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What Milwaukee Can Teach the Democrats about Socialism

The Democratic Party didn’t choose Milwaukee for its 2020 convention because of its radical past. But the city’s history shows how socialism worked in the United States—and could work again.

“It’s only fitting the Democrats would come to Milwaukee,” said Mark Jefferson, Executive Director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, soon after the Democratic National Committee announced the location of its 2020 convention. “No city in America has stronger ties to socialism than Milwaukee. And with the rise of Bernie Sanders and the embrace of socialism by its newest leaders, the American left has come full circle.”

Of course, the Democrats did not pick Milwaukee because of its socialist past. It is the largest city in a swing state that could help decide who wins the White House. In 2016, Trump beat Clinton in Wisconsin by a mere 22,748 votes out of more than 2.9 million cast. A Republican-sponsored voter ID law had a chilling effect in Milwaukee, where voter turnout declined by 41,000 people between 2012 and 2016, with the biggest drop-off in African-American and low-income areas.

But the choice of Milwaukee does give left-wing Democrats an opportunity to remind the nation that socialists once played a key role in improving life for many Americans. In 1912, some 1,200 members of the Socialist Party of America (SP) held public office in 340 cities and towns. There were Socialist mayors in Buffalo, Minneapolis, Reading, Schenectady, and Berkeley.

The SP had its greatest and most enduring success in Milwaukee. From 1910 to 1960, the city’s voters elected three socialist mayors, as well as a number of city council and school board members.

Victor Berger, an Austrian immigrant, spearheaded the party’s rise to local power. The school teacher, editor of two newspapers (one in German, another in English), and dedicated organizer founded the SP with Eugene Debs in 1901 and built the Milwaukee branch into a formidable political machine. He secured the backing of the unions (including the powerful brewery workers local) and most German and Polish immigrants. In 1910, Milwaukee voters sent Berger to Washington as the country’s first socialist Congressman. He won four subsequent victories (although in 1919 his colleagues refused to seat him because of his opposition to the First World War), lost twice, and left Congress in 1929. Berger sponsored bills for old-age pensions, government ownership of the radio industry, abolition of child labor, self-government for the District of Columbia, and a system of public works to provide relief for the unemployed. He also put forward resolutions for the withdrawal of federal troops from the Mexican border, for the abolition of the Senate (which was then not yet elected directly by the voters and was nicknamed the “millionaires’ club”), for women’s suffrage, and for federal ownership of the railroads. Unlike Debs, however, Berger was a racist who believed that African Americans were inferior to whites, opposed organizing black workers into the labor movement, and supported the exclusion of Asian immigrants.

While none of Berger’s proposals gained much traction in Congress, his comrades in Milwaukee were often a dominant force in the city’s life and politics. They sponsored carnivals, picnics, singing societies, and even Sunday schools. Among the Socialists elected to municipal office was Meta Berger, Victor’s wife, who served on the school board for three decades. In 1910, the SP swept the city, electing City Councilman Emil Seidel—a woodcarver and union leader—as mayor along with a majority on the city council and a slate of candidates for city treasurer, city attorney, comptroller, and two municipal judges. “The workers of our city are its most valuable asset,” Seidel said in his inaugural address. During his two-year term, the city adopted an eight-hour day for municipal employees and increased their minimum wage from $1.75 to $2.00 a day.

Seidel lost the next election but in 1912 he was the SP’s running mate for presidential candidate Debs. They gained 6 percent of the national vote, including 8.4 percent in Wisconsin and 27 percent in Milwaukee County.

In 1916 the Milwaukee Socialists made a dramatic comeback, catapulting city attorney Daniel Webster Hoan into office. Hoan served as mayor until 1940. In 1936, Time put Hoan on its cover and praised Milwaukee as “one of the best-run cities in the U.S.” Hoan was followed by Frank Zeidler, elected mayor in 1948 and re-elected twice before stepping down voluntarily in 1960.

Milwaukee’s voters kept putting Socialists in office because they ran efficient and humane administrations. They constructed the best municipal park system in the country, preserved and created additional public access to the city’s lakefront, and constructed decent housing for working-class families. They also expanded public education for the city’s working-class children (including free textbooks, lunches, and dental and medical programs), created an adult education program for workers, expanded the public libraries and playgrounds, and improved teachers’ salaries. The Socialists adopted tough factory and building regulations and inspections, reined in police brutality against striking workers, improved working conditions for rank-and-file cops, and sponsored public markets. They gave preference to union shops for city contracts for everything from printing to horseshoeing. They forced the city’s private streetcar company to pave the streets, lower fares, improve service, and pay fees to the city in exchange for its monopoly. They opened a municipal quarry to provide crushed rock for street projects, built a municipally owned water system, and created a pioneering sanitation infrastructure, earning them the nickname “sewer socialists.”

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For most of his twenty-four years as mayor, Hoan lacked a sympathetic majority on the city council. But he won over many colleagues by showing it was possible to both expand public services and balance the city’s budget. In 1932, however, voters installed a leftist majority on the council, and Hoan was emboldened. At a time when many cities resorted to violence to intimidate striking employees, Hoan pushed for a law that allowed the mayor to close any factory if the employer refused to negotiate with the workers. He asked Milwaukee’s voters to support municipal ownership of the city’s electric power system and streetcars. They rejected the idea in a referendum, but other cities around the country embraced it.

Socialist labor lawyer Max Raskin—great-uncle of Jamie Raskin, currently a progressive congressman from Maryland—was swept into office as Milwaukee’s city attorney during the 1932 upsurge. A close Hoan ally, Raskin was attacked by a conservative newspaper for refusing to prosecute “communistic rioters”—meaning strikers and protesters. Raskin required his assistant city attorneys to end any employment in private practice, which had been a source of corruption and conflicts of interest.

Zeidler was a popular figure who carried on the progressive values of his socialist predecessors. At least one major employer threatened to fire employees who voted for Zeidler. During his twelve years as mayor, the city doubled its geographic size by annexing nearby areas. In 1957 Fortune magazine called Milwaukee one of the two best governed large cities in the country. During his time as mayor, Milwaukee’s black population increased sevenfold, reaching 8 percent of the population by 1960. Among other measures, Zeidler pushed for the construction of racially integrated public housing. His political enemies tried to use his strong support for the civil rights movement against him, including spreading false rumors that he had erected billboards in the South urging African Americans to move to Milwaukee to take advantage of its liberal welfare programs.

After Zeidler left office, the city was governed by several business-friendly mayors, which coincided with the city’s dramatic decline starting in the 1960s. Milwaukee’s population has dropped from 741,000 people in 1960 to less than 600,000 today, 27 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Banks fostered white flight to the suburbs by redlining Milwaukee’s black neighborhoods. Today, Milwaukee is the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the country.

Milwaukee began losing its biggest factories—including its major breweries—in the 1970s, and the local economy has never recovered from massive de-industrialization. A. O. Smith, the giant manufacturer of water heaters, boilers, and car frames, founded in 1874 in Milwaukee, still has its global headquarters in the city, but its production plants are now located in the American South as well as China, Mexico, India, and Turkey. Almost 8,000 union employees once worked at its factory on the city’s northwest side. After being abandoned for many years, the site is now home to Talgo, a Spanish railcar manufacturer. Good City Brewing has also established its corporate headquarters there, and the rest of the property is being redeveloped by the city as Century City Business Park, but the projected number of employees is a small fraction of the former A. O. Smith workforce.

In response to widening inequality, Bernie Sanders’s campaign, and revulsion against Donald Trump, the socialist movement is making a comeback in Milwaukee. The old Socialist Party still holds monthly meetings and an annual picnic, but the city’s most vibrant left-wing organization is now the Democratic Socialists of America. Local activists started a DSA chapter in 2017 which now has over 200 members. Like its predecessors, Milwaukee’s socialists engage in grassroots activism as well as electoral politics. DSA is a key part of the Get the Lead Out Coalition, pushing the city to replace the aging lead pipes that are poisoning the water of at least 70,000 homes, disproportionately in black and low-income areas, and to guarantee that union pipefitters do the work. DSA members also participate in a coalition trying to close the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, an overcrowded cesspool of mismanagement and inhumane treatment of prisoners. And DSA is part of a statewide effort to expand Wisconsin’s health insurance program, BadgerCare, to everyone.

Through a DSA-sponsored Solidarity Economy Working Group, members are involved in several co-operative businesses owned by employees and consumers, including two food co-ops, a community land trust, and the New Barons Brewing Co-operative.

Milwaukee DSA’s most impressive victory so far has been helping elect Bob Peterson—a long-time activist in socialist organizations and former president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA)—to the at-large seat on the local school board. Peterson—a veteran teacher who was Wisconsin’s Elementary Teacher of the Year, founded the progressive educational magazine Rethinking Schools, and cofounded Wisconsin’s first two-way bilingual (English-Spanish) school—was part of a five-candidate slate backed by the teachers’ union and the Working Families Party that swept into office in early April. Peterson will be the one citywide representative on a school board whose nine members, with staggered terms, were all endorsed by the MTEA.

“I appreciated DSA’s support for my campaign and proud to put the DSA logo on my campaign brochures,” Peterson said. “They’re part of a rebirth of activism in Milwaukee and around the country. It’s the silver lining of the Trump era.”

Where should visiting Democrats and journalists go in Milwaukee to get a feeling for the city’s socialist history and accomplishments? I asked three local historians: John Gurda (author of The Making of Milwaukee), Aims McGuinness (a history professor at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee), and Ken Germanson (a retired newspaperman, union leader, and former president of the Wisconsin Labor History Society). Here’s what they recommend:

There are only a handful of buildings and streets named for Milwaukee’s socialist leaders. “Socialists didn’t name buildings after themselves,” McGuinness says. “That’s sort of a capitalist thing.”

A local elementary school was renamed for Berger in 1931, two years after his death. But in 1992 the school board rechristened it the Martin Luther King Elementary School. Since both figures were socialists, some local activists have proposed restoring Berger’s name along with the King’s, but that would result in the school having the unappetizing name of Berger-King.

Were he still alive, Daniel Hoan wouldn’t have been pleased that city officials named a bridge in his honor in 1974. The Hoan Bridge divides the downtown from the lakefront, a part of the city he thought should be off-limits to traffic.

The largest dormitory at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is named for Carl Sandburg, known as the “working man’s poet,” as well as a novelist, journalist, folklorist, historian, biographer of Abraham Lincoln, and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Sandburg moved to rural Wisconsin in 1907 to work as a traveling organizer for the Social Democratic Party. He moved to Milwaukee in 1909, worked on Seidel’s mayoral campaign, and then became his right-hand man. Sandburg also wrote for the city’s two socialist newspapers (the Social-Democratic Herald and the Milwaukee Leader).

Other Socialist landmarks don’t bear identifying names. The Milwaukee Continuation School began to offer classes in 1912. It soon became one of the largest schools for workers in the country and eventually became the Milwaukee Area Technical College, a public two-year college located in the city’s downtown that now serves over 35,000 students.

Zeidler never graduated from college but he was well-educated thanks to the city’s expansive public library system, part of the Socialists’ investment in good government. Zeidler called public libraries “the university of the working class.” The Zeidler Humanities Department at the Central Library (an important repository of Milwaukee history), as well as the Zeidler Municipal Building (an annex to City Hall) are named for the former mayor, who died in 2006. Zeidler led the campaign to create the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which now serves over 27,000 students. In 1957, Zeidler’s leadership brought about the city’s nonprofit public TV station.

After he left public office, Zeidler would give tours of the city, focusing on schools, parks, firehouses, and infrastructure, particularly those in working-class neighborhoods. But Zeidler’s socialism was not only about basic public services, explained McGuinness. “He also had an internationalist vision. He was an advocate for the United Nations, worked for world peace, and opposed nuclear weapons.”

The three history buffs all suggested a tour of the city’s magnificent public parks, “the most tangible legacy of the socialist movement,” Gurda said. The city’s bountiful park system reflects “the socialist conviction that beauty spots belong to the people,” Gurda explained. “They believed that we should all be in the presence of nature.”

“The socialists wanted everyone to live near a park,” said Germanson. Milwaukee’s park system, he remarked, was “the first Green New Deal,” a source of both jobs and open space.

Seidel envisioned a series of parks along the Milwaukee River but was voted out of office before he could carry out his plan. But Socialist Charles Whitnall—a one-time city treasurer and founder of the Commonwealth Mutual Savings Bank for workers—took up the cause as a leader of the city’s Public Land Commission and the county’s Park Commission. His 1923 master plan created a network of beautiful parks and protected the city’s Lake Michigan lakefront from development, making sure that the working class had access to the beaches and other recreation areas.

Whitnall Park, named for the system’s visionary, is the largest park in the now county-operated system, which includes 150 parks, making up 15,000 acres (including public golf courses, paved trails, a zoo, and water parks) that account for nearly 10 percent of the city’s area. About 90 percent of Milwaukee residents live within a ten-minute walk of a park, well above the national average.

In 1910, Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialists added chlorine to the lake water, which sharply reduced the incidence of typhoid. A few years later, following a huge outbreak of diarrhea, the city stopped mixing raw sewage with drinking water. In 1925, under Hoan, the city built the Jones Island water treatment plant, one of the first facilities of its kind, and still in operation. From the start—and long before the emergence of environmentalism and widespread recycling—Milwaukee recycled its sewage sludge as Milorganite (for Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen), a fertilizer used on parks, golf courses, and lawns around the country. The treatment plant is now run by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, whose Milorganite operation generates over $10 million in annual revenue for the city.

Puddlers Hall, now a popular tavern, was erected in 1872 as a union hall for the ironworkers at a nearby factory. On May 5, 1886, 1,500 of them marched on the factory—where they toiled sixteen hours a day, six days a week—to demand an eight-hour day without a pay cut. Without provocation, the state militia fired on the protesters, killing seven, including a thirteen-year-old boy. The public outrage led to the formation of the People’s Party, a precursor to the Socialists. A historical marker on the site memorializes what became known as the Bay View Massacre.

Turner Hall, near the city’s downtown, has long served as a gathering place for Milwaukee’s radicals and socialists and remains a popular site for meetings and performances, with a gym in the basement. It was originally constructed in 1882 as the headquarters for city’s Turnen, a German-American civic organization that taught gymnastics and also gave members (including Berger) a place to socialize, listen to music, drink beer, and discuss politics. Debs gave his first speech as a Socialist there in 1898 and spoke at Turner Hall on many other occasions. The Milwaukee Turners still offer gymnastics classes as well as rock climbing, and continue their activism as part of the Confronting Mass Incarceration coalition that seeks to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population.

Mayor Hoan launched the nation’s first municipal public housing project, Garden Homes, consisting of ninety-three houses surrounding a central park in an area that was still mostly farm land. Hoan drafted the project’s bylaws, which established it as renter-owned co-operative. Its working-class residents made monthly payments into the nonprofit corporation rather than pay rent. Seidel, then the area’s City Council member, was one of its original residents. The housing was affordable, well-constructed, attractive, and near green space, but in 1925, two years after it opened, most of the residents wanted to take advantage of rising home prices and voted to dissolve the co-operative in favor of traditional single-family homeownership. Most of the original buildings remain, and many are still occupied, but they have fallen on hard times. Some Milwaukeeans would like to see Garden Homes renovated, occupied, and registered as an historic landmark.

In his 1938 memoirs, Emil Seidel reflected on his movement’s practical vision. “Some eastern smarties called ours a Sewer Socialism. Yes, we wanted sewers in the workers’ homes; but we wanted much, oh, so very much more than sewers,” he wrote, including “pure air,” sunshine, planned homes, living wages, “recreation for young and old,” vocational education, and a “chance for every human being to be strong and live a life of happiness.” And, Seidel added, “we wanted everything that was necessary to give them that: playgrounds, parks, lakes, beaches, clean creeks and rivers, swimming and wading pools, social centers, reading rooms, clean fun, music, dance, song and joy for all.”

Those notions, once considered radical, are now taken for granted by most Americans.

Is the country ready for another wave of radical ideas? “America will never be a socialist country,” Trump declared in his 2019 State of the Union Address. But according to a 2018 Gallup poll, 37 percent of all Americans, almost half of Americans under forty, and 57 percent of Democrats have a more favorable view of socialism than of capitalism. When the Democrats visit Milwaukee for their 2020 convention, they should keep that poll—and Seidel’s vision—in mind.

Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College. He is the author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame and coauthor of Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century. His next book, We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style, a collection of essays co-edited with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin, will be published next year by The New Press.