Republicans in History: Fiorello LaGuardia, New York City’s Favorite Son

Fiorello LaGuardia was born in Greenwich Village and died in the Bronx.  He was truly a native son of New York.  His father was Italian Catholic, his mother Italian Jewish and he was raised Episcopalian.  He grew up in Prescott, Arizona.  At age 16, his family moved to his mother’s hometown of Trieste in what is now Italy.  With his linguistic skills, he worked at the US Consulates in Hungary and Croatia.  When he was passed over for a promotion, he quit the State Department, moved back to New York City to attend New York University law school.  In 1910, he graduated, was admitted to the bar the same year, and started his law practice.

His law practice was centered on representing immigrant workers in the garment industry.  Although he never made much money, he made friends and gained a reputation on the Lower East Side.

La Guardia turned his attention to politics and he joined the Republican Party.  His first run for the US Congress in 1914 was unsuccessful, but his effort was sufficiently impressive that he was named Deputy Attorney General for the State of New York the following year.  In 1916, he ran again against a Tammany-backed incumbent.  He campaigned speaking to crowds in Yiddish, Italian, and Serbo-Croatian.  He was narrowly elected to the US Congress and initiated his political career.  His congressional career was paused briefly with the start of WWI when he joined the war effort as a pilot. In 1919, he was elected to the New York City Board of Alderman.  He ran for Mayor in 1921, but was defeated in the primary.

In 1922, his bid to return to Congress was challenged by a Tammany-backed Jewish candidate.  He was billed as an anti-Semite and “Jew-hater”.  He was urged by his campaign to announce publicly that his mother was Jewish.  He declined but challenged his opponent to a debate in Yiddish.  His opponent declined and LaGuardia won his race.

His second bid for Mayor of New York City in 1929 resulted in defeat. Fiorella LaGuardia lost his Congressional seat in the 1932 FDR landslide.  In 1933, with his third attempt, La Guardia won the race for Mayor of New York.  LaGuardia served three consecutive terms as the Mayor of New York.

It was as Mayor of New York that LaGuardia gained fame as a feisty and authoritarian leader.  He was bent on ridding the city of corruption and the Democrat-led Tammany machine.  He proposed the clearance of slums, supported the improvement of city services, and the rewrite of the city charter.  He read comic strips on the radio and frequently showed up at fire houses to help fight fires.  He initiated big infrastructure projects such as LaGuardia airport and built bridges and roads.  He exploited his good relationship with FDR to bring New York New Deal funds along with the WPA work projects. He was one of New York’s most popular mayors.

LaGuardia refused to run for a fourth term as Mayor and retired in 1945.  Small in stature at 5’2”, he was commonly referred to as the “Little Flower” yet he left his indelible mark on the city.