How a Local Bartender Stunned the Political World and Defeated The Corrupt “Sugar Senator”
In 1893, one of the greatest upsets in New York State electoral history occurred locally when a bartender defeated one of the most powerful men in Albany. I have written previously about the infamous local politician Patrick McCarren who obtained for North Brooklyn the park that bears his name, and the Williamsburg Bridge.
Now a forgotten character, State Senator McCarren, though effective in bringing home pork to North Brooklyn, was in his day one of the most breathtakingly corrupt politicians in the long history of corrupt New York politicians. One of the first corporate lobbyists in American history, McCarren was reviled for his shamelessness in helping Standard Oil and the Sugar Trust at the expense of the public good. The New York Press in 1904 summed up what many reformers thought of the senator: “We shrink from even the thought of what would happen to our national institutions and ideals if its Pat McCarren’s should succeed in cornering the nation at the ballot box.” Sadly, looking at politics today, McCarren seems a very contemporary figure; however McCarren, was defeated by a non-politician in an electoral shocker.
One of the questions that readers of my book on McCarren’s era, The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King, have asked me is how government did nothing either to help the workers or the millions of consumers who were abused by the local trusts. The answer is that big business bought politicians like McCarren who shamelessly protected their interests at the expense of the people.
McCarren, born a poor local boy, rose so far above his humble origins that no one, especially McCarren, could quite believe the position he obtained. Born in 1849, he began life as an apprentice cooper, making barrels for the booming sugar industry, which by 1870 was New York City’s largest industry. Ambition led him into the Democratic politics. At first, he ran against the party designee and was trounced, but the local machine saw McCarren had the makings of a future leader. They co-opted him, eventually asking him to run for a seat in the State Assembly. At the time, boss Hugh McLaughlin ran all of Brooklyn, becoming a millionaire on graft in the process. Elected to serve in Albany, quickly McCarren became one of the corrupt Boss’s trusted lieutenants, proving himself loyal in the extreme and an amazingly talented lawmaker who ensured that no laws interfered with the massive profits the local trusts were making.
McCarren was as intelligent as he was ambitious. He read for the law by himself and passed the bar. He became corporate counsel to the Sugar Trust and to Standard Oil and gave him huge amounts of money to buy votes on the local level, in Albany and even in Washington. When campaign time came, corporate money was spent liberally. Local bars bought free drinks in return for votes and local longshoreman were paid handsomely to make sure that McCarren opponents were physically intimidated. Supporters were rewarded with jobs provided by Brooklyn’s corrupt political machine. The police even threatened to arrest political opponents who handed out anti-McCarren flyers.
McLaughlin and the machine nominated McCarren to represent Williamsburg in the Senate. In 1886, he was elected and even though Democrats were in the minority, he got many bills signed into law. A master horse trader and dealmaker, no one—not even his enemies—denied that he was a master politician. An astute parliamentarian, he knew how to get opponents to support even the most politically unpopular bills, and the sugar trust money bought a lot of those votes. A man of his word, he was quite adept at crossing the aisles to make political alliances. McCarren excelled at supporting other people’s bills and collecting favors. He was totally cynical and once told Senator Foelker, a Brooklyn Republican: “You need not fear the indignation of your constituents. If you are afraid of possible re-election or have any doubts at election time, I can fix it up for you so that you can name your own opponent at the coming election.”
Then, the most amazing thing happened: McCarren was defeated in one of the most shocking results in New York state history. By 1893 disgust with the corrupt McLaughlin Ring that had put McCarren in power was growing. An October 1893 New York Times expose on the ring reported on the “shameful misrule” of Brooklyn and identified McCarren as one of the “real rulers” of Brooklyn who had acquired a fortune of $100,000, not by years of honest toil or by reputable business.” Even loyal Democrats grew disgusted.
Patrick McCarren, ignoring the popular outrage against his party, felt total confidence in his re-election. He was running for his third two-year term and the candidate who he had previously defeated, George Mason, decided not to run a third time. McCarren told his lieutenants to find a dummy candidate to run against him to make it appear as if the Republicans opposed his candidacy. McCarren’s lieutenants found a bartender named George Owens and asked him to run against the incumbent. At first, Owens refused because he had no money with which he could mount a campaign. McCarren’s aides told him that the senator would even pay his campaign expenses. Owens went to the Republican Committee of Williamsburg for funds to run his campaign, but they laughed at him and reminded him that he was running against the very popular McCarren and that he had no chance of winning. Owens grew so angry at the indifference of the Republicans that he tried to resign as their candidate, but he was told it was now too late for him to resign. The overconfident McCarren made some lukewarm campaign speeches, but he felt so assured of his re-election that he campaigned half-heartedly. Owens, however, campaigned his heart out and made speech after speech attacking McCarren and the ring. McCarren even allowed some of his supporters to vote for Owens to make it look like a close race.
Election day arrived and everybody, including the Republicans, predicted a McCarren victory. There was revulsion, even amongst Democrats at the excesses of the ring and many secretly voted in protest against McCarren.
Exhausted from campaigning, Owens went to bed early and did not even stay up to hear the election results, certain he had lost. Early in the morning his friends roused him with news of his victory. Owens was angry with them for waking him and said that he did not enjoy their prank. He told them, “ If you fellows had been working like me, you would not think it much of a joke to be roused up at this time of the morning and have a pack of idiots make a guy of you.” “Guy nothing,” they cried. “This ain’t a joke. You’re elected you damn fool. Get up you chucklehead. You are the State Senator elect.”
Sadly, Owens was not able to hold his seat. Two years later McCarren ran against him, calling in all his political favors and buying votes with sugar money. McCarren resumed his career as the corrupt sugar senator, but never took another election for granted.