Martin Shefter, professor of government, dies at 79

Martin Shefter ’64, professor of government emeritus in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) who was noted for his research on American political parties, New York City politics and the ways changes in international systems shape U.S. institutions, died Nov. 3 in Ithaca. He was 79.

Colleagues remember his curiosity and his impressive fund of knowledge – which he rebuilt almost entirely after memory loss due to a mid-career accident, enabling his return to teaching.

“Marty Shefter was a specialist of American urban politics with strong historical and comparative instincts,” said Peter Katzenstein, the Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. Professor of International Studies (A&S). “He read broadly, cut his teeth on the analysis of machine politics in late 19th and early 20th century America, and wrote about its demise and what replaced it. Marty engaged with the comparative ‘state and capitalism’ field of scholarship for decades and thus helped build bridges, lifting the analysis of American politics out of its isolated, area-studies preoccupations. He was affable, smart and funny, with a wry sense of humor.”

“The thing I will best remember about Martin is his impressive fund of knowledge,” said Sidney Tarrow, the Emeritus Maxwell Upson Professor of Government (A&S). “He was a seeker after knowledge – more knowledge, deeper knowledge, intimate knowledge, distant knowledge.”

This is one reason why a serious bike accident mid-career was such a tragedy, Tarrow said: “He was left with an enormous gap of knowledge, including the knowledge he had built up about New York City politics.”

Head injuries from the accident, the result of a mechanical error, erased his memory of history after the 1970s, Katzenstein said, but Shefter was determined.

“He beat the dire predictions of his excellent doctors and returned to teaching two or three years later, having relearned roughly 30 years of history,” Katzenstein said. “I still recall the excitement in his voice and eyes when I told him, several years after 1989, that Germany was united.”

Tarrow fielded occasional late-night phone calls from Shefter as he regained not just facts but his understanding in his areas of expertise: “One of the most remarkable things about his recovery was that Martin managed to reconstruct his great reservoir of knowledge about American politics.”

Shefter was born in 1943 in Brooklyn. After his Cornell undergraduate education, he earned his Ph.D. in 1970 at Harvard University.

He was an assistant professor at Harvard from 1969 to ’73, then served as an associate professor at Cornell from 1973 to ’77. From 1978 to ’85, he served as an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago before returning to Ithaca as a professor of government in 1986. He taught on the U.S. Congress, urban and contemporary American politics, and on the domestic politics of America’s wars.

“Martin was a warm and engaging person, an excellent teacher and a true intellectual,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, a close friend, colleague, and co-author with Shefter when both taught at Cornell in the 1970s and ’80s. “He was interested in politics, history, economics and, as a hobby, the stock market. I learned an enormous amount about politics and history during my conversations with Martin and I have always been grateful for his contribution to my own intellectual development.”

In addition to his many articles, Shefter’s books include “Patronage and its Opponents: A Theory and Some European Cases” and “Political Crisis, Fiscal Crisis: The Collapse and Revival of New York City,” which won the Best Book in Urban Policy award for 1988 from the American Political Science Association (APSA). With Ginsberg, Shefter co-authored “Politics By Other Means: Politicians, Prosecutors, and the Press from Watergate to Whitewater.”

Shefter edited essay collections on New York City politics and political parties, as well as serving on the editorial boards of several journals. He was the co-editor, with Theda Skocpol and Ira Katznelson, of the Princeton University Press Series, “American Politics: Historical, International and Comparative Perspectives.”

Starting in 1995, Shefter was a member of the executive committee of the Politics and History Section of the APSA and served as president of the section for 1996-97, remaining active with the organization.

In 2005, Shefter received the APSA Norton Long Career Achievement Award for distinguished contributions to the study of urban politics over the course of his career through publication, mentoring of students and public service.

Shefter was predeceased by his wife, Susan. He is survived by their daughter and granddaughter.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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