On November 6, 1973, Abe Beame was elected mayor of New York, the first practicing Jew to become chief executive of the world’s most Jewish city. (In terms of Jewish law, Fiorello LaGuardia, whose mother was Jewish, was also a Jewish mayor, but “the Little Flower” himself was a practicing Episcopalian.) Became was an accountant by training who became mayor as his city faced its worst financial crisis ever, and by the end of his term, New York had gone from facing a deficit of $1.5 billion to enjoying a budget surplus of $200 million. Nevertheless, when he made his bid for re-election in 1977, he was defeated in the Democratic primary, coming in third place after Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo.
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Abraham David Beame was born on March 20, 1906, in London, England, a way station where his mother stopped to give birth before joining his father a few months later in the United States. Both his parents, Philip and Esther Birnbaum (they changed the name once they arrived in New York), were Jews from Warsaw, Poland, where Philip, a revolutionary socialist, had been wanted by the czarist police.
Beame grew up on the Lower East Side, where he attended Socialist party meetings with his father and he earned his accounting degree at City College. After working as a teacher and in his own accounting firm, he became involved in Democratic machine politics in New York: He worked as a precinct captain in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for years, while his wife, Mary, was treasurer of the Madison Democratic Club there.
After serving as city budget director and then as city comptroller, Beame ran for mayor for the first time in 1965, but was defeated by John Lindsay. Eight years later, it was Lindsay, then at the end of his second, disastrous term, whom Beame succeeded as New York’s 104th mayor.
Beame was hard-working, if colorless (he rarely took vacations, and when he did, it was at a rented house in Belle Harbor, Queens; each evening when he arrived home, he laid out his shirt and tie for the next day), but after the flamboyant Lindsay, he seemed to be just what New York City needed if it was to avoid going into default. But Beame was slow to take action, and though he began to make cuts here and there, he did confront head-on the city’s impending inability to meet its loan obligations. And when he did seek assistance, from loan markets, from the state government and most famously, from Washington, he was turned down. It was Beame’s 1975 request for a $1 billion federal loan, which President Gerald Ford initially refused, that led to the legendary Daily News headline of October 29 of that year: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
Eventually, and belatedly, Governor Hugh Carey got involved in the crisis, but in doing so, he bypassed the mayor. The state set up the Emergency Financial Control Board to oversee the city’s finances, and the Municipal Assistance Corporation to issue tenders for loans. And in November 1975, when the MAC organized a large loan package for New York, it was the same President Ford who provided $2.5 billion in loan guarantees.
Not only did Beame emerge from the crisis politically weakened, but less than two weeks before the 1977 Democratic mayoral primary, a report from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission suggested that the mayor and his comptroller had misled investors about the city’s situation in 1974 and 1975. Eventually, the SEC closed its inquiry without making any formal charges against anyone, but by then, Ed Koch was already mayor. (Gerald Ford also lost his bid for re-election, in 1976, and to the end of his life said that the Daily News headline had been incorrect and unfair.)
After his retirement, Beame served on a number of different corporate boards, and advised several banks. He also allowed himself to visit Hollywood -- Florida, that is -- as well as Israel. Abe Beame died in New York on February 10, 2001.