A lawyer and public official, Robert F. Wagner (1910-1991) was one of New York City's last Tammany Hall mayors, 1954-1965.
A New York City mayor for 12 years, Robert F. Wagner was intimately involved in politics from childhood. His mother died when Robert was nine. His father, a senator, was a powerful figure in the New Deal wing of the Democratic Party and a sponsor of several significant reform acts, including the Wagner Act, which created the National Labor Relations Board. Wagner reaped the benefit of his father's famous name as well as his enormous popularity when he ran for public office.
Young Robert attended a public school in New York and the Taft School in Watertown, CT, and received his law degree from Yale Law School in 1937. In that same year he was elected to the New York State Assembly and remained there until 1941, when he entered the U.S. Air Force. He served for the rest of World War II and was discharged in 1945 as a lieutenant colonel decorated with six battle stars. In 1942 Wagner married Susan Edwards of Greenwich, CT.
After the war, Wagner, with the backing of the Democratic Party and Tammany Hall, the infamous New York City political machine which had controlled city affairs for more than a century, rose rapidly up the political ladder. He won appointments as city tax commissioner and as commissioner of housing and buildings, and then as chairman of the city planning commission. Elected Manhattan borough president in 1949, Wagner made a bid for the 1952 Democratic senatorial nomination but lost. The following year Wagner challenged the Democratic incumbent mayor, Vincent Impellitteri, in the primary and beat him by nearly a two to one margin. With the backing of controversial Tammany Hall boss Carmine De Sapio, he went on to win the mayoralty in 1953, a post he would hold for 12 years. He again ran for the U.S. Senate in 1956 but lost. Wagner and his wife had two sons, Robert F. Wagner, III, who also had a long career in New York City politics, and Duncan Wagner. After his first wife's death in 1964, Wagner married Barbara Joan Cavanagh the following year, and after their divorce in 1971, he married Phyllis Fraser Cerf in 1975.
As mayor, Wagner pushed through the city council measures barring discrimination in the rental and sale of housing, thoroughly revised New York City's zoning ordinances, pushed slum clearance and public housing projects forward, enlarged the police force, and streamlined the budget-making process. During his first two administrations Mayor Wagner encouraged the formation of municipal unions with what was called the "little Wagner Act," giving the city's employees, except the police, the right to form unions and to engage in collective bargaining. He became so powerful nationally that his support of John F. Kennedy in 1960 helped win Kennedy the presidential nomination.
Wagner broke his alliance with Tammany Hall in 1961, when he was at the peak of his popularity. He defeated his Tammany Hall-supported opponent in the Democratic primary and with the support of a growing Manhattan reform movement and the powerful Central Labor Council went on to win a third term by a large margin. Wagner's power as mayor was also enlarged by a new charter approved that same year by the voters. But his last term proved to be a troubled one, as his administration was caught up in the urban unrest of the 1960s. Facing increasingly heavy social obligations and massive increases in welfare spending, Wagner resorted to economic expediences to pay the bills. With the permission of the state legislature he increased the city's borrowing limits and issued "revenue anticipation notes" not only for the current fiscal year but for fees and taxes that were estimated to be available the following year. In 1965 Wagner submitted a record budget of $3.8 billion. Later critics would cite that budget as the beginning of the heavy deficit spending that would get the city into serious financial trouble a decade later.
Wagner was placid and methodical, and critics said he was too slow to act to curb the city's growing urban problems. After rioting broke out in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Wagner launched several new programs, including a city jobs program for disadvantaged youth. With the backing of the federal government and the Ford Foundation he initiated a program called Mobilization for Youth (MFY) which aimed at retraining inner-city youth. He also launched another anti-poverty program called Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited and Associated Community Teams (HARYOU-ACT). But critics were not satisfied, and Wagner decided not to seek a fourth term. On leaving office, he said: "The days of scandal, the days of political influence, getting contracts and assistance from the city have disappeared, and I believe I hand on to my successor a government that had changed radically in this way."
During his administration, Wagner had helped bring a World's Fair to Flushing Meadow, helped establish the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and helped created the Jamaica Bay wildlife preserve. New York lost major league baseball's Giants and Dodgers to California, but gained the Mets.
After leaving office, Wagner returned to his private law practice with Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Heine, Underberg, and Casey. Still visible in Democratic Party circles, Wagner entered the New York mayoral primary in 1969 and lost. A deal that would have made him the Republican-Liberal candidate for mayor in 1973 collapsed. He was appointed ambassador to Spain, 1968-1969, and continued to serve as a political adviser on the national scene. President Jimmy Carter appointed him as his unofficial personal envoy to the Vatican, 1978-1981. In 1976 Wagner's law firm merged with another, and he continued in private practice until his death. In the 1980s Wagner was a member of the city's Charter Revision Commission. In 1989 New York University named its school of public service for him.
Wagner died of cancer on February 12, 1991 at his home in Manhattan. New York Governor Mario Cuomo eulogized him: "A large, living piece of our best political history has fallen away, and there is nothing adequate to replace it. Robert F. Wagner was a superb public person, servant of the people, and adviser to their leaders."
For general information on Wagner see Political Profiles: The Johnson Years (1976) and Edward Kenworthy, "The Emergence of Mayor Wagner," New York Times Magazine (August 14, 1955). For some of the conflicts and accomplishments of the Wagner years see Warren Moscow, The Last of the Big-Time Bosses (1971); Robert Caro, The Power Broker (1975); William F. Buckley, Jr., The Unmaking of a Mayor (1966), and Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson, City Politics (1963).