Howard J. Samuels was an American statesman, industrialist, civil rights activist, and philanthropist. He was described by former Governor Mario Cuomo as ''a gentle, compassionate man who possessed a unique talent for bonding his own personal sense of humanity with an intelligent, practical view of business and government.”
Mr. Samuels was born in Rochester, New York December 3, 1919. After graduating from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, he enlisted in World War II serving with General George Patton’s Third Army. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel at the age of 25. He was present with the American troops that liberated the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald, an experience that he said made a lifelong impression on him.
After the war, Mr. Samuels founded with his brother, Richard, a plastics business, the Kordite Company. It developed and manufactured plastics for clotheslines, Baggies, and Hefty’s trash bags. The idea of using plastics for household products was drawn from his thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology entitled ''The Manufacturing and Distribution Problems of Vinyl Coated Sisal Rope as a Clothesline.'' The Kordite Company started in an abandoned schoolhouse in Victor, New York near Rochester, and eventually moved to a 2,000-worker facility in Macedon, New York. It was sold to the Mobil Corporation for $43 million in 1958.
Turing to politics in 1962, Mr. Samuels entered the race for the Democratic nomination for governor. Essentially unknown in the state, he lost to Robert M. Morgenthau at the state’s party convention, who went on to be defeated by Nelson A. Rockefeller in the general election.
An advocate for progressive politics and public policy, Mr. Samuels became a strong supporter of Zionist causes and the civil rights movement. In 1965, he marched in the civil right demonstrations in Selma, Alabama that were organized by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Also in 1965, he spearheaded the creation of the Citizens' Committee for an Effective Convention. The purpose of the Committee was to persuade voters to approve a constitutional convention to modernize and streamline New York State government. His son, Bill Samuels, continues his work today through EffectiveNY, a government watchdog group and public policy think tank.
Mr. Samuels gained statewide attention through the Committee’s activities leading to his securing the Democratic nomination to run for Lieutenant Governor on the 1966 statewide ticket headed by Frank O’ Connor of Queens. Mr. Samuels won the nomination even though many party leaders, including Senator Robert Kennedy, supported other candidates. In the 1966 general election, the O’Connor-Samuels ticket lost to Nelson A. Rockefeller and Malcolm Wilson. The referenda to hold a constructional convention was approved, although the proposals to reform state government put forth from the convention were subsequently turned down by the voters in 1967.
In 1967, Mr. Samuels was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be the Under Secretary of Commerce. One of his first initiatives was to launch the National Alliance of Businessmen as a means to encourage the employment of the hardcore unemployed. Commenting on his appointment, The Washington Post noted, “Samuels has cut an energetic swath through Washington bureaucracy since taking... [his post] only seven months ago.”
In 1968, President Johnson selected Mr. Samuels to be the Administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA). During his tenure at the agency, the Project OWN program was started to apply the principles of affirmative action to business creation. Referred to as compensatory capitalism by Mr. Samuels, the program gave preferences to minorities to obtain business loans. Widely supported by civil rights activists, the program increased loans to minority businesses by 400%. It withstood criticism by Democrats from the South, some members of President Johnson’s cabinet, and Republican senators who cited the program as racism in reverse.
With the end of the Johnson Administration, Mr. Samuels reclaimed his interest in politics. Mr. Samuels became the principal financial backer to numerous war marches against the Vietnam War, including John Kerry’s Veterans for Vietnam. In 1968, he took an unpopular position among his Democratic party backers by supporting the re-election of the liberal Republican John V. Lindsay in his successful bid for re-election as mayor of New York City.
In 1970, he challenged Arthur Goldberg, the Democratic designee for governor, but lost narrowly in the primary election.
In 1972, he was appointed by Mayor Lindsay as the first chair of New York City's Off-Track Betting (OTB) Corporation. With the OTB post he gained a nickname ''Howie the Horse,'' which was said to have been coined by a cab driver seeking Mr. Samuels's autograph outside the Algonquin Hotel.
As the OTB chair, Mr. Samuel expanded retail OTB outlets through the city while also proving how businesses and government can successfully bring dignity and sustainability to the so-called unemployable. Not only did he promote the hiring of African-Americans, Hispanics, and women at all levels, as well as to utilize minority contractors, he successfully staffed six OTB offices with methadone-maintenance patients, disabled Vietnam vets, and former prisoners from correctional institutions. He sought to demonstrate that entrenched discrimination against these groups made no sense.
In 1974, he made his last attempt to secure the Democratic nomination for the governor of New York. Although supported this time by the state’s party bosses, Mr. Samuels was overcome in the gubernatorial primary by Hugh L. Carey, who went on to win the general election and serve two terms as governor.
Mr. Samuels then became president of the North American Soccer League in 1982. With soccer barely known at the time in the United States, Mr. Samuels called for ''sound, long-term marketing'' to build the sport’s popularity. He was also a partner in the Alexander Proudfoot Company, a management consulting firm based in Chicago.
Mr. Samuels died on October 26, 1984 in Manhattan. He and his first wife, Barbara, had eight children. He and his second wife, Loulette, had two children.
As a business entrepreneur and promoter of professional government, Mr. Samuels sought to eradicate poor management and inefficiencies in political and governmental institutions, conflicts of interest, the corruptive power of money and special interest groups, discrimination, and political cronyism. Throughout his 30-year public and political career, he championed sweeping reforms in government administration, the political process, and state and national legislatures- reforms that were considered innovative and even radical by some, especially those in power. His ideas remain at the center of democratic and progressive agendas today.
Former Governor Malcolm Wilson, a Republican, called Mr. Samuels ''a highly principled gentleman with a well-developed civic and social conscience.'' ''He was a better man and a visionary than a politician,'' said a one-time top adviser, Ken Auletta. ''Howard's legacy to the Democratic Party was that, long before his time, he was talking about balanced budgets, productivity and labor-management cooperation - causes that liberal Democrats tended to think of as conservative.'' Former Mayor David M. Dinkins noted that “Howard cared about causes and people, all people, but particularly those less fortunate… Howard was deeply troubled about the racism tearing at the very fabric of our society.” At Mr. Samuels’ eulogy, a lifetime of courage and commitment was summed up by Senator Edward M. Kennedy with the following words: “Public service was ennobled by his presence… he reflected the best in ourselves.”
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