McClure left legacy among Republicans in Delaware County

Posted: June 20, 2004

During the 1960 presidential race, the campaign motorcade of Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon made an unscheduled detour to a Victorian mansion in Chester.

The procession slowed as it passed the house, and Nixon stood up and waved in salute to a frail man in a wheelchair on the front porch. The man waved back his blessing to Nixon, then vice president of the United States.

The man on the porch was John J. McClure, arguably the most powerful political figure in the history of Delaware County. Nixon understood that McClure, a longtime supporter, was also one of the most powerful Republican leaders in the entire state.

For 57 years, McClure was the undisputed boss of the Republican Party in the county. He was a state senator from 1928 to 1936 and a convicted felon for violating the Prohibition-era Volstead Act.

In February 1933, McClure and 95 others were indicted by a federal grand jury for bootlegging. Witnesses testified that sacks of liquor were unloaded at the Chester riverfront for distribution all along the East Coast under the political protection of McClure. Author Paul B. Beers, writing in his book Pennsylvania Politics, estimates that in an 11-year period McClure collected $3 million in payoffs.

McClure and 70 other defendants were found guilty. He received an 18-month sentence and was fined $10,000. But he never served a day or paid a cent. The Volstead Act was subsequently repealed and his conviction was set aside. But as a result of the scandal, McClure was defeated for reelection to his Senate seat in 1936.

John J. McClure was born in Chester in 1886. His father, William J., was a noted businessman and for 70 years a prominent leader of the GOP in Delaware County.

Upon his father's death in 1908, John at age 21 left Swarthmore College to look after his father's business and political interests. In the next few years he organized a construction company, became the president of an insurance firm, and the majority stockholder in a beverage company.

"McClure never went into politics to make money. It was power that interested him," said John M. McLarnon III, assistant professor of history at Millersville University and author of Ruling Suburbia: John J. McClure and the Republican Machine in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

The McClure political machine was built on favors given and favors repaid.

He was in complete control of all county and municipal jobs in Delaware County. And because he was able to produce a 50,000-vote countywide majority, he controlled state patronage within the county, according to Beers. McClure also had access to jobs in the private sector. Any company that did business with the county government was expected to add a few more workers to their payroll.

Beers notes that the politically involved Pew family supported McClure by making jobs available at their Sun Oil and Sun Ship businesses on the Delaware River. Political leaders from the African American community in Chester were also given jobs to ensure the black vote on Election Day.

In addition, if a local resident had difficulties with the police or courts, the McClure machine could fix it. And if an elderly person needed to be admitted to the county old-age home, the machine could pave the way.

For these favors the boss asked for their vote and perhaps a campaign contribution or time working at the polls.

McClure called his machine the "war board," and it functioned between 1920 and 1975, outliving him by 10 years. The board was a secret committee of about 13 to 15 political lieutenants that saw to it that McClure's policies and orders were carried out in the government of the county and 49 municipalities.

They met regularly at McClure's home to receive instructions, have favors granted, and problems identified. This was not a discussion group.

"John McClure was a political dictator who corrupted the democratic process," McLarnon said. The author concludes that things such as jobs, schools, parks, public transportation, trash removal, police and fire protection were more important to people of the county than democratic government. And by delivering on these items, the McClure machine gave the perception of good government in the county.

Tall, slim and well-tailored, McClure made few public appearances during his political career, maintaining a low profile and keeping his own counsel. He married three times and divorced twice. These unions produced five children.

During the last years of his life, he was in failing health and was housebound. As a result, state GOP meetings were held at his home.

At one of these last meetings, in 1962, William W. Scranton received McClure's crucial support for governor. Scranton went on to win the Republican nomination and the election.

John J. McClure had no hard-and-fast political ideology; he was only interested in winning elections. He died in 1965, but the county continues under Republican rule to this day.

Contact Joseph S. Kennedy at 610-313-8212 or Kennedj@phillynews.com.

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