On August 1, 1961, the Temporary State Commission on the Capital City held the first of two public hearings on Albany’s rehabilitation. (Eight months later, of course, the Commission would approve Gov. Rockefeller’s plan to demolish 98 acres in downtown Albany for the South Mall.) The hearing, held on a sweltering night in the un-air-conditioned Chancellors Hall in the State Education Building, lasted from 8:00 to 11:00pm.
In the audience was 35-year-old George W. Harder, Jr. A native of Albany and a World War II Navy veteran, Harder had left the area in 1954 for an FBI job. He returned to Albany earlier in 1961 to start a law practice. He later said that he had intended only to sit and listen as others debated Albany’s future. But as the evening went on, he grew more and more frustrated with the Democratic organization’s opposition to redevelopment. Finally, Harder rose as the evening’s last speaker and gave some impromptu remarks. Dismayed by the stagnation he saw in downtown Albany, he mused that “if Henry Hudson were to return to this area, he could look around and say, ‘It hasn’t changed much.’” Harder unfavorably compared retail and office vacancies in the heart of the city with new retail developments, like the Westgate shopping center on the western fringe of Albany. He concluded by blaming Albany’s decline on “man-made blight” and a “lethargic citizenry with a very limited outlook on the future.”
This incident launched Harder’s career as a political activist. Had he chosen to align himself with boss Dan O’Connell’s Democrats, Harder likely would have won elected office. His father, after all, had been secretary of the statewide Democratic committee, as well as secretary to Lt. Gov. Edwin Corning (the mayor’s father) during the Al Smith administration. Yet Harder chose to challenge the machine’s power by running in 1962 for the Democratic nomination for State Assembly against incumbent Frank Cox. This was the first contested Democratic primary in Albany since 1921.
Loyal Democrats did not take Harder’s insurgency seriously. At the county Democratic committee meeting in July 1962, the presiding officer, Mary Marcy, refused to recognize Harder’s right to speak.
Throughout the campaign, Harder was eager to debate Cox, particularly on his views about the South Mall. (Cox was one of Mayor Corning’s three appointees to the Temporary Commission and the only commission member to vote against the State’s South Mall appropriation.) Harder believed the State office complex would be good for Albany and that the Democratic organization opposed it only out of fear of losing loyal voters through displacement. But Cox ran a silent campaign and refused to debate his opponent. When reporters asked about his background, views, or record in office, the assemblyman invariably replied, “No comment.”
Both the Times Union and the Knickerbocker News endorsed Harder in the primary. Harder and his small but enthusiastic band of supporters campaigned hard. Yet Cox won handily by a 72% to 28% margin.
Harder ran for State Assembly twice again, in 1964 against Cox and in 1965 against Harvey Lifset. Harder’s campaign slogan, “We Try Harder,” was borrowed from the Avis rental car company’s advertising strategy, which portrayed it as a plucky underdog. Despite running vigorous campaigns and securing the endorsement of both local newspapers, Harder again lost—by even bigger margins.
At the time, Harder’s poor showing at the polls seemed to confirm the enduring power of the O’Connell-Corning machine. After all, the Democratic organization twice ran a hack against a young, charismatic reformer—and won handily. (In a 1984 interview with SUNY Albany graduate student Katie Gurnett, Harder described Cox as “the fulfillment of Dan [O’Connell]’s adage” that he could “elect a dog, or the family cat.”) But Harder’s campaigns, along with those of the independent Citizens United Reform Effort (CURE), were the earliest signs that the Democratic organization’s grip on Albany was weakening.
Although he did not run for elected office after 1965, Harder remained active in Albany politics, allying himself with insurgent groups like the Albany Independent Movement (AIM), the Liberal Party, and The Brothers, groups that challenged the Corning-O’Connell organization’s political dominance and exposed public corruption, such as the five-dollar vote and the practice of allowing elected officials to live outside of their districts.
Time was not on the organization’s side. After his 1964 loss, Harder remarked that “the Albany machine gets older each day without attracting any new blood or new ideas.” Harder may have been ahead of his time, but he correctly predicted the O’Connell-Corning machine’s demise. As the organization’s leaders died off and its adherents moved away in the 1950s and 1960s, a new, more racially diverse and politically active generation moved in.
In 1972, 16th ward committeeman Raymond Marinelli complained to Mayor Corning that “a great number of our old reliable registered democrats” had left the city and that younger, more independent newcomers had taken their place. “These new voters do not have the party loyalty that our prior residents had” and were dissatisfied with what they regarded as inadequate city services. Marinelli found it hard to establish a rapport with them but urged Democratic leaders to find ways to “overcome” the “barrier” between these new residents and the party’s local representatives, burdened with the baggage of “being a long-time democratic committeeman with the ‘Machine.’”
Although he failed to win elective office, Harder’s persistent challenge helped plant the seeds of a political awakening that would eventually eroded the power of Albany’s long-lived Democratic machine.
Note: The featured photo of Harder (with his sons Michael, George, and Thomas) tacking up a campaign poster in front of City Hall appeared in the Times Union on Aug. 28, 1962. Used by permission of the Times Union.