Al Smith (Alfred Emmanuel Smith) (1873–1944) politicianSmith was the first U.S. politician to build a national reputation by appealing to ethnic groups and was the first Roman Catholic to run for president. Although soundly defeated in the 1928 election, he helped turn immigrant voters to the Democratic Party and helped to establish the new Democratic consensus that was consolidated by President Franklin Roosevelt during the New Deal.
Smith, an ambitious Irish-American Catholic, was raised on New York City’s Lower East Side. His parents were both children of Irish immigrants. Smith began his political career in the pay of the Tammany Hall political machine, although the rampant corruption grated on his ethical sensibilities. As a reward, he was picked to run for the New York State Assembly in 1903, where he sat until he was selected sheriff of New York City in 1915 and president of the Board of Aldermen two years later. Having become especially knowledgeable about industrial affairs, he gradually developed a progressive reform program that especially appealed to immigrants. In 1918, he won the governorship of New York in a surprising victory over the Republican incumbent. While in office, he oversaw a number of social reforms, including enhanced workmen’s compensation provisions, higher teachers’ salaries, and state care for the mentally ill. Although defeated in the Republican landslide of 1920, he came back to regain the governor’s chair in 1922. Smith was defeated in the Democratic primary for president in 1924 in a divisive intraparty contest between the largely rural, Protestant, and prohibitionist South and West and the ethnically diverse and antiprohibitionist Northeast. He nevertheless was reelected as governor of New York for third and fourth terms in 1924 and 1926. The peak of his political career came in 1928 when he was nominated as Democratic presidential candidate on the first ballot. In an age of apparent economic prosperity, Smith had little chance to defeat Republican Herbert Hoover, but he did attract large numbers of foreign-born Americans to the polls, enabling Democrats to carry most large urban areas for the first time. Ironically, in later life Smith left the Democratic Party, disdaining the New Deal vision of a planned society.