Eighty years ago a young Buffalonian was preparing to launch what was to become one of the most successful political careers in Western New York history. From the lowliest of beginnings he rose to the highest councils of government.
James Michael Mead was born on Dec. 27, 1885, in Mount Morris in Livingston County. His Irish immigrant parents lived in a crude hut next to the Lackawanna Railroad tracks. The baby's father was a section boss for the railroad and it supplied the housing.
When the boy was 5, the Meads moved to East Buffalo near the rail yards. The family was so poor that James had to go to work at age 12 as a railroad water boy. He was later a lamp lighter, section hand, shop mechanic and switchman and eventually was elected president of the Switchmen's Union.
On May 10, 1911, the tall, athletic young man arrived in Washington to become a U.S. Capitol policeman. As he listened to members of Congress debate on the House floor, he concluded that he could do better. He left the capital at the end of that year for Buffalo but told friends, "I'll be back here in a few years by the front door."
Two years later, he ran as Democrat for 11th Ward supervisor and won by seven votes. He married his childhood sweetheart, Alice M. Dillon of Buffalo. They had one child, James M. Mead Jr. Whenever he could, the father continued his education at night. For some years the family lived on Gold Street.
In 1915 Mead was elected to the New York State Assembly where he fought for labor legislation. In 1918 he was drafted to run for Congress in the old 42nd District. Again Mead won. He returned to Washington to fulfill the bold prediction he made eight years earlier.
Mead was elected to the House 10 times. He become chairman of the Post Office Committee. True to his origins and background, he championed the working men and women. He was a forceful orator and known as a very hard worker. It was said that he received and answered promptly more mail in a year than any other member of Congress. For a long time his staff consisted of one person.
Had he remained in the House, Jim Mead might well have risen to the top. The late John W. McCormack of Massachusetts recalled that the only reason he was put in line to become speaker was that Jim Mead, who outranked him, was "promoted" to another office.
In 1938, Sen. Royal S. Copeland of New York City died. In a special election, Rep. Mead was elected to the U.S. Senate. He is the only Democrat from Buffalo ever elected to that office. Mead was re-elected two years later to a full six-year term. He ran almost a half-million votes ahead of the Democratic candidate for president, former New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Long before President Lyndon B. Johnson's "war on poverty," Sen. Mead declared: "We should declare a war against poverty," ignorance, persecution, prejudice, inequality and exploitation.
When FDR tapped Sen. Harry S. Truman of Missouri to be his running mate in 1944, Mead succeeded Truman as chairman of the World War II Investigating Committee. The role took him around the world on inspection tours of the major war fronts and involved considerable hazard.
Under his leadership the watchdog panel weeded out waste, corruption and inefficiency in the massive war effort. It unearthed numerous scandals. The heat was on Sen. Mead from some of his fellow Democrats to go easy on the investigations. But he persisted. The probes resulted in Democratic Rep. Andrew J. May of Kentucky going to jail and Democratic Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi being denied his seat.
Headlines generated by the investigations, along with Mead's 17 straight victories at the polls, his reputation for integrity, hard work and as a friend of the working people, moved New York Democrats to draft Mead to run for governor in 1946. But he was up against the popular Gov. Thomas E. Dewey and suffered his first electoral defeat. Because he would have had to run again for the Senate that year to hold his seat, the 61-year-old lawmaker found himself out of office.
He served with distinction on the Federal Trade Commission as a member and chairman. He later recalled that at the FTC he was able to deliver "some more good licks for the little guy." He retired to his home in Buffalo after 40 years of public service. His last post was as a representative of the state government in Washington.
When Mead was leaving Washington for good, Lucian Warren, who later served as Buffalo News Washington Bureau chief, noted that Jim Mead "never became a millionaire." The people were good to Jim Mead, he wrote, but, most importantly, Mead never betrayed their trust.