Historic Liberal Republicans: Nelson Rockefeller

Nelson Rockefeller, the grandson of the oil tycoon  John D. Rockefeller (who at one-time was the wealthiest man in America), was Governor of New York from 1959 to 1973. After unsuccessfully seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, 1964, and 1968, he served as Vice President from 1974 to 1977 under President Gerald R. Ford.


Rockefeller was “a man who got things done.” According to his biographer, Richard Norton Smith, he was “the optimist to end all optimists.” “He would be the first to tell you he’s a pragmatist. He was not an ideologue. But more important than that, he believed every problem had a solution. And the contrast between then and now- when there’s such pervasive cynicism… [and] a notion that government isn’t working and the seeming total inability of government – right, left, liberal, conservative- to address those issues. There’d be none of that with Rockefeller.”

As Governor of New York, Rockefeller vastly increased the state’s role in education (including by quadrupling state aid to primary and secondary schools, and vastly expanding state higher education), in environmental protection, in transportation (for example, by winning approval for the largest state bond issue to date, $2.5 billion, for the coordinated development of mass transportation, highways, and airports), in housing (by completing or starting over 88,000 units of housing for limited income and aged families), in welfare and medical aid (by carrying out the largest state medical care program for the needy in the United States), in civil rights, and in the arts. When Rockefeller later ran for President, he was asked if his stance on racial justice might harm Republican prospects in the Southern United States. Rockefeller replied, “We have certain responsibilities that transcend political advantages… and one of them is certainly in the field of civil rights.”

Prior to running for Governor, Rockefeller served in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Administration and in the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations. His recommendations fostered the creation of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Rockefeller was active in implementing measures that added coverage for ten million people under the Social Security program.

As New York’s Governor, Rockefeller worked with the State legislature and unions to create generous pension programs for many public workers, including teachers, professors, firefighters, police officers, and prison guards. (Rockefeller had good relations with unions, especially the construction trades, which benefited from his extensive building programs.) He proposed the first statewide minimum wage law in the U.S., which was increased five times during his administration.

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