Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Milton Shapp was a successful entrepreneur and visionary cable television pioneer with the resources to run an independent campaign for governor regardless of whether or not his chosen party’s machine endorsed his candidacy. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-309

Milton Shapp was a successful entrepreneur and visionary cable television pioneer with the resources to run an independent campaign for governor regardless of whether or not his chosen party’s machine endorsed his candidacy.
Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-309

Pennsylvania and machine politics were synonymous for years, even into the 1960s when reformers and direct primaries thwarted old-style machine politics in other states. Political machines with their control over patronage and nominations had dominated Pennsylvania’s politics since the Civil War, but even the direct primary failed to usher in a new, more open system. That changed suddenly when an obscure businessman, Milton J. Shapp (1912–94), captured the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor. How Shapp beat the Democratic machine led by former governor David L. Lawrence (1889–1966) helps to explain how the political scene was changing.

Unlike most of his predecessors, Lawrence believed “the best politics is good government.” He welcomed participation of African Americans and women in the party, and he expected patronage employees to perform satisfactory work. But like his predecessors, Lawrence forged a political machine reliant upon hierarchy and discipline. Aspirants for elected and party offices were expected to wait their turn before being promoted, but for some their turn never came. Under his influence, the party organization exercised clout in statewide primaries, surmounting challenges to its endorsed candidates for governor in 1938 and 1954.

Bloody infighting in the 1938 contest prevented the Democrats from extending their control of the governorship for another term. In the primary, state attorney general Charles J. Margiotti, a candidate, unleashed charges of corruption within the administration of Democratic governor George H. Earle III, exacerbating the divisiveness. Not surprisingly, Lawrence preferred party consensus choices over contested primaries.

So Shapp received a cold shoulder from Lawrence in early 1966 when he told the former governor of his desire to run. Shapp recalled to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin that Lawrence insisted he had “no right” to run, because “no one should be able to run for governor who did not have years of experience in public office.” Yet Shapp proved his doubters wrong before.

David L. Lawrence, governor of Pennsylvania from 1959 to 1963 - here with his wife Alyce and President John F. Kennedy in 1962 - was the powerful Democratic machine boss when Shapp first ran for governor. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

David L. Lawrence, governor of Pennsylvania from 1959 to 1963 – here with his wife Alyce and President John F. Kennedy in 1962 – was the powerful Democratic machine boss when Shapp first ran for governor. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

Shapp countered that his $500 investment to establish Jerrold Electronics in 1948 gave rise to a successful cable TV business. (He would sell his interest in Jerrold for a reported $10 million in 1966 after winning the primary.) His interest in politics and public policy was sparked by his observation that other states were developing their economies while Pennsylvania was struggling with its reliance on basic industries. A 1959 visit to the Soviet Union further inspired Shapp, leading him to become active in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign.

After serving as vice-chair of the unsuccessful 1963 drive to reform the state’s constitution, Shapp made a brief attempt to obtain the 1964 U.S. Senate nomination, only to accede to the wishes of the party pros that he withdraw from the election in favor of the endorsed candidate, state Supreme Court justice Michael Musmanno (1897–1968). To Lawrence’s consternation, his onetime protege, Pennsylvania Secretary of Internal Affairs Genevieve Blatt (1913–96), refused to buckle in her bid for the nomination. Primary night showed Blatt narrowly edging out Musmanno. The Evening Bulletin writer John C. Calpin proclaimed the “tired” state party leadership “got a terrific black eye” from Blatt’s apparent win; however, Musmanno’s inability to accept defeat, resulting in a recount and legal challenges that summer, proved costly. Blatt lost the general election to Republican Hugh Scott by approximately 70,000 votes, while President Lyndon B. Johnson swept the state by more than 1.4 million votes. Shapp’s consultant, Joseph Napolitan (1929–2013), believed that had Shapp remained a candidate and waged an effort comparable to his 1966 effort, he likely would have won the primary and then defeated Scott.

Napolitan was a professional campaign consultant who had worked on the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign and later helped Democrat George McGovern become a U.S. senator. In his 1972 book, The Election Game, Napolitan wrote that he counseled Shapp to run in 1964 regardless of whomever the party professionals endorsed. After all, he insisted, Pennsylvania’s professional politicians would never accept an “independent” businessman. Shapp continued courting party leaders with receptions and meetings, and once he knew that former governor George M. Leader (1918–2013) would not run, Shapp made clear his intent not only to run but to win the nomination regardless of the party’s endorsement.

Robert P. Casey was the candidate endorsed by the Democratic machine for the 1966 primary. The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Robert P. Casey was the candidate endorsed by the Democratic machine for the 1966 primary.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Back then, the state party’s policy committee, composed of influential Democrats, determined the endorsements. Seeking to make the endorsement process more democratic, the state committee held regional meetings in the early winter of 1966 to enable local party leaders and workers to assess the prospective candidates for governor. Shapp participated in the meetings; however, Philadelphia party chairman Frank Smith, and reportedly Lawrence, favored Leader, who repeatedly denied interest. Into the vacuum stepped first-term state senator Robert P. Casey (1932–2000), only 34, who like Shapp and reform liberal Philip P. Kalodner received a cold shoulder from Lawrence. He challenged Casey’s relative lack of experience and, although Catholic himself, expressed concern about the willingness of Pennsylvania’s Protestant voters to support the Catholic Casey.

Undeterred, Casey won support from smaller county leaders, creating a bandwagon effect so that even Smith and Lawrence fell in line by the time the policy committee met on February 14. Shapp, a member of the policy committee, offered a resolution favoring an open primary. His proposal was soundly rejected. Shapp left the meeting to reiterate he was running even though Casey and Sen. Joseph S. Clark Jr. (1901–90), a leader of the state’s reform forces, insisted the process was democratic.

Casey’s fast-moving campaign slowed in the following weeks as he struggled to balance his senate duties with assembling his primary campaign organization. Shapp, better funded and better organized, already had a state-of-the-art campaign headquarters and professional staff that led Evening Bulletin writer John G. McCullough to proclaim that Shapp’s effort likely surpassed those of previous Pennsylvania candidates challenging their party’s leadership. Shapp moved aggressively after the endorsement, challenging Casey to televised debates, which the senator refused to accept. Nonetheless, Shapp’s own mid-April polling showed him trailing Casey by 6 to 29 percent.

Even Napolitan conceded that his client lacked strong name recognition, a commanding presence, strong public speaking skills, and a strong geographic base. But he understood how well-produced television advertising could enable Shapp to surmount those shortcomings even though many Pennsylvania politicians expressed doubt.

Pennsylvania politicians started using television advertising in their statewide campaigns in the 1950s, but many viewed this approach to be little more than a broadcast speech. Edward F. Cooke and Edward G. Janosik in their 1965 book Pennsylvania Politics insisted, “Radio and television enable the candidate to present himself and his message to more of the people, but neither medium can marshal voters and lead them to the polls. This can be accomplished only by a large and efficient organization.” The authors meant party organization, as the statement appeared in the chapter “Maintaining Party Organization.”

Undeterred, Napolitan planned an advertising “blitz,” which he hoped would catch the organization sleeping. It would far surpass previous efforts in Pennsylvania primaries. Noted television documentary producer Charles Guggenheim (1924–2002) was recruited to produce commercials and a half-hour film. Previously, Guggenheim produced films for senators McGovern and Robert F. Kennedy and worked with his colleague Shelby Storck (1916–69) on documentaries, including the 1965 Oscar winner for Best Documentary Short, Nine from Little Rock, about the famed school integration case.

By the mid-1960s, Guggenheim employed the technique of cinéma vérité, using selective edits of film footage that featured the candidate interacting with voters and talking to an off-screen interviewer to fashion commercials and films. Showing candidates close-up helped to illuminate their philosophies and beliefs. Viewers could even come to like a less articulate, less physically attractive candidate. During the winter and early spring, a Guggenheim film crew followed Shapp around the state.

Shapp’s first shot came in late April when Democrats started receiving mailers introducing him as the candidate possessing better qualifications for governor than the “Machine Choice,” who lacked significant managerial and business experience. Shapp’s newspaper advertising and radio and TV commercials started running in early May, but Napolitan credited the half-hour film The Man Against The Machine as the Shapp campaign’s most important communications weapon.

 

One of Shapp’s earliest brochures included this photograph with the caption “Three of Pennsylvania’s top Democrats.” Pennsylvania Secretary of Internal Affairs Genevieve Blatt is to the left and U.S. Senator Joseph S. Clark Jr. is to the right. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-309

One of Shapp’s earliest brochures included this photograph with the caption “Three of Pennsylvania’s top Democrats.” Pennsylvania Secretary of Internal Affairs Genevieve Blatt is to the left and U.S. Senator Joseph S. Clark Jr. is to the right. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-309

The film aired 35 times on Pennsylvania television stations in the 10 days before the May 17 primary. Newspaper advertising promoted it, and those viewers tuning in saw Shapp presented as a fighting underdog with the state’s political bosses serving as a useful foil. Viewers learned about Shapp’s public-spiritedness and how his inner drive enabled him to succeed in business.

The film opens showing a statue of Boies Penrose (1860–1921), the political boss and U.S. senator whose machine dominated Pennsylvania during the first two decades of the 20th century, as the narrator recalls his maxim: “Politics is a profession.” Then, politicians are shown being cleared to enter a room. Viewers learn that it is the state committee’s closed-door endorsement meeting and that it is for “members only.” Shapp is then heard offering his resolution for an open primary.

Soon, the narrator explains that Shapp, in “manner, speech and ideas,” differs from the traditional, up-the-political-ladder politician. Shapp’s coming-of-age during the Great Depression, his entry into business, and his military service are recounted. His own time spent as a soldier in a freed Nazi concentration camp left Shapp determined to fight bigotry. The film then covers Shapp’s philanthropic activities, his sponsorship of in-depth studies on the state’s economy, and his company’s open hiring policy. Even an excerpt from a radio interview in which Senator Clark, a Casey supporter, credits Shapp’s knowledge of the state’s economy is heard.

Shapp’s effort to persuade 1960 Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy to highlight the Peace Corps during the campaign concludes the film. The narrator proclaims that the corps of Americans helping the Third World represented the best of America, “bold and generous, reaching beyond the tired forms of the past.” Shapp’s desire to offer that same kind of leadership for Pennsylvania inspired him to seek the nomination for governor. “The choice is in your hands.”

Casey, cash-strapped compared to Shapp, still expressed confidence in the closing days that his campaign would withstand Shapp’s blitz. But when the return came in, Casey lost to Shapp by approximately 50,000 votes, a stunning upset that drew national attention.

The title of the television documentary and this 1966 primary brochure heralded Shapp as “The Man Against the Machine.” Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-309

The title of the television documentary and this 1966 primary brochure heralded Shapp as “The Man Against the Machine.”
Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-309

A postelection article appeared in Life magazine, heralding his upset and highlighting the role that Napolitan played. National Observer political reporter James M. Perry chose this primary to include in his 1968 book The New Politics, which examined how modern communications techniques were displacing the traditional forms of electioneering. He credited Shapp’s primary campaign with providing “to date, the most striking demonstration of what the new technocracy can do when pitted against an unalloyed old-style political organization.”

Shapp’s heavy campaign spending and promises became issues in the general election. (Scott attacked Shapp’s claim on the Peace Corps, but Robert Kennedy confirmed Shapp’s account in a television spot.) Nonetheless, Shapp lost in a bad Democratic year nationally. But four years later, he returned to beat Casey again in the primary for governor and went on to win the general election. Better known by 1970, he did not retain Napolitan and in his unpublished autobiography took exception to the Life magazine article, which he insisted downplayed the efforts of his own press secretary, his own fledgling organization, and the assistance from labor unions.

Nonetheless, Shapp’s primary upset rewrote the rules on how to win nominations for statewide offices. Making skillful use of television advertising, other new communications techniques, and survey research were certainly part of the changes. But increasingly, candidates would no longer wait for the boss and the organization for the go-ahead to run, relying instead on their own hard work, consultants, and personal organizations. Journalist Alan Ehrenhalt, in his 1990 book The United States of Ambition, asserted that today’s candidates need to be “entrepreneurial” in seeking public office and cannot depend on the traditional party organization to run their campaigns and turn out their vote. That certainly holds true for contemporary Pennsylvania politics, despite the state’s heritage of domination by political machines.

The proof? Even Shapp’s great rival, Bob Casey, a three-time loser for the nomination for governor, acknowledged the effectiveness of the new methods in politics that Shapp’s effort demonstrated. Still faithful to the party, Casey received the Democrats’ endorsement in 1986, but this time he assembled a crack management team that included manager James Carville and media consultant Bob Shrum, who crafted a campaign to tell voters at a time the state was economically hurting that “Bob Casey is coming back, and so is Pennsylvania.” This time Casey won.

 

Steve Lilienthal lives in Washington, DC. He formerly wrote for The Free Congress Foundation Political Report, The Rothenberg Political Report, and PRWeek. He also authored a column in Roll Call that examined political advertising.