Democratic socialists attending the 2020 Democratic Convention won’t be out of place in a city with a long history of socialist governance
By Lindsey Anderson
After his State of the City remarks at the Milwaukee Bucks’ arena on March 11, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told the crowd that he had no news on whether the city would be hosting the Democratic National Convention next July, eliciting a groan from the crowd rivaling game-day jeers. But shortly after concluding his speech, Barrett got a surprise call from Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, informing him that Milwaukee had beaten out Houston and Miami for the honor of hosting.
Democrats haven’t held a convention in the Midwest since 1996, and they’ve never held one in Milwaukee. “We all know that the competition for conventions like this is fierce,” Barrett said after returning to the arena to make the official announcement that afternoon.”There’s competition from the East Coast. There’s competition from the West Coast. There’s competition from the Gulf Coast. And I am here today to welcome all of America to America’s Fresh Coast.”
Not long after the announcement, though, some began to wonder whether “America’s Fresh Coast” was actually fit for the event. What would happen if self-described Democratic Socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tried to appeal to stolid, working-class Wisconsinites who—the thinking seemed to go—couldn’t tell the difference between Karl Marx and Groucho Marx?
In an April opinion piece for The Hill, conservative pundit Matt Batzel suggested that Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez would inevitably embarrass themselves, and the rest of their party. “The convention will highlight the socialist platform that Democrats are running on and the working-class Wisconsin voters will reject the coastal-elites pandering to them,” he wrote.
Others imagined that Milwaukeeans might be scandalized by the sight of so many liberals in one place. Ed Kilgore, writing for New York Magazine, suggested that “there could be a backlash effect within the local media market to four days of infanticide-mad “socialist” Democrats cavorting in the neighborhood.”
That idea is ironic, and not just because Brew City is a notoriously hard-drinking town where inebriated neighborhood cavorting is actively celebrated. It’s also the only major American city to ever elect a socialist mayor. In fact, Milwaukee elected three of them in the first half of the twentieth century. Collectively, socialists governed the city for thirty-eight years. Under their watch, Milwaukee became one of the most progressive cities in the United States.
Political radicals have been living in Wisconsin since the state was ratified in 1848. Many of them settled in the area that very year, in the aftermath of a series of failed European revolutions that drove thousands of liberal asylum seekers to pack their bags and move to America, bringing along knowledge of the works of Karl Marx.
In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for employers to demand that their employees work up to sixteen hours a day, six days a week. Some socialist immigrants— most notably the German-born newspaper editor Paul Grottkau—helped organize local laborers to walk out of their workplaces on May 1, 1886 as part of a nationwide strike for an eight-hour work day. By May 5, at least fourteen thousand Milwaukeeans, about half of the city’s voting population, had joined the protesters, according to the Wisconsin State Journal’s reports at the time. Together, they shut down every major factory in Milwaukee, save one. And they likely would have managed to close that final holdout—an iron plant in the suburb Bay View—as well, if the governor of Wisconsin hadn’t ordered the state militia to circle it and shoot anyone who approached. The workers pressed on anyway. The soldiers fired at them, ultimately killing at least seven people.
The governor stood by the guardsmen. But the incident further motivated the city’s workers to continue to fight for their rights. When Grottkau was thrown in prison for inciting riot, he became something of a local celebrity. In fact, he decided to run for mayor while he was still behind bars. He received almost one thousand votes, and his ticket split the labor vote and robbed the Union Labor Party candidate of enough votes to beat out the major parties. But the election foreshadowed the future success of leftist politics in Milwaukee. Meanwhile, prominent socialist organizer and publisher Victor Berger, an Austrian immigrant, pushed an electoral strategy for the left and helped build a strong socialist political movement.
By 1910, a plurality of voters were ready to embrace a third party candidate. “Milwaukee had a reputation as being one of the most corrupt cities in the United States,” says Aims McGuinness, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Both Republicans and Democrats were notoriously easy to bribe, and voters were getting sick of them. So when Emil Seidel, who had by then become one of the most outspoken members of the Socialist Party of America and was currently serving as an alderman, ran for mayor on a promise that he would clean up the city’s government, he was carried into office on a wave of anti-corruption fervor.
Seidel’s goal, and the goal of the group of socialists he associated with closely, was nothing short of revolution. “They had but one aim: to liberate the working class from the bondage of wage-slavery,” he wrote about his compatriots in his memoirs. “That was the first, the last, and the only article of their creed. And the means: Workers of the World, Unite!” But Seidel was good at tempering his idealism with practical considerations. He focused mainly on making tangible improvements to Milwaukee while he was mayor: establishing the city’s first public works department, organizing its first fire and police commissions and creating a park system. The improvements were popular. “Between 1910 and 1912, people in Milwaukee could see how their lives were getting better,” McGuinness says. “The changes weren’t just abstract. They could see that their kids were getting vaccinations. They could see that their kids were getting free textbooks. They could see that parks were being built. They could see that inspectors were coming into factories and making them safer.” While in office, Seidel also raised the minimum wage.
Seidel had so disrupted politics as usual that in 1912, local Democrats and Republicans decided to put aside their differences and jointly back the same “nonpartisan” candidate, a former municipal health commissioner named Gerhard Adolph Bading who managed to beat out Seidel at the polls. But even though he was voted out after just two years as mayor, Seidel had made a favorable enough impression on the electorate that Milwaukeeans continued to vote socialists into other offices. When Daniel Hoan, a Socialist who had been serving as a city attorney, ran for mayor in 1916, he managed to narrowly beat out the Democratic and Republican candidates.
The year he took office, Hoan introduced public vaccination campaigns and helped pass legislation preventing raw sewage from entering the public’s drinking water supply. Eventually, some of his critics would take to calling him a “Sewer Socialist,” a moniker meant to mock his obsession with improving Milwaukee’s sewer system and public health facilities. But his obsession paid off, and the term became a badge of pride. During Hoan’s twenty-four-year tenure as mayor, the city won so many national sanitation awards that health department officials eventually barred Milwaukee from competing and instead began printing special certificates to signify that it was in a class of its own. Hoan also implemented the nation’s first public housing project. In 1936, Hoan was featured on the cover of Time Magazine; in 1940, the magazine wrote that “Under Mayor Hoan’s 24-year administration, Milwaukee became one of the best-run cities in the U. S.” Even now, Hoan is still widely considered one the nation’s most effective mayors.
In the 1990s, history professor Melvin Holli asked sixty-nine urban experts and social scientists to rank the country’s mayors; the group as a whole named Hoan the eighth best that the country has ever had. “Although this self-identified Socialist had difficulty pushing progressive legislation through a nonpartisan city council, he experimented with the municipal marketing of food, backed city-built housing…and providing public markets, city harbor improvements, and purging graft from Milwaukee politics. Perhaps Hoan’s most important legacy was cleaning up the free-and-easy corruption that prevailed before he took office,” Holli wrote in the New York Times.
Hoan lost the election in 1940. But another socialist, Frank Zeidler, was voted into office eight years later, in 1948, and remained mayor until 1960. In his inaugural address, he promised “vigorous leadership and action with only one purpose: the public welfare.” Under his watch, Milwaukee nearly doubled in size and became the twelfth largest city in the country. The city also purchased its first garbage trucks, built many fire stations, expanded its infrastructure, and created public housing for poor people and veterans. And at a time when cities were undertaking massive urban renewal projects that often resulted in the displacement of Black residents, Zeidler refused to proceed with slum clearance in Milwaukee unless integrated public housing, scattered throughout the city, could be provided for all displaced residents. But political opponents blocked his public housing construction plans.
Zeidler’s ability to maintain power throughout the 1940s and 1950s is all the more surprising considering that in 1946 Joseph McCarthy won one of Wisconsin’s senate seats, and in 1950 he delivered a now infamous speech (in which he supposedly claimed to have in his hand a list of 205 known communists who had infiltrated the State Department) that sparked a nationwide Red Scare and drove many of the nation’s communists and socialists into hiding. Zeidler refused to distance himself from his socialist ideals, though, even as his opponents stoked Cold War fears to try to undermine his credibility. “We were all called communists,” his daughter Jeanne says. “But, you know, he still won three elections.”
Zeidler passed away in 2006, at the age of ninety-three. But some of his children still live in Milwaukee. And Jeanne served as mayor of Williamsburg, Virginia, from 1998 to 2010. She says that she always respected her father’s integrity, and that his political principles informed her own approach to governance. “He didn’t really even use the word politician. He called himself a public servant,” she says. ““He was a very self-effacing and humble person, who also knew his own worth.”
Jeanne, who identifies as a democratic socialist, says stigma against her father’s belief system never prevented her from succeeding in politics. “When people in Williamsburg discovered who my father was, all I would say to them was ‘You know, people in Williamsburg want the same things that people in Milwaukee want, and that’s good schools, good public services, honest and clean governance…it doesn’t matter if we’re called democratic socialists or if we’re called something else.”
According to the Milwaukee-based historian John Gurda, the city’s socialist chapter isn’t just relegated to the pages of its history books. It lives on in local legislation and public works projects. “Not only did the movement give us lasting amenities like a stellar park system, but it also embodied a deep and timeless blend of pragmatism and idealism,” Gurda wrote in a 2010 article, titled “Socialism Before It Was a Four Letter Word,” for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Although they worked for real-world reforms, the socialists didn’t stop there. They called their fellow citizens to a higher conception of the common good, one that placed cooperation above competition and mutualism above bare self-interest. They believed that a government based on those ideals was humanity’s best hope for the future.”
Sewer Socialism also lives on, more explicitly, in the city’s local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Founded in 2016, the group generally hosts several meetings, workshops and mixers each month. And its members, who refer to themselves as “the new Sewer Socialists,” see themselves as the latest links in a long chain of local leftists that stretches back to include Frank Zeidler, Daniel Hoan, and Emil Seidel. “The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is poised to be a significant mass organization in the resurgence of a popular socialist movement in the United States,” a statement on the group’s website reads. “A century ago, Milwaukee was at the forefront of just such a movement. Today, DSA is committed to a politics that will radically transform Milwaukee, shifting power in this city from capital to the people.”
Gina Jorgensen, a local high school art teacher, decided to join the group in part because she’d long been a vocal advocate for her teachers’ union, and she realized that the causes she and her colleagues were fighting for were socialist causes. “I think a lot of people are probably socialist and don’t know it,” she says, adding that the activists she’s met tend to care more about helping people than debating which political labels to use. “They care about human beings. They care about people living dignified lives.”
Another Milwaukee DSA member, Elizabeth Hoffman, says she’s inspired by Milwaukee’s past. “When I go to the parks, to the river, I’m reminded of the socialist legacy in Milwaukee,” she says. “I got involved about a year ago because I love Milwaukee, and I want it to be the best that it can be.”
If their aim is radical transformation of their city, Milwaukee’s DSA members certainly have their work cut out for them. But they’ve already begun discussing how they’ll organize around the convention in Milwaukee next summer, and how they’ll campaign for Bernie Sanders, the only 2020 presidential candidate who identifies as a democratic socialist. In the meantime, they’ll also continue work on local issues, like campaigning to remove lead from Milwaukee’s water infrastructure, a project that bears resemblance to Sewer Socialist missions.
“There’s a famous quote from Emil Seidel,” Hoffman says, referring to a passage from his memoirs: “We wanted a chance for every human being to be strong and live a life of happiness.” ■
Lindsey Anderson is an Ohio-born, Wisconsin-based journalist who has been covering culture and politics in the Midwest for over a decade. You can see more of her writing in Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus and Far & Wide.
Cover image courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.
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