Lost Century

by Bill Samuels

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In 1910, a 28 year old young man rented a fire-engine red, open top Maxwell touring car and “wheezing along at the dazzling speed of 20 miles an hour, crisscrossed a State Senate district as no candidate had done before.”1

Thus, Franklin Delano Roosevelt started his political career 100 years ago to become New York State Senator representing Duchess, Putnam and Columbia counties. No Democrat had won the seat since 1856.2

His political instincts were undoubted influenced by his wife Eleanor, whom he had married five and a half years earlier. At eighteen in New York City, she was already committed to social justice, teaching at the Rivington Street Settlement House and investigating woman’s working conditions for the Consumer’s League. She arranged for Franklin to meet her on an early date at one, then another tenement on the Lower East Side, causing him to witness conditions that he said he had never known existed.

Eleanor and Franklin, 1905

“She wanted him to realize the condition of the urban poor and….in 1961, at 77, she said ” It worked. He saw how people lived and he never forgot.”3 She recalls his telling her that with her help, he could achieve something someday.4

Roosevelt’s idea of campaigning by automobile with no windshield or top was risky. Farmers didn’t like automobiles because they frightened their horses.5 “When we meet a horse or a team, and that was about every half-mile or so, “said FDR, “we had to stop, not only the car but the engine itself.”6

The most gripping drama in the campaign was when Franklin’s car ran over a dog. There weren’t any witnesses, but Franklin insisted on stopping, meeting the bereaved owner, and paying him five dollars.7

Roosevelt had been recruited by Judge John E. Mack, the district attorney of Duchess County. Franklin sought the advice of his illustrious kinsman, Teddy Roosevelt, who encouraged him to run.8

Two weeks later, Edward E. Perkins, President of the First National Bank of Poughkeepsie, invited Roosevelt to a dispersal sale of high-grade Guernseys. On the way home, after inspecting the cattle, he asked Roosevelt if he would like to run for office. Roosevelt replied “I’d like to talk to my mother first.”

They drove on to Poughkeepsie and pulled into a parking spot in front of Perkin’s bank. “Frank,” he said, “the men that are looking out that window are waiting for your answer. They won’t like to hear that you had to ask your mother.”
“I’ll take it” said Franklin.9