Almost 90 years ago, as he was forming his new administration, President Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned Frances Perkins to ask if she’d become his secretary of labor.

The no-nonsense Perkins showed up with a list. On it, according to the website of the Frances Perkins Center in Damariscotta, she’d written: a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, abolition of child labor, direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized federal employment service, and universal health insurance.

Radical stuff – at least at the time.

“I partly think this list was an attempt to overreach,” Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, Frances Perkins’ only grandchild, said with a chuckle in an interview last week.

His grandmother, he explained, had some misgivings about uprooting her life in New York City at the time and moving to the nation’s capital. So, knowing FDR well from her years as his industrial commissioner while he was governor of New York, she deliberately aimed high, telling the new president that she’d only take the Cabinet post – the first ever for a woman – if he agreed to help her achieve all of her objectives.

Roosevelt, rather than dismiss the list as too much too fast, embraced every item on it. And thus, the New Deal was born.

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“She envisioned it,” said Coggeshall, who founded the center that bears his grandmother’s name and has spent a good portion of his life preserving her place in history.

Now, Coggeshall believes, it’s time for that history to repeat itself. And he’s not alone.

They call themselves “The Descendants.” All now in their 60s or older, their names echo an era when bold ideas and actions lifted the country out of the Great Depression and set it on a social trajectory that was nothing short of transformational. And now, operating under the banner “21st Century New Deal,” they say it’s time to do it again.

In addition to Coggeshall, they include James Roosevelt Jr., FDR’s grandson; Henry Scott Wallace, grandson of Henry A. Wallace, who served as Roosevelt’s third-term vice president and at other times as secretary of agriculture and secretary of commerce; June Hopkins, whose grandfather, Harry Hopkins, was Roosevelt’s federal relief administrator; and Harold Ickes Jr., himself a deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and the son of Harold L. Ickes, Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior.

Long proud of their forebears’ roles in reshaping American society, the group came together in 2020 to cheer on President Joe Biden as he invoked the New Deal in promoting his $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act. And even as that legislation now sits dead in the water following West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s refusal to join fellow Democrats in supporting it, the group continues to meet via Zoom each week, looking to the past for ways to steer the present.

On one Zoom call last year, they were joined by Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, who happens to share his birthday – April 10 – with Frances Perkins. They’re still working on opening a direct line to the White House – if only to convey to Biden that they are behind him 100 percent as he mulls how to advance parts of his economic plan, if not the whole thing.

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Whether it’s restoring monthly child tax credit payments, which ended in January, or getting serious about the climate crisis, or protecting future elections from voter suppression and other Republican-led shenanigans, they understand what they’re up against.

For starters, Coggeshall noted, “had the filibuster existed then in its present form, the New Deal probably wouldn’t have happened.”

And as Wallace, the former vice president’s grandson, pointed out in a separate interview, Republican efforts to paint Biden as a socialist – while similar to the headwinds FDR ran into almost a century ago – are easily amplified in today’s fractured media environment.

“FDR was a master communicator with his fireside chats,” Wallace said. “And I’m afraid our side is losing the framing war. We need to do a much better job letting people know that there is a social compact here. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, taxes are the price of civilization.”

Still, much like Frances Perkins once did in the face of her own formidable opposition, you have to start somewhere. If the filibuster is an anachronistic impediment to the common good, then why not abolish it outright? If the expanded child tax credit pulled 3.7 million kids out of poverty in this country, then why not reinstate it? And if wealthy people complain that their taxes are too high, why not point out that today’s top marginal tax rate of 37 percent pales by comparison to the early 1950s, when it was a whopping 92 percent?

In an essay in this month’s issue of The Nation, Coggesshall and his colleagues told the story of how Perkins, the lone woman in a sea of powerful men, was directed by Roosevelt midway through his first term to come up with a plan for pulling the working class out of its Depression-era misery. And, with conservative backlash growing, he gave her precious little time to do it:

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Quoting in part from “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” a 2009 biography by Kirstin Downey, they wrote:

“Two days before the deadline, Perkins called her Committee on Economic Security (including our grandparents) to her home, ‘led them into the dining room, placed a large bottle of Scotch on the table, and told them no one would leave until the work was done.’ Thus was Social Security born…”

Many would say that kind of bold initiative is no longer possible. That our paralyzed Congress, a direct reflection of our polarized society, can’t agree on anything of substance – let alone a social and economic package to rival the New Deal.

Yet, not unlike their ancestors, this group won’t give up. Nor will they forget.

Coggeshall, who lived in the family homestead in Damariscotta for years before selling it to the nonprofit Frances Perkins Center and moving to upstate New York two years ago, was only 11 when his grandmother died at the age of 85 in 1965. But he still remembers standing reverently over her grave in nearby Newcastle.

“My mother said, ‘Take some dirt in your hand and make the sign of the cross as you dribble it on the casket,’” he recalled. “I’ll always remember that.”

And half a century later, as her only living descendant stands tall for everything she once stood for, what might she think of that?

“I’m sure my grandmother – and the other New Dealers that we’re representing – are smiling,” Coggeshall said. “And cheering us on.”


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