consider, and felt ready to test the waters.
Another issue evolved around John “Cactus Jack” Garner, who was twice vice-president under Roosevelt but opposed FDR’s plans for a third term. He also disliked many aspects of the New Deal. A colorful character, Cactus Jack was once quoted as saying the vice-presidency “was not worth a bucket of warm piss.”
Despite virtually no chance of winning, Garner took a principled stand, leaving the party ticket and opposing Roosevelt for the nomination. Suspicions were that it was Bray’s idea, but he initially distanced himself from the challenger. It wasn’t until several months later that Bray came out in support of Garner.
Until then, Roosevelt had expected the full backing of New York’s Democrats in the upcoming election. A new plan was devised to avoid a party split between him and Garner. The solution? Should Roosevelt win the nomination, New York’s entire delegation would be required to unanimously support him.
But not everyone agreed with the plan. Bill Bray left no doubt where he stood: “I will vote to the end against Roosevelt, and will oppose using the unit rule under which the delegation would vote as a block according to the will of the majority.”
At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, it was feared Bray’s position might injure Roosevelt’s chances. A key moment occurred when Bray offered to back Farley, who had substantial support for his own presidential candidacy. Farley’s political fortunes had always been tied to Roosevelt, who remained immensely popular. What to do? Run against Roosevelt, or stay on as FDR’s number-one backer?
Unlike Bray, Farley settled on the politically expedient solution: support Roosevelt and wait for another day. When he urged the convention to back FDR, Farley’s votes became Roosevelt’s, and it was over. The president had found sufficient backing for a third run.
Following the convention, Bray remained active politically, supporting various candidates in New York State, where he still enjoyed great influence. The deep divide between Bray and the Roosevelt–Farley faction could not be sustained. They now needed him to reunite the New York party and maintain power.
In April 1942, Governor Lehman offered Bray the position he desired, State Public Service Commissioner. He was to serve until 1945 at a salary of $15,000 annually ($211,000 in 2013). The new appointment was intended to help heal the wounds left from party infighting.
But the battle had been fought against Bray off and on for some 14 years, and the events of late 1942, viewed in retrospect, suggest that Democrats may have erred in blocking his ascension to the governor’s post in 1938.
Remember the Lehman–Poletti arrangement? Well, it did happen, but not as intended. Lehman resigned in late 1942 with less than a month to go, taking a job in Roosevelt’s State Department. Poletti stepped in to serve the remaining weeks as governor, with the expectation of winning a full term in November.
But it had all backfired. Lehman had become a lame duck, having unexpectedly lost to Thomas Dewey. And Poletti had lost the race for lieutenant governor. The entire plan had failed miserably, leaving New York’s Democratic Party in shambles.
Instead of the ever-popular Bray as governor, the party could now point to Poletti as a footnote in history. He served as governor from December 3, 1942 through December 31, 1942—at twenty-nine days, the shortest term as governor in New York State history.
Ironically, when former Governor Poletti died in 2002 at the age of 99, New York State protocol required that the flag be flown at half-mast for a period of thirty-one days—two days longer than his actual term as governor.
Where Roosevelt had split with Bray years earlier over patronage, he now used it to provide government jobs for the newly unemployed Lehman and Poletti. With Democrats badly weakened, the Republican Party assumed power in New York, and for twenty-eight of the next thirty-two years, a Republican was in the governor’s chair.
Putting the entire mess behind him, Bray continued playing a prominent role among New York’s Democrats. In the years to come, he held many positions, including President of the NYS Bar Association (and vice-president several times).
Tragedy struck in January 1948 when Bray was severely burned in a house fire. With death imminent, a priest was summoned to administer the last rites to one of New York State’s best-known Irish Catholics. He survived a few more days, fading slowly. Nine days after the fire, while still suffering terribly from burns to his face, arms, and torso, Bray’s right forearm was amputated.
But somehow, he rallied, and four days after the amputation, he was removed from the critical list. Bray’s ability to overcome such horrendous injuries was inexplicable. In late March, he was released from the hospital in what doctors called “an exceptional recovery.”
In November of that same year, after being married to politics for a quarter century, Bill wed Catherine Clair Coleman of New York City. Now 59, he remained active on the political scene, handled a number of high-profile court cases, and held many other influential positions.
At the age of sixty-five, Bray was appointed by Governor Harriman to a ten-year term on the State Building Code Commission at $14,400 per year ($123,000 in 2013). Few in the party were more deserving, and Harriman knew Bray had more than paid his dues during decades of fighting for Democrats across the state.
In January 1961, the end finally came to an illustrious career. Most newspapers noted his humble beginnings: “M. William Bray, who rose from farmer to lawyer to lieutenant governor of New York, died in a hospital Tuesday night after a long illness.”
It had been a spectacular rise indeed, from the back roads of Clinton to the upper echelons of state government. Against some of the most powerful men in American political history, William Bray had more than held his own. His unlikely story is rooted in the can-do attitude and hard-working traditions of North Country farming.
Photos: M. William Bray; headline (1938)