Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Harry McDougal: Back When Politics Was Truly Local

Lt Gov Malcolm Wilson, Harry McDougal, NYS Senator Ron Stafford (Lake George Mirror file photo)It may seem hard to believe, but politics were once truly local. A Congressional candidate was nominated by his party only after he had already served his community, usually in local and state offices, where his character and his abilities had been given a chance to reveal themselves.

The erosion of locally-rooted politics has been attributed to the nationalization of congressional races by Newt Gingrich’s Republicans in 1994, to the proliferation of politicized and polarizing radio shows and television networks and to the tides of money from lobbyists and corporations flowing into local races.

Once, even national elections were local, as Harry McDougal, the Republican leader of Essex County for decades, recalled in an interview in the 1960s.

“I remember the old hot campaigns, like the one for Benjamin Harrison when I was a little fellow – the banners across Court Street, the bonfires, the parades, the fistfights, even. Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge used to come up here, but nobody bothers with us anymore,” McDougal said.

Few people remember Harry McDougal today; I doubt this year’s Republican and Democratic party Congressional candidates, both of whom claim Essex County as their homes, have ever heard of him. But in his day, he was local politics personified.

“He loved his country; he loved his state. But most of all he loved his county and the people who lived in it,” my father, Robert F. Hall, wrote in a tribute to McDougal in 1972, the year he died.

McDougal was born in Elizabethtown in 1883. After he married in 1910, he built a house across the road from the family homestead, where he spent the rest of his life. That same year, he and his brother opened a store. But politics, not business, was his true calling.

He entered politics at the age of 21, serving as Elizabethtown’s auditor, Republican town committeeman, Republican county chairman, town supervisor, and, for nearly forty years, the Essex County Clerk.

He was also a Kiwanian, a Mason, Master of the Grange, an Elk and president of the Dairymen’s League.

“I guess I was in everything going,” he once said.

Although he rarely if ever traveled to Albany, he had more influence in the state capitol than any lobbyist has today.

Prior to the reapportionment cases of the 1960s, every county in the state had its own assemblyman (the sole exception being, I believe, Hamilton County), which gave the county chairmen the power to pick the candidates. And in a one-party county like Essex County, the power to pick the next assemblyman. When it came time to choose a candidate for the State Senate, the chairman would meet with a few others, such as Warren County’s Earl Vetter, and the next State Senator was chosen.

“He used his influence in Albany to get special benefits for the people of Essex County, not himself,” my father wrote in his tribute.

And while it might not have appeared so on an organizational chart, the local folks had more influence, collectively, than McDougal himself had as an individual. He was their spokesman, not their boss.

“As county Republican chairman, he felt the need to maintain close contact with the party workers and the people. He spent an evening every week at Burpee’s store in Lewis, reminiscing with his old cronies but more importantly listening to complaints or problems about local government,” my father wrote.

McDougal also used his influence locally, playing a crucial role in the creation of Elizabethtown’s hospital and the Adirondack History Center museum.

It’s also important to note that he was a Republican by inheritance and perhaps by disposition, but not by an attachment to a rigid creed.

“He imbibed his Republicanism from the apple cider pressed from apples in his orchard,” my father put it somewhat colorfully.

His Republican party was the party of Lincoln.

“His father was a soldier in the Union Army and made Abe Lincoln’s name a household word. Harry often spoke with respect for his great uncle, Milo Durand, who operated a station on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping to Canada,” my father wrote.

As a county chairman, McDougal naturally prized party loyalty. Although he considered himself a Rockefeller Republican, he still voted for Goldwater and Nixon, and expected his fellow Essex County Republicans to do the same. That’s because loyalty creates unity, unity cohesion, and cohesion, community.

If McDougal lamented the passing of party unity, it was because he foresaw the passing of the community he had known his entire life.

“Republicanism is in the blood up here. But things change, the blood changes. Nowadays, politics comes out of the TV set – just so much toothpaste. People switch their loyalties now. It was all more fun in the old days,” he said.

Good politicians tend to love politics for their own sake and not just for the good things politics can achieve.

McDougal was one of those. Richard Lawrence, the first Adirondack Park Agency chairman and an ally of McDougal’s (and, with State Senator Ron Stafford and former State Senator Eustis Paine, one of the pall bearers at his funeral), once told me that McDougal enjoyed attending the annual town meetings across Lake Champlain in Vermont, just to listen and watch.

That love of politics makes good politicians shrewd observers of political life. The best of them are lovers of gossip, data banks of information about the composition of every voting district in their constituencies and full of sharp insights about the personalities of their colleagues and rivals.

And as observers, as well as practitioners, the best politicians also tend to be good judges of character. Especially of people they’ve seen around and about the county, in every variety of circumstance, for decades.

I suppose it goes without saying that we will never see the likes of Harry McDougal in our lifetimes, or any candidates who had matured under the tutelage of a McDougal. At the very least, that should be cause for regret.

Photo: Lt.  Governor Malcolm Wilson, Harry McDougal, and NYS Senator Ron Stafford (Lake George Mirror file photo).

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Anthony F. Hall is the editor and publisher of the Lake George Mirror.

Anthony grew up in Warrensburg and after an education that included studying with beat poet Gregory Corso on an island in the Aegean, crewing a schooner in Hawaii, traveling through Greece and Turkey studying Byzantine art and archeology, and a stint at Lehman Brothers, he returned to the Adirondacks and took a job with legendary state senator Ron Stafford.

In 1998, Anthony and his wife Lisa acquired the Lake George Mirror, once part of a chain of weekly newspapers owned by his father Rob Hall.

Established in the 1880s, the Mirror is America’s oldest resort newspaper.

4 Responses

  1. Dave Gibson says:

    Great story and history and other lessons, Tony.

  2. Hawthorn says:

    There are pluses and minuses to “truly local” politicians. For example, when many of the voters in a district are actually from away themselves does a truly local politician best represent the interests of the district? Also, personally, I prefer someone with broader world experiences and views than the typical local and parochial politician. Where they stand on the issues is vastly more important than where someone is from or where they have lived. We are all connected and need to take the wider world into account, especially in a Congressional candidate.

    • Agnez says:

      Congressmen and women are elected to Congress to make laws and policy decisions for the entire United States, not just for their town, their county or even their state.

      Would a person who had never left their home town, have any idea how people in other parts of the US, live? The Federal government has to make decisions for everyone in the USA and what they do also effects people through out the world. (The big cities, the deep south, the drought stricken west, or those states near the Mexican border) If a local birthplace was all that was necessary to be a leader, then there would never be a single decision made that benefited all Americans.

      Hmmmthat does sound like our current congress where the accidental geographic location of a mother’s womb, on the day a person was born, counts for more than what a person accomplished in a lifetime. No one can take credit for where they wore born, or even for where they were raised as a child.

      I am so tired of people saying that a person birth place is so important and that only locally born and raised persons should run for office. Until a person is old enough to leave home and make a living and choose where they want to make their home, then residency or how many years their ancestors lived somewhere does not mean a thing.

      When you need emergency surgery do you ask the doctor where he was born and how many years they have lived in your town. Or are you just grateful that there is a skilled physician there for you. We should look at the qualifications, the skills, the accomplishments of our candidates. Their birthplace is not relevant 30 or 40 or 50 years after the fact.

  3. Paul says:

    This is a great post. It is interesting to consider the number of congressmen and congresswomen we would have now if we used the original formula set up after the founding. If you think this body is dysfunctional just imagine!

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