History of the Lakewood Democratic Club
The following commentary on Democratic Club history was prepared by Secretary Matt Kuhns for the September 26, 2019 meeting.
The story of this organization began nearly 100 years ago.
Before I go further than that, I have to pause here and acknowledge some uncertainty about details of how people actually organized, further back than we have living memory to consult. Veteran Lakewood Dems with whom I have spoken are very clear that Lakewood began the 1970s with four distinct ward clubs. By the middle of the decade, these merged, and those involved are proud of founding the Lakewood Democratic Club.
Without taking away the credit for that genuine reorganization, I have concluded that at least part of the decades beforehand was somewhat more complicated.
When researching newspaper archives, two broader discoveries emerged. One, the Democratic Club made it into news many times over the years. Two, news accounts often referred to “the Lakewood Democratic Club” as far back as the early 1930s.
I can’t pinpoint a precise anniversary, but I will put it this way: Lakewood Democrats were organizing locally by 1920. The obituary of James Novak credited James and his wife Mary with starting the Lakewood Democratic Club in the early 1920s. Another article suggests that their group was up and running in 1920, almost a full century ago.
Whether the club divided up at some point, or there’s some other origin of the four ward clubs which people have described, I do not know so far. A 1928 article refers to the Fourth Ward Democratic Club of Lakewood. But most other news mentions during the intervening decades just refer to the Lakewood Democratic Club. Maybe that was shorthand. Maybe the ward clubs had some kind of consortium like West Shore Democrats, at least for a while.
But just for practicality, I’m going to refer to the Lakewood Democratic Club like the news did—having let you know in advance that the picture from news archives isn’t 100% complete or consistent.
It is pretty clear that Lakewood Democrats were organizing locally, from 1920 onward, and that the results had more than one form. In addition to the mentions of ward clubs, a women’s auxiliary club also held meetings for a number of decades.
Women were also participating at the center of things, though. Notable early leaders among Lakewood’s Democrats included Alice Minarik, suffragist Bernice Pyke, as well as Grace Spalding, another early organizer and later a member of city council.
In 1931, the news described the first-ever picnic of Lakewood Democrats. The article quoted club president Neil McGill of Abbieshire, noting that “Though Lakewood used to be considered five to one Republican… McGill called attention to the fact that last year the Democratic candidate for governor carried Lakewood for the first time in history.”
In other words it was tough going for the early organizers. Bernice Pyke declared at the picnic that Lakewood “can and must elect a Democratic mayor.” But the article didn’t mention whether or not she was promising any specific deadline.
A couple of years after this came the interesting notice that the city’s “precinct committeemen” voted to nominate Ford Myers for mayor. The 1933 article also claimed that “His candidacy marks the beginning of an effort by Lakewood Democrats to unite their strength behind a candidate who can put the Democrats into Lakewood City Hall, held for more than a decade by Republicans.”
The next year saw a mention of the “Lakewood Woman’s Democratic Club” meeting at the YWCA which operated on Detroit. 1934 also included Senate candidate George White, with an evergreen quote if ever there was one, about Republicans: “They assail government dictatorship but their only purpose in that is to restore the dictatorship of financial pirates who wrecked the country when it was under Republican rule.”
The 1940s may have been a high point for Lakewood Democrats in some ways. How they were faring at the ballot box I am not certain, although given the national politics it was probably not bad. But articles refer to hundreds of people at Lakewood Democratic events. A pot-luck in 1947 planned for only—only—175 at most, had more than 300 people show up. A 1942 rally at the Masonic Temple, which was also a meeting space around this time, brought out 200 people. The American Legion Center, at Detroit and Warren, also played host to club events. News from 1940 described a rally there with “several hundred members” attending.
Lest we feel awful at the state of our decline, I want to suggest that this was probably around the heyday of the civic organization in the United States. The Elks Lodge, the Masons, the Odd Fellows were active in every town, and they also had membership which might as well be mythical compared with today’s.
From here let's skip through a few decades fairly fast. Mayor Celeste’s years in office after mid-century were probably another high point. In 1963, news described him addressing the “ward leaders of the Lakewood Democratic Club,” bringing us back to some indication of organization by ward. The next year, club leaders organized a kind of draft-Celeste campaign to change his mind about retiring. But it failed, and Democrats were back out of the mayor’s office for some while.
Despite this, great things were on the way. From here I’m going to borrow freely from Stan Austin, who has provided many recollections about the transformation of the club from what may have been more of a concept, into an organized campaign.“
It became increasingly clear,” he says, “that Lakewood Democrats were becoming increasingly important within the County and … an important resource for campaigns. However, the four small ward clubs just didn't cut it in terms of clout.” Particularly in comparison with Parma. “They,” Stan and others couldn’t help noticing, “had 9 wards but one Club and were a powerhouse within the Party.” Candidates liked “one stop shopping," also.
So around 1974, the active Democrats of Lakewood reorganized, and dispensed entirely with ward-based organizing in favor of one Lakewood Democratic Club.
Quoting Stan again, “We rented a headquarters on Detroit at Ethel and were able to staff phone banks and volunteer activities for the 1974 campaigns. Incidentally, we chose Thursday as a meeting day because this enabled our representatives in Columbus to speak to our meetings because they ended their week on Thursday and came home.”
The rest as they say is history.