Sunday, March 18, 2007

Plain Bill

William Sulzer, the Democratic governor of New York from January to October of 1913, was born on this day in 1863 in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Known as "Plain Bill," Sulzer served as a member of Congress from 1895 to 1912, and was elected governor of New York in 1912 with the support of the New York City Tammany Hall political machine. Soon after he took office, however, he fell out of favor with Tammany boss Charles F. Murphy when he failed to appoint certain handpicked Tammany allies to key positions and advocated the use of primary elections rather than nominating conventions for the selection of candidates for office, thus taking the party banner out of the hands of the backroom pols; by the year's end, Sulzer was impeached for allegedly diverting campaign funds for personal use.

At the time, anti-Tammany forces cried foul, and almost immediately afterward, Sulzer was elected to a seat in the New York State Assembly. He ran for governor in 1914 as a candidate of the American Party, but did not receive the vindication he had hoped for, running third behind the Republican victor, Charles S. Whitman; Sulzer's Tammany-backed successor, Martin H. Glynn came in second in his losing bid for re-election. In 1916, Sulzer turned down the presidential nomination of the American Party, and practiced law in New York City for much of the rest of his life. He died there on November 6, 1941.

Sulzer also starred in a film about his impeachment (The Governor's Boss, 1915) in which, on celluloid if not in real life, he successfully fights Tammany Hall and keeps his office. Despite all the populist sentiment in his favor, Sulzer's name has never been officially rehabilitated, and he remains the one New York governor whose portrait does not hang in the Hall of Governors in the State Capitol in Albany.

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