April 2, 2013 - From the April, 2013 issue

Thomas Jefferson Plunkitt explains it all...

This is the second in a series of TPR exclusive interviews with TJ Plunkitt, a direct descendent of the infamous George Washington Plunkitt, the sachem of Tammany Hall, which was a wellspring of self-serving aggrandizement, self-perpetuation and graft in 20th-Century New York City. The young Plunkitt, who prefers being addressed as TJ, is in Los Angeles on a travel and study grant from the family’s Institute of Government Studies to substantiate his forefather’s thesis that political stagnation and a bloated bureaucracy is critical to the health of cities, and that most citizens don’t care anyway. The Institute was endowed by the elder Plunkitt, who died a millionaire thanks to several political appointments he held simultaneously and a generous pubic pension. The first interview with TJ Plunkitt is available on the TPR website

Sketch by Roman Genn

"Lending them comfort is the confidence they feel that their pensions and benefit packages are safe, because if legally challenged they will be protected by their brother and sister unionists and the courts. But they don’t think it will even come to that, especially after only 20.79 percent of the City’s 1.8 million “registered” voters turnout in the mayoral primary." -TJ Plunkitt

TPR first made the acquaintance of TJ in the LA Metro Cafeteria, which he felt that despite the poor quality of the food was a homey and fecund setting for his research. This month we found him seated and sated in the Department of Water and Power's cafeteria, in the bowels of the stolid John Ferraro Building on North Hope Street. We asked what he was doing there.

TJ: I’m trying to discern the mood among the DWP rank and file who have come under fire in the current mayoral election. Supposedly their pension plan is one of the city’s more egregious honey pots among several that are undermining municipal government. That is at least according to the city’s enfeebled do-gooders and other political poseurs scratching for issues to interest and energize voters. 

TPR: And what have you found?

TJ: Pure grist for my thesis, and proof of my forefather’s intuition. It is business as usual on Hope Street, all smiles and ‘nice-to-meet you’ here; and that the predominate bureaucracies such as theirs and Metro shall prevail. Lending them comfort is the confidence they feel that their pensions and benefit packages are safe, because if legally challenged they will be protected by their brother and sister unionists and the courts. But they don’t think it will even come to that, especially after only 20.79 percent of the City’s 1.8 million “registered” voters turnout in the mayoral primary. The public really obviously doesn’t care, especially if they are guaranteed a steady supply of water and electricity. GW could have predicted that, and without employing the sophisticated polling techniques of today. A lot good of it did the do-gooders, sitting behind their computer screens when they should have been pounding the streets and knocking on doors, just like GW and his “men” did back in the good old days.

TPR: The final turnout of registered voters in LA was admittedly pitiful, especially considering the number of eligible voters is almost a third more than the number of those who have registered to vote.

TJ: What did you expect from such a boring campaign. That is what you get from embracing charter reform and having a non-partisan election. Blended issues equal bland campaigns, which my great, great grandfather GW would probably observe is not all that bad, especially if your candidate doesn’t want to be held accountable by naïve policy nerds and tea-baggers, for past, present and maybe future actions. All this talk about pensions is dense and discursive. If the media doesn’t understand it, what about the voters. This is good. And GW would add, that elections are not necessarily about educating or informing the public. Getting elected is the goal.

TPR: But do Mayoral candidates really need, in our fragmented media world, to differentiate themselves on policy from their opponents; to point how they can make a difference, better deliver municipal services, identify and channel grievances, or at least better manage tax dollars?

TJ:  Well the primary certainly took care of any hope for that, eliminating the political minorities and reformers who might have made some dissident sounds, if only to call attention to their long shot candidacies. Now it is up to the lead candidates to actually keep the vote low, so they can concentrate on turning out their trusted voters. It’s right here in GW’s bible,  “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall,” in chapter 6, subtitled: Study Human Nature and Act Acordin’. I quote an interview with GW in which he declares: “You ain’t goin’ to gain any votes by stuffin’ the letter boxes with campaign documents. Like as not you’ll lose votes for there’s nothin’ a man hates more than to hear the letter carrier ring his bell and go to the letterbox expectin’ to find a letter he was lookin’ for, and find only a lot of printed politics."

TPR: Does that mean we can expect less mailbox stuffers, as well as press releases and true news stories?

TJ: Yes, except for a few echoes to keep the dwindling media hyenas and editorial writers at bay. But as GW said to his chroniclers, “People don’t want to be lectured to.” And if television existed back in his golden age, he also would have included that on his “no need for” list. Certainly it would save a lot of campaign money, which could be better used for offering political favors, or a negotiated paid holiday after the elections.


TPR: So what do you expect in the way of turnout?

TJ: It is back to the campaign well, to drop a bucket down and fish out, the tried and true minnows, the types GW embraced, the party faithful, the union worker, whomever will directly benefit from one particular candidate winning. The grand sachem couldn’t be more direct in being quoted in the Tammany Hall treatise that voters should be helped, “in the different ways they need help.” That includes collecting the garbage on time, sending a police car down someone’s block once in awhile, time bus service better, build a park bench, repair a school window, and get a job for someone, preferably who has a big family that can spread the good word about their benefactors largess and electioneering.

TPR: So what more do you think GW would suggest?

TJ: Simple. That someone like himself, adhering if you will to the principles of good graft, seeing the opportunities and taking advantage of them, be appointed to a position or positions where he or she could make things happen, and along the way, do favors for the faithful. In short a ward boss, like GW was, albeit in a modern mold.

TPR: But that is what our most recent charter reforms sought to eliminate.

TJ: Exactly. It is back to when things at least gave the illusion of working and doing so did not take decades of community meetings, academic conferences and business industry lunches orchestrated by overpaid consultants; back when a phone call or a handshake, and maybe the promise of a genial job sealed a deal. Indeed, I note that out of frustration with municipal inertia, and the election of neophytes, one of the city’s ostensibly liberal wag recently called for a ward boss.

TPR:  So, is it going to be back to the future for Los Angeles, back to a time when bosses ruled, as in New York?

TJ: Perhaps, back to when you could smoke in a bar, fix a ticket, buy a vote. Maybe even the Plunkitt Institute for Government Studies will open a branch office here, hire some aspiring scholar to front for me, and take in an intern or two.

Roman Genn TJ Plunkitt


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