In 1984, longtime Tammany politician and leader of McManus Democratic Club James R. McManus was challenged for his position as Hell’s Kitchen’s District Leader by a reform politician named Hamed Houssain. Houssain argued that it was time for the district’s voters to retire the last vestige of Tammany Hall and throw out the organization affiliated with the corrupt disgraced Camine DeSapio.
McManus however, was overwhelmingly reelected and Mayor Ed Koch attended his victory party. For the next 33 years, until his retirement in 2017, there would be no other challenges to Jimmy McManus for the position of District Leader in Hell’s Kitchen.
Throughout this period the McManus Club would continue to function as Tammany political clubs had functioned for the last hundred years. Every Monday and Thursday night, Jimmy McManus would sit in the club house and meet constituents with issues that needed addressing. The Club continued to have biannual cocktail parties at which members and local politicians including Dick Gottfried, Jerry Nadler and other Assemblymen, prospective candidates, sometimes lawyers aspiring to be judges, would attend. A usual attendee at such parties was Carmine DeSapio or other aging politicians or retired judges. (One of the few areas over which the McManus Club retained some power was the selection of Judges, as both Civil Court and State Supreme Court Judges were elected by the voters in each district, which meant the Democratic Party nomination was critical.)
Jimmy McManus held the view that economic development (and to some extent gentrification) was in the interest of his constituents, provided the neighborhood’s poorer residents would benefit from that development. As a result local groups opposed to such development would often be frustrated that the McManus Club, the major representative of the people of the district, would testify at public hearings in favor of large real estate projects.
McManus generally did not take great interest in presidential primaries for national office, although in 1992 he became a Paul Tsongas delegate to the National Democratic Convention which was held in Madison Square Garden (located in his district). That year the usual city reform clubs had lined up behind the leading national contenders – Al Gore and Bill Clinton – to which McManus had no affiliation.
Out of the blue, Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas made a strong showing in the New Hampshire primary. The sister of a club member whose husband was a prominent New Hampshire Republican wanted to make a donation to Tsongas but not in her own name. She sent her older brother, who voted in New York, to make a $1,000 contribution, which put him at a Tsongas organizing cocktail party in Manhattan. He brought his friend Jimmy McManus, who knew very little about the candidate.
The head of the nascent Tsongas campaign in New York, a lawyer named Jim Armenakis, was absolutely delighted to see such a prominent local political leader at the party who apparently had put up money for Tsongas. McManus took an interest in Tsongas and subsequently became one of the leaders of the Tsongas campaign effort in the city of New York. He then went as a delegate to the Democratic Convention in Madison Square Garden at which Bill Clinton was selected.
In 1991 when Congressman Ted Weis died suddenly from a heart attack there was an interesting contest to succeed him in which Jimmy McManus and the McManus Club played a critical role. Because the election was to be held shortly after his sudden death and there was not time for a primary election, the decision as to who was to be his replacement had, under the party rules, to be made by the 1,000 county committeemen from the election districts in the affected Congressional District. (This was one of the only times the county committeemen, who were the election district captains generally selected by the District Leader, had any substantive role in an important New York City election.)
At a hastily held convention at a high school on West 15th Street, the McManus Club had 75 votes out of 1,000. If the election were held in an open primary, Bella Abzug who had been a peripatetic Congressional candidate (most recently running in Westchester County since her defeat by a Republican on the East Side of Manhattan in the Reagan landslide of 1980) would probably have won.
Another possibility was Ronnie Eldridge, a former Lindsay aide who was Jimmy Breslin’s husband. McManus favored one of the local candidates, Richard Gottried or Jerry Nadler. Since he believed Nadler had more support outside the Club, McManus instructed his 75 delegates to vote for Nadler, who had been a loyal and active but not that well-known Assemblyman, and Nadler was elected. He continues to serve in the Congress from the West Side more than thirty years later.
Gottfried and Nadler served on Manhattan’s West Side through a period unparalleled prosperity, particularly for the Broadway theaters, other members of the original West Side Kids decided to go into other lines of work.
Dick Morris, one of the groups original political strategists, realized that based on his experience he could make money as a political consultant for various electoral candidates. One of his early clients was a candidate for Arkansas Attorney General named Bill Clinton. As time went on he began representing both Democrats and Republicans, and then more Republicans. When asked why he was representing Republicans, Morris responded like the famous bank robber Willie Sutton when asked why he robbed banks: “that’s where the money is.”
In 1996, however, when then President Bill Clinton was in serious political trouble after his somewhat disastrous first term, Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Morris. Operating somewhat secretly from the President’s regular staff, Morris developed the strategy of triangulation in which Clinton would position himself only slightly to the left of his Republican opponents such as Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House. This strategy proved successful and Clinton was reelected to a second term. Morris would then go on to continue to represent primarily Republicans and recently has been a right wing political commentator for Fox News and OAN.
Equally interesting at the time was the work of Richard Dresner, a political consultant who had also been one of the original West Side Kids and a former partner of Dick Morris. The political consulting business had potential international implications as American political consultants soon found themselves in demand as advisers to politicians in foreign countries.
Dresner’s firm was hired secretly to assist in the reelection campaign of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who in 1996 seemed to be doomed to be defeated by Sergei Gamaneyev, a representative of the old Communist Party. Using American polling and advertising methods, Dresner’s firm was allegedly able to reposition Yeltsin’s flagging campaign and to enable him to win a come from behind victory.
Thus 1996 was big year for the political consultants who were alumni of the West Side, as they had elected both the President of the United States and claimed to have elected the President of Russia.
Several times Jimmy McManus sought election as the New York County Democratic Leader (traditionally the head of the now defunct Tammany Hall), but he was defeated each time by Herman “Denny” Farrell, a prominent District Leader in Harlem. McManus partisans believed the reform clubs were reluctant to vote in favor of McManus, the last regular leader with roots in Tammany Hall.
After the defeat of Mayor Koch by David Dinkins in 1990, McManus maintained cordial relations with Mayor Dinkins, but his ability to have any real political power on behalf of his constituents was significantly diminished. McManus did have somewhat closer relations with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Dinkins Republican successor, and in 2007 the McManus Club went so far as to endorse Giuliani over his Democratic challenger, Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger.
In the 1990s, the McManus Club was more of a social club than influential political club. Old timers from the neighborhood would sometimes stop in to discuss political conditions in the neighborhood or the old days of bygone campaigns. The Club did from time to time run candidates for vacant political offices such as City Council or State Senate but it was invariably unsuccessful in these efforts.
One of the major activities of the McManus Club was its St.Patrick’s Day Breakfast at TGIF Friday’s on 42nd Street, at which it provided free breakfast to the party faithful before the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on 5th Avenue. This event drew more than a thousand participants. In 2016 the event drew every major mayoral candidate, including Bill Deblasio, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Comptroller William Thompson and even Nancy Pelosi.
That same year Jimmy McManus, then 80, stepped-down as the district leader in favor of his nephew Mickey Spillane. Spillane was a successful Hell’s Kitchen businessman who owned Mickey Spillane’s on 49th Street and 9th Avenue.
The Spillanes, with McManus’s active help, worked to keep the political traditions of the Club alive, but the district had changed dramatically from when Jimmy McManus had taken over as district leader in 1962. In part as a reaction to Trumpism and the conservatism of McManus and Spillane, an insurgent organization, the Hell’s Kitchen Democrats, challenged Spillane and the McManus Club for the district leadership.
The insurgents obtained the support of most of the elected officials in the area, including Richard Gottfried and Jerry Nadler whom the McManus Club had long supported. In one of the more inspired efforts of the campaign, Mickey Spillane – on behalf of the McManus Democratic Club and with the backing of the National Democratic Club and the Frances Perkins Center in Maine – successfully petitioned Manhattan Community Board 4 to recommend that West 46th near Hartley House be named “Frances Perkins Way.” (The City Council has not yet acted on the renaming of West 46th near Hartley House to “Frances Perkins Way,” though action is expected in December.)
In what proved to be a hotly contested election, Spillane and the McManus Club relied principally on the support of the older more conservative residents of the area and won many of the older low-rise buildings, but the Hells Ktichen Democrats significantly carried Manhattan Plaza, the building which Jimmy McManus had help save in the 1970s. After 112 years, the Democratic Party district leadership in Hell’s Kitchen by the McManus Club came to an end.
Jimmy McManus continued to attend to the Club on West 53rd Street after this defeat, but died of a heart attack the following year and the McManus Club disbanded.
This is part of a series about the life and times of James McManus, one of the last Tammany district leaders in New York City. You can read the entire series here.
Photos, from above: James McManus shortly before his death in 2019; a younger Dick Morris, then still a Democrat; Rep. Carolyn Maloney (center, left) with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (center, right) at the St. Patrick’s Day kickoff breakfast in 2015.