Francie counts the days according to the year’s holidays. Election Day seems to be the greatest holiday of all because it belongs to the whole neighborhood. Johnny shows Francie the Oyster House on Scholes Street where the powerful members of City Hall meet and decide on who will be elected and who will be destroyed. Francie, like most children her age, doesn’t understand politics but listens interestedly in the debates between her father and Katie. Johnny is a fervent Democrat, but Katie is both critical of the party’s corruption and indifferent to politics. Johnny insists that Democrats fix people up with jobs, while Katie says that Tammany Hall gives to the people but takes double.
For Francie, who doesn’t yet understand politics, Election Day is simply a day in which the community comes together and enjoys events. Johnny is a Democrat, due to the party’s tendency to support unions. However, his belief that the party actually gives people jobs, reveals that he has a simplistic view of how politics works. Katie is indifferent to politics, perhaps with good reason, because she doesn’t think that politicians do anything to improve the lives of the poor.
Though women cannot vote, local politicians know that women wield a great deal of influence over their husbands’ choices. They also make a point to woo children, for these are future voters. Therefore, the Mattie Mahoney Association sponsors a boat excursion for children and their parents every summer. Francie is ten years old at the time and as excited as everyone else her age to go on a boat. Despite her contempt for politicians, Katie sees no reason not to take advantage of the good time.
The boat excursion is a promotional event (though, some might be inclined to see it as a form of bribery), to convince working-class people to vote for a Democratic ticket. The event woos children so that they will grow up to associate pleasant childhood memories, like the excursion, with the party’s benevolence.
It is a hot, sweltering day and kids run up and down the deck of the boat, which sails along the Hudson River. It decks after noon at a wooded glen upstate. Each child spends a strip of ten tickets that they were given the week before for rides, food, and treats. Francie is tempted to gamble her tickets in a marble game for the possibility of winning fifty strips. However, Francie is a poor marble player and loses her tickets. Neeley has three left and Francie asks for one. Katie, instead, uses the occasion to lecture Francie about gambling. A policeman standing nearby gives Francie three tickets. He points to Katie and asks if she is Francie’s mother. He notes how pretty Katie is. Francie confirms that she is. She also points out Johnny sitting beside her and waits for him to say something about how handsome her father is, but he says nothing.
Katie’s lecture about gambling is a bit harsh but goes along with her insistence on parenting the children in a way that reinforces that they can only get ahead in life through hard work and by taking as few risks with money as possible. This is a lesson that she has learned both from living with Johnny and from Mary Rommely’s stories about financial loss. Francie does not yet sense that the police officer is attracted to her mother, but she begins to suspect that his singular interest in Katie could pose a problem.
When Francie goes back to her family, Katie asks what the cop said to her. She repeats the conversation and Katie looks at her worn hands. She says that she works so hard that she sometimes forgets that she is a woman. Francie wonders why her mother is so ashamed of her hands and also notes that this is the closest thing to a complaint that she has ever heard from Katie. When Francie walks away, Katie asks a woman next to her who the man is. She says that his name is Sergeant Michael McShane. The woman is surprised that Katie doesn’t recognize him; he works at her local precinct.
Katie is also attracted to McShane but is embarrassed by her appearance. When she says that she “forgets that she is a woman” it is an acknowledgment that she has become so focused on her role as a caretaker that she has forgotten her own desires—the desire to be attractive and to express sexual interest in someone again. Johnny’s alcoholism would make sexual relations between him and Katie more difficult.
A beer keg is next set up. It is “free to all good Democrats.” Mattie Mahoney’s band then plays songs that champion what a great man Mahoney is. Late in the afternoon, Francie gets the idea to find him and thank him for giving her such a wonderful day. She searches but never finds him. A man tells her that he might not exist at all. It might simply be the name they give to whoever becomes the head of the local Democratic Party. On the way home, it is dusk. Neeley falls asleep in Katie’s lap.
What the man tells Francie crushes her idea of meeting the benevolent man who she imagines made this day possible. However, the notion of Mattie Mahoney being a figure of the imagination is even more romantic and mysterious. It makes him seem like a character is one of the books Francie would read.
Katie asks Johnny if he knows about Sergeant McShane. Johnny says that he is nicknamed the Honest Cop. He also notes that it is possible that McShane could run for assemblyman. Johnny explains that his wife is dying of tuberculosis and does not have much longer to live. Katie insists that her type hangs on. Johnny is startled by her remark, but Katie insists that she should have taken her medicine when a decent man married her. Katie then hopes that she dies so that Sergeant McShane can marry again soon and have healthy children. Instinctively, Francie gets up and goes to her father. She takes his hand. Johnny pulls the child toward him and holds her tightly, marveling at how “the moon walks on the water.”
Johnny is shocked by the callousness of Katie’s remark until he realizes that Katie is developing romantic interest in McShane and envies his wife’s marriage to a reliable and financially stable man. Johnny distracts himself from her words, which may be hurtful, by focusing on how the moonlight appears on the river. Francie, too, senses that Katie favors Sergeant McShane over her father. To express her loyalty to Johnny, she takes his hands. Instinctively, he pulls Francie toward him, needing her love and assurance.
Soon after the excursion and picnic, the Democratic organization prepares for Election Day by making shiny white buttons with Mattie Mahoney’s face on them. They distribute the buttons to the neighborhood children. The children play games with the buttons. Francie sees Mattie’s face everywhere but has yet to see the actual man. On Election Day, a man knocks on the door and hands Johnny a cigar, compliments of the Democratic Party. He also confirms that Johnny should be at the polls at 11:00 AM. Katie thinks that they want to keep tabs on who is going to the polls, and “God help” any man who isn’t voting for Mattie. Johnny dismisses her suspicion and says that women don’t know anything about politics.
Francie still holds out hope that Mattie Mahoney might be an actual person. The cigar is another promotional service (again, some might view these gifts as bribes to sway voters) to gain support for the Democrats. Katie thinks that the door-to-door gifts are a calculated effort not only to ensure Democratic votes but also to ensure some form of punishment for those who don’t vote for a Democratic ticket. Johnny dismisses Katie, because he doesn’t want to acknowledge corruption within his favored party.
On Election night, Francie and Neeley participate in the neighborhood bonfire, contributing the wood they have collected. By the end of the night, a Democratic president is elected, as well as a Democratic governor of New York, but all Francie knows is that Mattie Mahoney has kept his seat in office.
Francie has come to love Mattie Mahoney as much as she would love a fictional hero. Mahoney may appeal to her more as a figure of her imagination than as an actual person.