Hugh Carey pictured outside Nathan’s Famous restaurant in Brooklyn with sons Kevin and Thomas during the 1974 campaign. The article was originally published in the Irish Echo in 2010.
By Peter McDermott
A letter from a future rival a half century ago changed Hugh Carey’s life. The authors of a new study of the two-term governor argue further that it altered the course of New York’s history and even that of the nation.
“I don’t know what would have happened to New York if Hugh Carey had lost the governorship,” said one of them, Seymour P. Lachman, in reference to an election 14 years later.
The following year, 1975, President Ford told the city to “drop dead,” in the Daily News’ words, when it asked for a federal bail-out.
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That piece of mail all those decades ago, however, was from Republican Congressman Francis E. Dorn saying his office had conducted a poll that showed John F. Kennedy would be beaten by a 3 to 1 margin in his 12th District in Brooklyn.
“Carey bristled at the mailing,” write Lachman and his co-author Robert Polner in “The Man Who Saved New York: Hugh Carey and the Great Fiscal Crisis of 1975.” He felt that the Democrat’s family background and charisma would be advantages against Richard Nixon, a law-and-order Republican who might otherwise be expected to win in the 12th District.
He asked the local Democratic boss whom the party was running against Dorn. “We haven’t got anybody and down at headquarters, nobody wants to put any money into it,” he was told. “They’re sure he can’t be beat.”
So Carey, lawyer, businessman, decorated World War II veteran and father of a growing family, decided to take on the well-respected, four-term Dorn. In November, the Democrats won the White House and the 12th District.
JFK, of course, was a Catholic who could trace all of his family roots to Ireland; Carey, now 91, remains the only directly elected governor of New York with that ethnic profile. And while the Kennedys acquired fabulous wealth in three generations in America, the Carey did well enough in two.
Hugh Leo Carey was born at home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on April 11, 1919. He grew up one of six brothers in what the authors describe as a “business-minded family.” His father, Denis “D.J.” Carey, was the only son of Michael and Delia Carey, immigrants from County Galway who worked in America as a laborer and a house-worker. D.J. married Margaret Collins, the daughter of immigrants from County Tyrone, and the couple together ran the motor oil distribution company he founded in 1920s. It went bust during the Great Depression, but the family had established a firm toehold in the industry and Ed Carey, the governor’s older brother, became a billionaire.
That wealth helped underwrite the career of a politician who Lachman described in an interview as “one of the greatest ever governors of New York.”
Added the author: “He rose to the greatness of the occasion, by taking the most difficult problems and saying we have to resolve them.”
Lachman, an academic who served five terms in the State Senate, was a student when Carey made his first bid for Congress. “I supported him quite vigorously,” he recalled. And he continued to respect him over the years. It wasn’t until he researched the state’s archives for the book, though, that he came to understand that Carey was a politician of “unusual intelligence and integrity.”
“His force of will,” Paul Gioia, an assistant counsel to the governor, told the authors, “was the most important feature in keeping the city out of bankruptcy. When someone at the top makes a solid commitment like that, people working for him respond, ‘We’ve got to figure out how to get it done’ and that’s what happened.”
Another top official, Felix Rohatyn, said that Carey was “the greatest person I’ve worked with in a crisis situation because he had a sense of humor, he was brilliantly intelligent, he was courageous, and he had something that I think, as I read it, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had, which is: If you do something and it doesn’t work, you do something else.”
Rohatyn made sure that West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing understood the extent of New York fiscal difficulties. They in turn made it clear to Ford that New York’s bankruptcy would be seen as America’s. The president relented somewhat. During his tenure, the governor forged an alliance, known as the “Four Horsemen,” with Senator Ted Kennedy, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Speaker Tip O’Neill, that argued for a peaceful solution to Northern Ireland’s problems. In a hard-hitting speech in Dublin in 1979 the governor said that “those fascinated with death as a political weapon are surely as sick as people can be…”
He was a vocal opponent of the death penalty, too, a position that he attributes to a wartime trauma. Major Carey, then 26, helped liberate Nordhausen labor camp in Germany. The experience convinced him that the government should not have the power of life or death over any citizen.
Lachman said that Carey evolved to a position similar to the Cardinal Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life.”
The governor once told a meeting of Planned Parenthood that he and his wife, the former Helen Owen, planned each of their 14 children. She died of breast cancer in 1974, when he was running for governor. The couple endured a double bereavement five years earlier when two of their sons, Peter and Hugh Jr., were killed in an auto accident on Long Island. Another son, Paul, died of cancer in 2001 at age 38.
The governor himself has survived quadruple bypass surgery. “I was at his 90th birthday last year,” Lachman said. “They sung all these Irish songs. His love of his Irish Catholic heritage persists to this day.”