Eyewitness 1937: Democrats cement control of Pittsburgh and county

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When Cornelius D. Scully won election as Pittsburgh mayor in November 1937, he headed a Democratic ticket that "seemed to be sweeping both the city and [Allegheny] county."

It was "the first complete county-wide Democratic victory since that party gained ascendancy," according to the Nov. 3 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That same edition of the newspaper, however, offered evidence that some Republicans were not giving up without a fight.

Allegheny County had been a GOP stronghold since the Civil War. That changed in large part with the the Great Depression and the candidacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. Roosevelt lost Pennsylvania, but he carried Allegheny County in his first successful run for the presidency.

Two years later, William McNair was elected mayor, the first Democrat to win that office since George Guthrie in 1906. McNair, however, was a political neophyte who feuded with city council and county judges. When he resigned in 1934, council members appointed Scully, the council president and a Democrat, as his successor.

In 1936 Roosevelt again carried Allegheny County, and this time he also won Pennsylvania in his landslide re-election win against Kansas Gov. Alf Landon.

Local election results the following year, when Scully sought his first elected term as mayor, extended and solidified Democratic control of the city and county offices.

"The vote turned out yesterday set a record for size in a municipal campaign," the Post-Gazette said. "Indications were that straight party voting had been the rule in both city and county."

Mayor Scully's coattails were long enough to help all five Democrats running for city council win their races, giving the party seven of nine seats.

The busy election day was "attended by only slight disorder -- and most of that in the notoriously unpeaceful Second Ward," according to the newspaper. The Second Ward fronted on the Allegheny River and includes what is now the Strip District. There was a hot fight there for alderman between Democratic incumbent Thomas Geary and Republican William P. McCool. While aldermen did not receive salaries, the judiciary position could be lucrative. Aldermen could keep a portion of all the fees and fines they collected.

Police reported a fistfight at one Second Ward polling station. Elsewhere in the ward five Geary supporters were charged with trying to close down a polling place by force.

In a third district in the Second Ward, the Republican judge of elections, Patsy Colangelo, faced charges of interfering with people trying to vote. Colangelo "was permitting only one of three voting machines to be used," Democrats supporting Geary claimed. "The result was that at 8 p.m., when the polls were scheduled to close, 86 voters were waiting outside to cast ballots."

The county judges hearing election complaints ordered Colangelo to keep the polls open until those residents could vote, ruling that "it was his fault they were still waiting."

When Colangelo refused, he was hauled back into court by county police Chief James N. Hoey. "Where are we -- in Russia?" Colangelo complained. Eventually, he caved, agreeing to reopen the polling place on "advice of counsel."

Whatever extra votes the Democrats picked up from those final ballots were not enough to save Geary's candidacy. McCool, the GOP hopeful, beat the incumbent for the alderman's job in one of the few bright spots for Republicans that fall.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. See more stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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