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Brooklyn Congressman

"Let's get one thing straight.   You don't get a nickel out of us." - Joe Sharkey, Brooklyn county headquarters



Hugh became annoyed after receiving political mail from his district's leader, Francis E. Dorn, declaring that Nixon would beat Kennedy 3-1 in his congressional district.  Hugh believed Dorn was underestimating Kennedy and the more he thought about Dorn, the more he realized that the four-time Republican had not done much for his community.  A friend and Brooklyn Democrat, Al Hesterberg, suggested that Hugh run for Dorn's spot.  Hugh liked the idea and went to inquire about running.  He learned from Democratic leaders in Brooklyn that no other Democrat was actively seeking Dorn's position and that if he wanted to go ahead and make a fool of himself by running against the four-time elected Congressman he could go right ahead, without official financial support from the party.  But Hugh knew that he could get his wealthy brother Ed to fund him and he decided to take a chance and run in the 1960 congressional race against Dorn.

The year 1960 was also the year that another Irish Catholic Democrat was running for political office: John F. Kennedy for President.  It was during this time that a new style of Democratic liberalism, inspired by Kennedy, began sweeping the nation.  The one Democratic endorser Hugh did receive told him to focus on the issues but also to associate himself with Kennedy, whom he was already a fan of, and to rage a campaign that was full of vigor, enthusiam and appeal, which is what he did. 

In his debates with Dorn, Hugh talked about his time in the armed service, how he would advocate for the construction of affordable housing and secure federal aid for public and parochial schools.  In addition to debates, he would hit the neighborhood with his wife Helen and their children, renting fleets of colorful convertibles and riding around in them through the streets of his district.  Hugh would also take photographs of his little girls in red dresses, his boys in white shirts and blue blazers and turn the photos into congressional campaign postcards that were then sent out to all registered voters in his district. After receiving a symbolic donation of $500 from Kennedy, Hugh purchased a ton of single red roses that he and his family gave to passerbys outside of subway station shops with notes attached so people would know that Kennedy supported Hugh. 

Despite the fact that Hugh was Catholic, an angle his opponent played up, many people in the district found Hugh to be extremely likable and one whom they could relate to.  Protestants, Orthodox Jews and others came to love this unknown Brooklynite and respect him for his dedication to issues they cared about and as a family man and for his contribution to the war effort.  So perhaps it was not so surprising that Hugh pulled an upset and beat Dorn by over 1,000 votes.  He then moved his family to northern Viriginia and began his career in D.C., where he remained for six terms, despite the future gerrymandering of his district by the Republicans.



The last Congressional campaign postcard (1972)



While in Congress, Hugh went from being a political unknown to a respected member of the House.  He established close relations with a number of notable and influential Democratic and Republican Congressmen, like Speaker of the House John McCormick and John Fogarty, chair of the powerful Labor-Health, Education and Welfare subcommittee.  During his time in the House, Hugh devoted his efforts toward maintaining his campaign promises, such as helping his district gain more funds for schools.  He played a major role in the negotiations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which provided a substantial amount of funding to both public and parochial schools around the country.

Hugh's stature in the House continued to rise.  In 1970 he was assigned to the powerful and influential Ways and Means Committee and was first in line to be the new House whip.  However, the second man in line for the job, future Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, would get the job after Hugh withdrew his name for consideration.  He knew Helen had been growing discontent with his job in Congress, which sometimes forced him to be away from his family for long periods of time.  She and the children longed to return to New York and to have their entire family together under roof.  Helen thought he should go back to working for Ed or go back to practing law full time and was caught off-guard when her husband, after a friend convinced him that he was the logical Democratic candidate to go against Malcolm Wilson in NY's gubernatorial race, announced that he wanted to run for Governor of New York. Though she was surprised, Helen liked the idea, for if Hugh won the family would relocate to Albany, where her husband would run the state and trips to Washington would be few and far between.

Though Hugh himself had the urge to leave Washington as well so he could be his own boss and return to his home state, he did it more so for the wife and children he adored so much.


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