Home>Congress>Trump names GOP donor as postmaster general. Could that mean the return of local postmasters as congressional picks?

Postmaster General James A. Farley is shown sitting with some of the hundreds of thousands of letters mailed during National Air Mail Week in 1938. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Trump names GOP donor as postmaster general. Could that mean the return of local postmasters as congressional picks?

Post offices were political patronage picks for over 150 years

By David Wildstein, May 08 2020 1:50 pm

President Donald Trump named a top Republican contributor as the new Postmaster General, returning the post to a political appointee for the first time in 48 years.

Post offices were once the ultimate patronage pits for political organizations, some of whom enjoyed the large amounts of cash transactions involved.

Until 1971, local postmasters were political appointees who often got their jobs as patronage for Members of Congress.  Postmasters of large post offices were named by the President, with U.S. Senate confirmation; the Postmaster General appointed postmasters of smaller post officers after receiving recommendations from local congressmen or influential members of the president’s political parties, like county chairs.

Sometimes the job went to politically adept career postal workers who built relationships with local politicians.  Over time, the job transitioned from pure political appointments to people who had post office experience.

There is no indication that Trump plans to return to the old system, but his appointment of North Carolina businessman Louis DeJoy, who has contributed more than $2 million to GOP campaigns over the last four year, flips control of the post from career postal employees back to the political arena.

The Postmaster General post was a political appointment from the presidencies of George Washington to Richard Nixon.  From 1829 to 1972, the Postmaster General was a member of the president’s cabinet.

Trump has been a harsh critic of the U.S. Postal Service, calling the agency “a joke” and refusing requests for a $75 billion bailout with out an increase in postal rates.

Local Postmasters

When the Ramsey postmaster job opened up in 1957, Rep. William Widnall (R-Saddle River) asked President Dwight Eisenhower to appoint John Roosa, a community leader active in local politics.

After Roosa retired ten years later, Widnall wanted to give the job to another Republican, Fred Warren.  But with Democrat Lyndon Johnson in the White House, Democratic U.S. Senator Harrison Williams decided to make the appointment.

That same year, Rep. Henry Helstoski (D-East Rutherford) picked Robert Nieradka as the East Paterson (now Elmwood Park) postmaster after a vote of the local Democratic county committee.

Nieradka and another Democrat, John Mezian, both screened for postmaster.  The county committee voted and Nieradka won.  Democratic Municipal Chairman Sal Spinato then needed to get sign off from Bergen County Democratic Chairman Anthony Andorra before Helstoski made his recommendation to the White House.

Postmasters were frequently allowed to squat in most cases, rather than switch them out as consequences of national elections.

Republicans had pushed for the creation of a single Edison Post Office in the 1950s to replace what had been 11 separate post offices throughout the municipality.  That allowed Edison’s congressman, Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen (R-Harding), to name the new postmaster – a move that upset Mayor Anthony Yelencsics, whose local Democratic organization still controlled the smaller post offices from the 20 years that Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman occupied the White House.

In New Jersey, local postmaster was a relatively easy and lucrative position.

Democrat William Fiedler, a former assemblyman and Newark mayor, was appointed Newark postmaster by President Grover Cleveland after losing re-election to his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Republican John Blair was one of the wealthiest men in the nation, but he also spent more than 25 years as the politically-appointed postmaster in Blairstown.  He was also the unsuccessful Republican nominee for governor in 1868.

With the loss of postmasters and congressional pages, House members are now limited to a small staff and military academy appointments.

Postmaster Generals were party leaders

The Postmaster General post was a political appointment from the presidencies of George Washington to Richard Nixon.  From 1829 to 1972, the postmaster general was a member of the president’s cabinet.

The legendary James Farley served simultaneously as postmaster general and Democratic National Chairman during Roosevelt’s first two terms.  Truman’s postmaster general was Robert Hannegan, one of the top party bosses in St. Louis.  He was also DNC chairman while serving in the cabinet.   Under Dwight Eisenhower, the postmaster general was Arthur Summerfield, the Republican National Chairman.

John F. Kennedy named Edward Day, a former Illinois state insurance commissioner and ally of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, as postmaster general.  His replacement in 1963 was John Gronouski, a former Wisconsin commissioner of taxation who had unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1952.

In 1965, Johnson nominated Gronouski as the U.S. Ambassador to Poland and replaced him with Lawrence O’Brien, one of the national Democratic Party’s top political operatives.  Marvin Watson, who was Johnson’s White House Appointments Secretary and de facto Chief of Staff, was named Postmaster General in 1968.

Nixon’s postmaster general was Winton Blount, a GOP insider who left the post in 1972 to become the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama.

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