Born into a tough working class family in New York City, Gerry Cassidy made his way to Villanova University and Cornell Law School, determined to leave his humble origins behind. Inspired by he idealism of the 1960s, he decided to sign up as a legal aid lawyer for migrant workers.
By Robert G. Kaiser
In 1967, Gerald S. J. Cassidy, then 27, and three other young lawyers opened the Fort Myers office of South Florida Migrant Legal Services in Lee County on the lower Gulf Coast. Immokalee, in Lee County, was in one of the poorest areas in America. Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow of CBS News used Immokalee as the setting for "Harvest of Shame," a 1960 documentary that brought the squalid living conditions of Florida's migrant workers into America's living rooms, challenging the country's image of itself.
This was fruit and vegetable country. The crops were tended and harvested by gangs of migrants -- either of black Americans or Mexicans. The two didn't mix. They lived in shacks, often denied basic services. Cassidy recalled Immokalee in an interview:
"It was really a dangerous place, in terms of violence and disease. It was just terribly poor ..... It was a lot like the coal-mining situation: The workers owed their life to the company store. They were always in debt to the crew boss, or to the farm account. They weren't welcome many places. Living conditions were terrible. They wanted them out as fast as they could get them out of town, once the harvest was finished."
South Florida Migrant Legal Services was funded by the new Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington, the agency created to wage Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. These young attorneys pioneered a kind of legal practice that later transformed the American legal system when the neighborhood legal services movement spread across the country.
Cassidy and his colleagues worked on scores of cases simultaneously. Many of them grew out of the conditions the migrants faced. "They really weren't welcome in the local schools, though they should have been," Cassidy remembered. "They couldn't get benefits that they were entitled to. ..... There was a federal feeding program, one of our lawsuits was to get them into that. Labor standards were not enforced, and we sued them about labor standards."
The four young lawyers handled disputes ranging from divorces to landlord-tenant disputes to a civil rights action seeking to desegregate a local nursing home to a 13th Amendment slavery case involving crew bosses who were dealing in black Mississippi migrant workers for $20 a head. This list was recalled by Mickey Kantor, one of Cassidy's three colleagues in Fort Myers, who went on to become U.S. trade representative and secretary of commerce in the Clinton administrations. Kantor is now a Washington lawyer.
Cassidy's other colleagues were Michael Foster, now a lawyer in private practice in Tampa, and William Dow, who practices as a white-collar defense lawyer in New Haven, Conn. All of them remember Cassidy as an aggressive and competent lawyer-sometimes too aggressive.
"Gerry was known for standing his ground," Foster said. "He wouldn't stand down for anybody. A couple of times [in court] I had to suggest that maybe we ought to convene in the corner for a minute before things got out of hand."
The Cassidys lived in a small rented house near the river in Fort Myers. "We socialized together, went to Busch Gardens together, stuff like that," Dow remembered. The locals treated them warily "because we were northerners, outsiders, when George Wallace was carrying the county," Dow said.
Cassidy was squarely built and strong. His wife, Loretta, had a radiant smile and thick black hair. She reminded some people of Sophia Loren-a smaller version. "They were fun-loving people," Diana Dow, William's wife, remembered.
Cassidy was moved by the plight of the migrants. He'd first been exposed to southern racial segregation in Dallas, where he lived with his sister and brother-in-law when he was a boy not yet 6. He asked his brother-in-law, "a wonderful person" named Ed Milkey who flew in the Air Force out of Love Field, why the black neighborhoods they drove through in Dallas looked so awful. "And he explained to me that this was just something that was wrong in our world, and that there was no reason for it, and it was something I should never engage in in any way," Cassidy recalled.
One of Cassidy's proudest moments in Florida was his victory in a damages case he brought on behalf of Pedro Gomez of McAllen, Tex. "He was a crew boss," Cassidy remembered, "but the crew were all his family." A Florida farmer provided housing for Gomez's workers that was in dreadful condition. When Gomez complained, the farmer had him forcibly evicted, injuring some workers and damaging their personal property. "It was my case," Cassidy said. He won a settlement from the farmer of $45,000, money Gomez took home to McAllen where he opened his own grocery store. That was a rare moment of real accomplishment. Mostly their work was frustrating: "Around the edges we were helpful to them, but I don't think we changed their situation."
In fact, the young lawyers indirectly made quite a contribution. While they were working in Lee and Collier counties the legendary Homer Bigart, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune and later the New York Times, came to their part of Florida to write about migrant workers. The lawyers showed him around and helped him see what was going on. Bigart published a vivid series of articles in The Times on the appalling conditions migrant workers endured nearly a decade after Murrow's "Harvest of Shame." The articles impressed a new panel in Washington, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by George McGovern (D-S.D.).
McGovern's staff had been looking for ways to get attention for the hunger issue. Bigart's series, which appeared in February 1969, led to the idea of holding hearings in Florida to publicize the plight of poorly-fed migrants. McGovern sent staff to Florida to prepare such a hearing.
Two men made the trip: Bill Smith, the staff director, and a brand-new member of the committee's staff named Kenneth Schlossberg, then 30. Schlossberg had come to Washington to work as a reporter for the Washington Daily News, a tabloid paper owned by the Scripps-Howard chain. (It died in 1972.) From there he had moved to the Office of Economic Opportunity. While at OEO he was offered a job on the new McGovern committee.
The young lawyers in the South Florida Migrant Legal Services program introduced Smith and Schlossberg to local conditions. One of them, Foster, agreed to testify himself on the many chronic health problems of the migrant workers' children, an issue the lawyers were pursuing. With the lawyers' help, Smith and Schlossberg found other witnesses for the hearings, which they designed to attract maximum possible attention from the news media. McGovern flew into Florida with a collection of prominent colleagues, including Sens. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), Walter F. Mondale (D-Minn.), Charles Percy (R-Ill.) and Alan J. Ellender (D-La.), an unpredictable southerner who later made hunger a personal priority and helped pass the first Food Stamp legislation in 1970. All the television networks covered the hearings. The Washington Post published two substantial stories, the New York Times one. (view the Washington Post articles: March 11, 1969 [pdf] March 12, 1969 [pdf]) Local and state officials reacted angrily to the senators' emphasis on the bad conditions in Immokalee, but it was all wonderful publicity for McGovern. The Immokalee hearings helped him become a national politician.
The young lawyers ushered the senators around Immokalee during their visit. By "the luck of the draw," Cassidy was assigned to McGovern. They got along well. Their conversations got Cassidy thinking about moving to Washington.
The idea of working on poverty, food stamps and such excited Cassidy, but only as a temporary undertaking. "I thought I'd do that for a couple of years then come back to Florida and get a real job." He called Bill Smith a few weeks after the Immokalee hearings to ask if there might be a place for him on the committee staff.
Schlossberg remembers that he liked the idea of hiring Cassidy. "We had so many things on our agenda.....food stamp legislation and the national school lunch program. ..... " McGovern remembers Schlossberg praising Cassidy as an unusually capable person. They all agreed to hire him. "We weren't quite sure where we would use him," McGovern recalled, "but I was just sure he could be used."
So in the summer of 1969, Gerry and Loretta Cassidy moved from their bungalow on the river in Fort Myers to a small apartment in Arlington, Va. It was an exciting time in Washington, with anti-war demonstrators regularly in the streets, and liberals still fighting to expand the anti-poverty campaign LBJ had launched. The new president, Richard Nixon, was unexpectedly sympathetic to these efforts.
Soon after Cassidy arrived Smith left the committee and McGovern made Schlossberg its staff director; Cassidy was named general counsel. Schlossberg and Cassidy became a team. Cassidy developed a specialty in the school lunch program, while Schlossberg devoted most of his time to food stamps.
In a brief period of time Cassidy found himself in the role of a real Washington player, cultivating senators and their staffs, working with the Catholic bishops on ways to include their schools in the school lunch program, making friends with the young Jesse Jackson. "I actually built a very nice relationship with Ellender," he remembered years later.
This was heady stuff. "It all happened so fast. I had never thought about coming to Washington, I wasn't particularly politically-minded, and all of a sudden ..... " He loved it.
Schlossberg and Cassidy spent more time together. Schlossberg particularly remembered a period of weeks at the end of 1969 during prolonged deliberations on the food stamps bill in a House-Senate conference committee. McGovern was determined to out-wait the conservative House members on the committee; Cassidy and Schlossberg came to meeting after meeting with their boss. "This is where Gerry and I really got to know each other," Schlossberg said. Eventually a bill was approved and passed both houses-not the bill McGovern wanted, but he declared victory anyhow (and actually won it a year late when Congress approved a big expansion of food stamps).
The Cassidy who first came to Washington was a big, well-built guy who wore sideburns and a mustache. Even then he liked to dress well. "He was always the most stylish member of the committee," McGovern remembered. But he was quiet, and played second fiddle to the loud and gregarious Schlossberg.
Cassidy was affable and easy-going; the strong-willed Schlossberg "had an edge and was clearly in charge," said Judah C. Sommer, the senior Republican aide on the committee staff at the time. "Without question, Schlossberg was the senior figure." And so he would remain-for a few more years.
Washington Post research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: Heady experiences in the corridors of power introduce Cassidy to the world of Washington insiders.
Key Related Materials
An overview of Gerald Cassidy's life and career.
A "cast of characters" in the life and career of Gerald Cassidy.
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