Meet Benjamin J. Davis, Jr.
Interest in meaningful and necessary electoral reform is growing rapidly throughout the US. Growing right along with it is popular awareness about the mid-20th century experience with proportional representation (PR) in many US cities. The narrative is as true as it is simple: introduced with promises of better government through voter empowerment and diverse representation, PR succeeded in its mission – whereupon, it fell victim to that very success. A backlash produced repeal after repeal of PR, but only after displaced political machines were able to whip up a toxic mix of cold war and racial fears in the late 1940s and1950s, as the civil rights movement gained momentum.
Less well-known is the individual saga of Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., who presented as an easy “twofer” target of this backlash: an African-American from Harlem, who was also a Communist, and served on the New York City Council from 1944 thru 1949. Those who connect racial justice with electoral justice, regardless of political perspective, should know Ben’s story.
Ben Davis was raised in Atlanta, GA, son of a prominent Republican black leader and newspaper publisher. He attended Amherst College in Massachusetts, then graduated Harvard Law School in 1929. Back in Georgia, radicalized by his legal defense of a young black communist charged with inciting “insurrection,” Davis himself joined the Communist Party. In 1935, he headed back up north, settling in Harlem.
When New York City first used PR in 1937, it instantly became the “crown jewel” in this burgeoning political reform movement in US cities. And almost as instantly, it took down the Tammany Hall machine, exactly as its many supporters had hoped and expected it would.
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. also of Harlem, was the first African-American ever elected to the New York City Council. There had been none – out of sixty-five district aldermen! – in the pre-PR Tammany elections. Powell was instead elected under PR, when there were, at most, a total of 26 City Councilors.
When Powell left the Council for Congress, Ben Davis was elected, and became part of what has been called “The Golden Age” of the New York City Council: “The [PR] system produced such formidable council members as Stanley Isaacs, the Republican who had served with distinction as Manhattan Borough President, Michael Quill, the future head of the local Transport Workers Union, and Benjamin Davis, the Communist Councilman from Harlem. The system institutionalized the representation of a wide number of political parties with differing viewpoints.”
Each borough held separate PR elections, selecting multiple City Councilors; the key to diverse representation under PR is the lower threshold for election in multi-member districts. In Davis’ elections in Manhattan, the required 75,000 votes represented about 18% of the total cast there.
No one would be surprised that there were some appreciable number of Communists and supporters in New York City in the 1940s, following a decade of recognized leadership in union, racial and social justice struggles in the US… and during a critical wartime alliance with the Soviet Union. During this time, Paul Robeson, as just one notable example, was much more beloved by Americans than reviled. On New York’s PR City Council, at the height of their influence and range, the Communist Party held 2 of the 26 available seats. (Pete Caccione of Bensonhurst, also a Communist Party member, won one of the Brooklyn PR seats.)
Similarly, no one would be surprised that African-Americans, with a strong base in Harlem, would have a political presence in 1940s Manhattan. But votes within minority communities, just as with minor political parties, don’t readily translate into representation under traditional winner-take-all election systems. The Harlem Citizens Committee supported PR for “…freeing Harlem from the ghetto system…. The electorate of Harlem…became part of the borough’s progressive electorate… If PR is repealed, there will not be a single Negro in the Council.”
The goal of PR was to hear from and represent the interests of the widest possible swath of New Yorkers. The principle of proportionality holds that, “In a democratic government, the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all.”
Ben Davis wasn’t elected just by black voters in Harlem; or by communists scattered throughout Manhattan; or by black communists in particular; or by lawyers, or by transplants from the South, or by any single group, for that matter – he was elected and re-elected by winning 75,000 votes out of 400,000 or so, from a wide-ranging group of people who preferred him over other possible candidates. Just as importantly, as is true in every PR election, there were Harlem voters who did not support Benjamin J. Davis, Jr. and voted for other candidates they preferred.
Under PR, voters vote for who they want, why they want, wherever they happen to live in the jurisdiction (in this case, Manhattan); if enough voters support a candidate more than they do others, they win a seat; if they don’t, that candidate loses. Because PR is a form of ranked choice voting, the candidate rankings on voters’ ballots also mean that if their first choice has either more than enough to win, or not enough, perhaps their second can make use of it. If not, then perhaps their third. In the end, almost all voters successfully elect a candidate of their choice.
Racist and Political Backlash
Remember how the tide turned so suddenly, when the “Golden Age” of the New York City Council fell under a crashing wave of red scare and racism? The repeal vote passed in November 1947, even as two early repeal attempts had failed. While still serving as a New York City Councilor, Benjamin J. Davis, Jr of Harlem was one of the first U.S. Communists charged and convicted under the Smith Act, 1949. Expelled from the Council, Davis then served three years, four months in federal prison.
Ben Davis, a persecuted and prosecuted African-American Communist City Councilor in New York City, reminds us that proportional representation is not “pro-” anything: not a particular party, nor any particular race, color or creed. PR is, however, pro-representation. PR lets the voters – as many of them as possible – choose who they want as their elected representative. Choose who they want to speak for them.
Councilor Benjamin J. Davis, Jr. should rest in peace. Proportional representation and the “Golden Age” New York City Council it produced, however, should be remembered, and reclaimed, by those who care about racial and electoral justice for all Americans.