Walter Burr Gongwer

From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland history.

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GONGWER, W. BURR (1873-28 Sept. 1948), Democratic party boss for 35 years, was born near Mansfield, Ohio, the son of Louis and Irena Gonger. He began as a journalist there before coming to Cleveland in 1899 as political reporter for the PLAIN DEALER. In 1900 he interviewed Democrat mayoral candidate TOM JOHNSON†. They became friends, and Mayor Johnson made Gongwer his secretary although Gongwer was a Republican. Johnson so inspired Gongwer that he turned Democrat and, as Johnson’s secretary for 8 years, Gongwer began gaining power as he was entrusted with party details, including patronage distribution.

Gongwer became deputy clerk of the Board of Elections in 1910 and chief clerk 2 years later. From 1915-21, he was collector of customs. With Johnson’s death, party leadership passed to NEWTON D. BAKER†, but he gradually relinquished party duties to Gongwer, his chief lieutenant, until Gongwer was practically party boss by 1915 although he didn’t become executive committee chairman until 1924. In the 1920s, when the Democrats were weak, Gongwer kept the party alive by implementing the “60-40 deal,” allowing Democrats a portion of jobs under the Republican-controlled, CITY MANAGER PLAN. In the early 1930s, Gongwer produce Democratic victories and ruled one of the strongest political organizations in Cleveland’s history. However, a 5-year internal debate between Gongwer, MARTIN SWEENEY†, and ROBT. BULKLEY† again debilitated the party. Gongwer lost his position to RAY MILLER† in 1940, retired from politics, and spent his remaining years in the insurance business he established in the 1920s.

Gongwer and his wife, Nona Cappeller, had a daughter, Dorothy. He died in Cleveland and was buried in Mansfield, Ohio.


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