Labor Hall of Fame Honoree (2006)
Alfred E. Smith
"All the ills of democracy can be
cured by more democracy."
Smith was born to Alfred Emanuel Smith and Catherine Mulvihill and initially grew up in the multiethnic Lower East Side of Manhattan, on Oliver Street, New York City. His four grandparents were Irish, German, Italian, and English, but Smith identified with the Irish Catholic community and became its leading spokesman in the 1920s. On May 6, 1900, Alfred Smith married Catherine A. Dunn, with whom he had five children.
Smith's first political job was as a clerk in the office of the Commissioner of Jurors in 1895. In 1903 he was elected to the New York State Assembly. He served as vice chairman of the commission appointed to investigate factory conditions after a hundred workers died in the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. Smith crusaded against dangerous and unhealthy workplace conditions and championed corrective legislation. In 1911 the Democrats obtained a majority of seats in the state Assembly, and Smith became chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. In 1912 he became the majority leader, and in 1913 he was elected as Speaker of the Assembly.
Smith was elected governor of New York in 1918. During his term, New York laws governing workers' compensation, women's pensions, and child and women's labor were strengthened with the help of Frances Perkins, soon to be FDR's Labor Secretary, and ahead of many states. After the 1928 election, he became the president of Empire State, Inc., the corporation which built and operated the Empire State Building.
He died on October 4, 1944, at the age of 70, broken-hearted over the death of his wife from cancer five months earlier; he is interred at Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York.