Like a drunkard’s first sip of beer a life in politics can begin simply enough. One fine morning you wake up in a free country and see all of the wonderful things around you and think, “wouldn’t it be grand if there were more wonderful things?” You may know that these wonderful things are the result of the hard work and good fortune of yourself and others – then again you may not, or more likely may not be willing to admit it – but you still want more. If there is a hole in the road in front of your house or business or if a ditch is flooded and ruining your garden your first solution may well be to appoint yourself as the spokesman for your neighborhood and petition the city fathers to fix your problem. On a grander scale if you want the road in front of your business not only repaired but turned into a highway, for the benefit of all the businesses on the road and to increase the tax base of the city by greater employment and thereby bestow the blessings of liberty on all mankind, well then you need a large group of like-minded citizens and a public platform to achieve these noble ends – somehow or another the fact that you will now put up a disproportionately small part of the capital for the improvements has gotten lost in the rhetoric. Before we have any record of his having joined the fray of electoral politics we find mention of Maurice Coffey in just such an endeavor. On July 30, 1871 the Galveston Daily News published a petition on page 2 addressed to John Sealy, Esq. Vice-President of the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad in which he is requested:
- We, the undersigned, feeling a deep interest in the future of Galveston, and believing that nothing would be so conducive to her immediate and permanent advantage as a general extension of her railway system, of which the road from here to Harrisburg, hence from Columbus to San Antonio, would form an integral part, do request you renew your application to the City Council that an election may be held at such time as may be deemed necessary, in order that the opinion of our fellow-citizens may be taken on this all important matter.
There follows three columns with two names on each line of each column of high-minded citizens who want “somebody” to improve their railroad [well actually the railroad that belonged to the then richest man in Texas] – not for their selfish interests but solely because they have a deep interest in the future of Galveston and it will be conducive to her immediate and permanent advantage. You may be certain that prior to the issuance of the petition they held a meeting, formed committees, elected officers and appointed spokesmen – probably printed up badges and certificates and collected dues to defray the costs of publicity and a banquet at which self-congratulatory speeches could be given by those who shared the vision of the anointed. This is the petri dish of politics – Maurice Coffey signed that petition and for the next 30 years we will find his footprints and fingerprints across the body politic of Galveston.
One of Will Rogers most famous comments was, “I’m not a member of an organized political party – I’m a Democrat.”, and Maurice Coffey was a Democrat through and through not only because it was the only game in town – and it was – but out of a conviction that goes back to the principles of Jefferson and Jackson. He might have been very uncomfortable with most of the nonsense that the party tries to pass off as policy today but when it came to tactics he would have made Acorn blush. We have often heard that the reason most Irishmen become priests, policemen or politicians is a deep-seated need to meddle in other people’s business. Maurice Coffey, and his brother Matthew, had that itch and this week’s post will recount, again with the help of the Galveston Daily News, how they spent a lifetime scratching it.
Our first political encounter starts with a story in the Galveston Daily News dated February 3, 1876. Under Headlines including, Meeting of the Young Men’s Democratic Club at Trube Hall Last Night, During Which Four Chairmen Preside and Resolutions and Spicy Dialogues we are treated to the following facts:
- Mr J. Knox took the chair… stating that he did so by virtue of his office of First Vice-President in the absence of the President… to get the expression of the club upon the late nominations of the Democratic Convention, as there had been dissatisfaction shown in the ranks.
- On motion of Maurice Coffey, the club decided to go into permanent organization, and nominations for President were declared in order… Maurice Coffey nominated Noah Green… Green was declared elected, his side preponderating in numbers… Green took the chair… and desired to see harmony in the Democratic party.
- The was a motion to adjourn AFTER a resolution was read outlining the controversy that there had been a previous meeting held on January 19th that had agreed on a plan for nominating Democratic candidates for county and precinct offices in the coming general elections, that the plan had been legally agreed and adopted, and that any other candidates now nominated were not entitled to any and all claims on Democratic voters.
- Maurice Coffey moved that the chair appoint a committee of three from the club to confer with like committees from other clubs in regard to making new nominations for county officers.
- Mr. Jones here asked in a very decided manner if the young men’s club had been called to take part in some movement back of which there was money. He wanted to know if the club had been sold out and if the officers of the club had been conniving or would connive at any underhand piece of strategy that had been brought about for pecuniary considerations?… He called upon the President to Vacate the chair…
- Noah Green mounted his chair and said he had no object but to serve the Democratic party. He would support the nominees of the convention and calling upon Dr. Finn to preside , he vacated the chair very abruptly.
- Maurice Coffey moved to adjourn and Dr. Finn was called on for a speech… he understood the meeting to have been called to make nominations for Justice and Constable and that alone… Motion to adjourn carried amidst confusion, laughing, motions, shouts and murmurs.
- Calls were made to proceed to business again… the noise became so great that no motion among the many made could be heard, though some angry threats were made aloud and the secretary, who had left his seat, refused to take it again.
- Pat Hickey – What is this meeting for? I declare it to be illegal, informal and out-of-order. I am the president of this club and yet know not why the meeting was called… this looks like a put up job. I don’t scare and I’m not afraid to say what I think.
- W. J. Houlihan said the meeting was authorized by J. Knox, Tom Moore and Maurice Coffey – the vice presidents.
- Maurice Coffey – I repudiate that. I knew nothing about it!
- Among those present were Wright Cuney, John DeBruhl and George Nichols, Republicans , who seemed particularly interested in the proceedings.
We tend to think of the great issues of pitch and moment as decided on by party platform committees whose job it is to reduce philosophy to action. In reality it is the grass-roots organizations – the stalwarts who endure endless meetings – who decide who gets what at a local level and precinct by precinct, county-by-county and state by state push the levers of power – each precinct’s movement almost imperceptible but in sum an irresistible force steering the party – and it doesn’t necessarily start in the party. One of the first indications of Maurice Coffey as a political force came with his involvement in the Workingmen’s Association. In the August 12, 1875 edition of the Galveston Daily News we find under the headline, A Solution to the Labor Problem, the following details of Coffey’s early efforts to join the political milieu:
- There was a meeting held in Kimley’s Market at the corner of Avenue K and 27th Street for the purpose of reorganizing the Workingmen’s Association.
- We the undersigned, as a committee, were appointed to wait on your Honor the Mayor to take immediate steps to procure employment for the workingmen that are now idle and in very poor circumstances… Dr. J. Finn, Mr. John Robertson, Mr. John B. Moore, Mr. Maurice Coffee and Mr. George Donahoe
- The Mayor wrote the Director of Public Works… Anticipating a visit from this committee, at an early hour this morning I make haste to inform myself as to the possibility of giving those gentlemen some relief… If you can give work on the street to only three I would suggest M. A. Davey, Dr. J. Finn and John Robertson as they appear to be the representatives of the “Workingmen’s” Association… and should it be possible for you to give the use of the shovel to two others, I would respectfully suggest the names of Maurice Coffey and Daniel F. Morton, as they appear to have been mainly instrumental in organizing the “Workingmen’s” Association…
- The Mayor received a response from the Street Superintendent… I have the honor to state in reply of your communication of this date that at present I am working as many men as there is immediate employment for… Yet should the City Council authorize it, in view of the necessity of the case, and in deference of the expressed wish of the applicants I will provide places for the five working men named in your note… They can report to Mr. Hussey, corner of Market and 19th streets, tomorrow morning at 7:00 o’clock.
Talk about shovel ready but as in most cases of political organizers there is no evidence to suggest that any of them ever turned a spadeful of dirt – at least not in the building or upkeep of a roadway. Probably no school of public administration would admit the validity of the example – just as no business school seriously discusses the revolving door between government and business – but here is as simple a case of the mechanisms of democracy at work as you are liable to find.
A committee organizes to help a worthwhile group – and one that can be counted on to vote as they’re told – and presents seemingly legitimate aspirations to an officeholder. The officeholder forwards the group’s request to a bureaucrat who both manages both to avoid taking a decision on the request and to give the officeholder cover at the same time. The officeholder can then revert to the committee having either arranged to meet some part of the group’s need or at least having demonstrated an effort to meet their need. The members of the committee, the officeholder and the bureaucrat can all claim that they have taken action on behalf of the group even if not a single job was created. If we were cynics we would end the post here and say, along with Mencken, that “Democracy is that theory of government that says that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it – good and hard!”. Fortunately we enjoy that peculiar strain of American optimism that allows us to continue the narrative.
The Coffey’s interest in jobs was not solely altruistic. At various points in time they were both saloon keepers, boarding house operators, labor contractors and for a considerable period of time Maurice was the president of the Lone Star Athletic Club which had a membership of 30 and met the 24th of each month [except if that was a Sunday they met the following day – they may have had larceny in their souls but they were good Catholics after all and would not miss Mass]. Although the group’s name may have been innocuous, if not vaguely patriotic, it was a political action committee of foot soldiers making sure that the spoils were divided among the supporters and that opponents were watched and disrupted at every opportunity. There was no welfare in the modern sense and anyone who suggested that people should be paid for not working would have been tarred, feathered and ridden out-of-town on a rail. The only form of “welfare” available was a job and the Coffey’s needed jobs so that bar bills and lodging bills could be paid timely and so that members of the “club” could be supported and go about their work as ward healers and sidewalk inspectors and provide the daily intelligence reports necessary to keep the political machine working.
Nor were the conditions of working always as free as living in a democracy might suggest. The Galveston Daily News of November 5, 1892 reports under a headline of Didn’t Shout for Hogg – Why Allen’s Team Didn’t Work the Road exactly how tightly patronage could be controlled.
- The publication, in the News of Thursday of the defiant declaration of Mr. Maurice Coffey, superintendent of the county roads, that “none but Hogg men” need apply to him for work on the roads, has furnished a, topic of widespread discussion not only in Galveston but in neighboring cities. It is, of course, in line with the Hogg program of intolerance and tyranny, but the unblushing acknowledgment of such practice by one of the leading local workers in the governor’s interest has caused the public to wonder to what length Hogg’s friends will go in their mad efforts to fasten him again upon the people as their chief executive.
The complaint comes from a Mr. W. T. Allen who had lived in the precinct since 1865 and, “who is known and respected as an industrious and worthy citizen by the entire community” and who only wanted, “work and asked for it as a taxpayer. I pay over $17 taxes and asked them to at least let me work until I could make my taxes but I was refused, while men who never pay a dollar, not even poll tax, are given work because they vote as the boss wants them.”
By way of background James Stephen Hogg was the first native Texan governor and had been elected in 1890, to the delight of his twin daughters Ima and Ura, and served two terms from 1891-1895. No Texas Democrat of the 19th century could ever be accused of being a “liberal”, certainly not in its modern connotation, but Hogg was a progressive. He had fought the railroads, had bested robber baron Jay Gould, made the land grant companies actually sell their holdings to settlers and limited the amount of bonds counties and cities could sell. In combination with his having written only the second state anti-trust law while attorney general prior to being governor he must have seemed like a frothing at the mouth Jacobite to the establishment. High on the list of those who hated him was Alfred Horatio Belo, the publisher of the Galveston Daily News, who had been a Confederate officer whose company had served with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in every battle from Manassas to Appomattox – thus the less than charitable description of Hogg in the News article.
Not even the most adroit politician can avoid every setback and with enemies in high places – at least local high places – Maurice Coffey suffered the consequences as reported under the headline, Superintendent Coffey Suspended
- The county commissioners’ court met yesterday, present Judge Lockhart and Commissioners Butler and Reifel. Commissioner Reifel [an otherwise ally which says something about the value of politicians as friends] moved that the following resolutions be passed:
- Whereas, Superintendent Coffey has made certain statements which were published in The Galveston Daily News and, Whereas, the making of such statements by said Coffey, are not consistent with the views of the commissioners’ court, be it Resolved, that said Superintendent Coffey is hereby suspended until the next meeting of said court, and that all work on the county road be stopped and the clerk be instructed to notify said Coffey to turn over all the property in his hands belonging to the county to Mr. Perkins.
- Commissioners Reifell and Butler voted in favor of the resolution and it was adopted. The court then adjourned, subject to call.
It speaks volumes to the conditions and courage of the politicians involved that Coffey was merely suspended until after the election and the clerk must have been foursquare and steadfast as well since Coffey got the news from a reporter rather than through “official channels”. Judge Lockhart’s comments are reported and run six full paragraphs, including an entire history of the road project, before concluding:
- These men, I understand, are all citizens of Galveston and have a right to vote for whomsoever they please, and from my association with workingmen I am led to the positive conclusion that they will not surrender the valuable privilege of voting as they think best for a day’s labor. Through their associations and unions they have been educated to place a higher value of the franchise of an American citizen, and to cast their ballots according to the dictates of their conscience and judgement and not according to the direction of any taskmaster or employer whatsoever.
With rhetoric like that it is surprising the courthouse didn’t waft away in a miasma of hot air and platitudes. Hogg won a second term and even the Galveston Daily News moderated its tone reporting on January 26, 1893 that, “The San Antonio Express wants Governor Hogg to make Maurice Coffey chief of the state labor bureau that is to be. Well, why not? Coffey’s friendship for Hogg cost him a good position in Galveston.” If you want to know exactly how small the island was Coffey’s daughter was an aunt of one of the wives of one of the sons of one of the editors – the wife being a daughter of John Young and a sister of Edythe. Coffey did not get the job – probably didn’t want to leave his saloon – his daughter’s husband got the job instead.
There are stories that in James Michael Curley’s Boston favored street contractors were paid for both sides of a brick laid – maybe that was why his ten terms in office were interrupted by two terms in prison – and it was probably fortunate for the brothers Coffey that Galveston’s roads were built using shell. The reporting of our story starts on October 8, 1884 under a headline labeled innocently enough, The City Council – The Pavement Question Deferred, in which we find:
- The committee on claims and accounts returned the bills of Matt Coffey and F. W. Hendricks for shell furnished the citv the former for $2,010.04, the latter for $64.37 recommending that the bill of Coffey be not allowed as the price charged for the shell was excessive and they had been bought with out the proper authority. The committee also recommended that $100 be appropriated for remeasuring the 1000 barrels of shell said to have been placed on the Strand in the Second Ward.
The story goes on to relate that Coffey was charging the city 12.5 cents when the city had last paid 10 cents and then relates that the city had been charged for 3, 510 barrels when the wharf company had received wharfage for only 1405 barrels and, “the air was full of rumor of rottenness and corruption.” And the argument continued over who had stolen what from whom and who was competent to say so and how much they should be paid to say so and finally – in that great democratic tradition – “The motion was carried and the mayor suggested that he would appoint the committee at his leisure.”
Something of a reprieve was granted because of extensive debate about the bequest of George Ball and whether the school he had left the city was to be used exclusively for white students. The council resolved the issued by voting for a resolution accepting the communication from the heirs on the terms of the gift and tendering them the thanks of the city council for the liberal donations. Given that the vote was 9 to 2 along race lines and that when Edythe’s future husband graduated from the school in 1905 it was still all white we assume that issue was settled until 1954.
An even more volatile topic was the accusation of the rumor of bribery of two unnamed aldermen who had allegedly accepted $600 to help repeal the gambling ordinance. After protestations that the city council could not investigate every rumor of bribery lest it had time to do nothing else a resolution was passed to investigate and a committee was formed. After the council adjourned the mayor named the committee to investigate the shell controversy. The episode so far reminds me of Roger Kahn’s memoir of The Boys of Summer which he said was about baseball when it was a game – and writing about it was a sport.
On October 21, 1884 coverage of the controversy continues under the headline, City Council – An Exhaustive Report from the Shell Investigating Committee, in which we are treated to further “facts” from the case
- Dear Sir: In persuance of instructions received from your committee to take up and measure the shells placed on the Strand between Seventeenth and Fifteenth streets.. I beg to report that I – proceeded to take up and measure all now clam shells placed on the locality above… I beg further to report that the work was proceeded with under the supervision of one or more of your honorable committee… That great care was exercised in ascertaining definitely the new shell, and rather than be in error I exceeded in many places the exact limits of new shell… I feel the greatest possible favor has been shown the contractors… Edward Webster, Sworn Weigher
- His report states that he measured 400+ barrels of clam shells and 60+ barrels of reef shells as opposed to charged amounts of 577+ and 600+ barrels respectively.
- Subsequent to the reception of the report your committee addressed a note of invitation to each of the following parsons. Mat Coffey, F. W. Hendricks, L. Eldridge, overseer of streets and alleys, E. M. Hartrick, city- engineer requesting them to meet the committee and give the committee such information of the matters under investigation as they might be possessed of… each of them replied to the inquiries with no great reluctance but there was noted no particular desire to extend that full information due from public-officers to the people… .The so-called contractors stated that they bad no contract whatever with our city – that they had shell for sale, and sold it from their depots of supply to anybody… there was no agreement as to price nor quantity.
- Mr. Mitchell, the chairman of your committee on streets and alleys, said in an ordinary conversation that the city would want some shell soon, and very shortly after this conversation a man named Hoban presented himself, with shell tickets, and to him, on payment of these tickets to them for shell, one for each load, they sent the shell out on city drays… Mr. Coffey stated that Mr. Hoban gave him the ticket for shell as the drays were loaded at the wharf and he knew nothing further about it. The dray had the shell and he had the ticket – that, was all he knew about it…..
- From the overseer of streets your committee learned that Mr. Mitchell, the chairman of streets and alleys sent to him one Mr. Hoban and ordered him to put him on the citv roll his department… Mr. Mitchell instructed the overseer of streets to supply Mr. Hoban with tickets and send him down to the wharf to receive [shells] from the contractors…
- Your committee is of the opinion that your overseer of streets and alleys stood in fear of the chairman of the committee on streets and alloys, and believed himself at the time subject to his control, and was influenced by his fear to leave his duty to be performed unlawfully. The city engineer, from his high position of trust, seems to have been, at least for a time, under a like view of the power of the chairman and so conducted his office as to merit not his reproach or condemnation… Your committee attributes the prompt certification of accounts by the overseer of streets and the approval of the city engineer in the loose manner pursued to the fear naturally born under PATRONAGE… Your committee regret to state , from all they have been able to ascertain, that a very low standard of official integrity seems to prevail in the departments under investigation… Who the beneficiaries are your committee was unable to determine, nor did we press the inquiry to that end…
After the transaction of considerable business the council adjourned – a committee had been formed, an investigation conducted, scapegoats presented and failures lamented – all of the formal requirements of Democratic government had been satisfied. Finally on December 16, 1884 we have some kind of resolution again under a headline of the City Council, Quarterly Statement of the City’s Liabilities, “The committee on finance and revenue reported returning the claim of Matt Coffey for clam shells, with the report of the city attorney upon the same, which report in substance was that the city could not establish any defense in case of litigation, an the fact could not be controverted that the shells were delivered. The report was adopted…” We have found no record of anyone having been fired or prosecuted in this matter nor do we know of any officeholder having been defeated on the issue.
Not all of the reporting on Matthew is quite this dark. Amusingly enough we find in November of 1890 he had been named as a member of the grand jury – just the body that would investigate this type of indiscretion – and in August of 1893 we know he placed a want ad for a “good cook” for his saloon but our personal favorite comes from January of 1900 when he flew the only Boer flag to be found in Galveston. We doubt his sympathy for the Boers extended beyond a common dislike for the British but how many would go to that much trouble to thumb their noses at the Brits – ONLY an Irishman!
Nor was all of the political reporting quite so vitriolic. Richardson and Belo had public figures that they hated and could assign them to the pillory on their pages on a regular basis but one of the more amusing reports out of the Galveston Daily News is Dated September 11, 1894. Under the headline, WILL NOT NOMINATE – The Democratic Executive Committee Meets in Secret Session and So Decides, after spending six paragraphs describing whether or not the News reporter would be allowed to attend the deliberations – he was not – the paper then spends fifteen paragraphs discussing the minutiae of the meeting – including that Matt Coffey was now the member of the executive committee for the Third Ward. Apparently leaks were as commonplace then as they are today and a secret between two politicians is certainly a secret no more.