How a Sewer Socialist City May Push Democrats Left in 2020

When presidential hopefuls arrive in Milwaukee for the 2020 Democratic National Convention, they must choose whether to embrace the city’s socialist history, or run from it.

Lindsey Anderson July 25, 2019

Clockwise from top left: Portraits of Socialist Milwaukee Mayors Daniel Hoan, Emil Seidel and Frank Zeidler; Eugene V. Debs addresses a socialist meeting as president of the American Railway Union. His 1912 Socialist Party presidential campaign included Seidel on his ticket. (Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh)

Mil­wau­kee May­or Tom Bar­rett announced March 11 that, for the first time in its his­to­ry, the city will host the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Convention.

Candidates vying for the nomination will have to ask themselves: Will they embrace socialism, or run from it?

In some ways, the choice was obvi­ous. Wis­con­sin is a swing state whose demo­graph­ics — in terms of race, eth­nic­i­ty, income, edu­ca­tion and neigh­bor­hood com­po­si­tion — close­ly reflect those of the Unit­ed States as a whole. And the mem­o­ry of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 snub is still fresh in the minds of many Mid­west­ern­ers: Dur­ing Clinton’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, her team (led by Rob­by Mook) decid­ed that Wis­con­sin was such a safe Demo­c­ra­t­ic strong­hold, Clin­ton wouldn’t need to vis­it. She lost Wis­con­sin by around 23,000 votes.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has clear­ly learned from this 2016 mis­take as it con­sid­ers strate­gies to turn bat­tle­grounds like Wis­con­sin blue. But one can also make the case that, in choos­ing Mil­wau­kee, the par­ty is hon­or­ing the city’s unique polit­i­cal his­to­ry. Mil­wau­kee is the only major U.S. city to have elect­ed three social­ist may­ors: Emil Sei­del, Daniel Hoan and Frank Zei­dler. They held office for a col­lec­tive 38 years (between 1910 and 1960) and helped earn Mil­wau­kee a rep­u­ta­tion for being, as Time mag­a­zine report­ed in 1936, per­haps the best gov­erned city in the U.S.”

Mark Jef­fer­son, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Repub­li­can Par­ty of Wis­con­sin, seized upon this his­to­ry as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to red­bait: No city in Amer­i­ca has stronger ties to social­ism,” he said in a state­ment about the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­ven­tion. And with the rise of Bernie Sanders and the embrace of social­ism by its newest lead­ers, the Amer­i­can Left has come full cir­cle. It’s only fit­ting the Democ­rats would come to Milwaukee.”

Jef­fer­son was being snarky, but he’s arguably cor­rect. Near­ly all the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates have includ­ed poli­cies in their cam­paign plat­forms that harken back to the city’s lega­cy of sew­er social­ist” may­ors (a phrase coined in 1932 that refers to the superla­tive pub­lic works projects cre­at­ed by Mil­wau­kee social­ists). Mil­wau­keeans didn’t seem par­tic­u­lar­ly both­ered by the term, though. Yes, we want­ed sew­ers in the work­ers’ hous­es,” May­or Emil Sei­del wrote in his 1944 mem­oirs, but we want­ed much, oh, so very much more than sew­ers. We want­ed our work­ers to have pure air; we want­ed them to have sun­shine; we want­ed planned homes; we want­ed liv­ing wages; we want­ed recre­ation for young and old; we want­ed voca­tion­al edu­ca­tion; we want­ed a chance for every human being to be strong and live a life of happiness.”

Tom Perez, chair of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee, seemed to sug­gest that Milwaukee’s pro­gres­sive politi­cians embod­ied the party’s best impuls­es, stat­ing at the March 11 press con­fer­ence, Where you hold a con­ven­tion is a very strong state­ment of your val­ues … of who we are as a par­ty, and who and what we’re fight­ing for.”

Perez, whose wife grew up in the Mil­wau­kee sub­urbs, is like­ly well aware of the city’s social­ist his­to­ry. His own pol­i­tics around social­ism are less clear: A well-respect­ed labor sec­re­tary under Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma, Perez beat out the Left’s pre­ferred can­di­date for DNC chair, Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus co-chair Kei­th Elli­son, who was endorsed by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), the Pro­gres­sive Democ­rats of Amer­i­ca, Friends of the Earth Action, Unite Here and many oth­er pro­gres­sive organizations.

The Mil­wau­kee chap­ter of the DSA, for its part, intends to lever­age the city’s his­to­ry to ele­vate demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists — in par­tic­u­lar, Bernie Sanders. They’re even think­ing of lead­ing a series of social­ist his­to­ry tours for politi­cians and del­e­gates, with stops at local land­marks such as Turn­er Hall and the River­west Pub­lic House. In the mean­time, res­i­dents con­tin­ue to express inter­est in join­ing the chap­ter, which has seen its mem­ber­ship surge since the 2016 election. 

As more and more Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers, espe­cial­ly mil­len­ni­als, iden­ti­fy as demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists, it feels momen­tous that Mil­wau­kee, with its proud sew­er social­ist” past, will be host­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­ven­tion. Can­di­dates vying for the nom­i­na­tion will have to ask them­selves: Will they embrace social­ism, or run from it?

The social­ist move­ment in Mil­wau­kee has its begin­nings in the mid-1800s, when Ger­man immi­grants began mov­ing to the city in droves. Many of them had been vocal sup­port­ers of the rev­o­lu­tions of 1848 — a series of failed upris­ings led by mid­dle-class peo­ple who want­ed to bring democ­ra­cy to Europe’s remain­ing monar­chies — and they brought their lib­er­al ideas with them as they set­tled in Brew City. Yet those ideas may nev­er have gained real trac­tion if it weren’t for Ger­man-born Mil­wau­kee social­ists, such as the social­ist news­pa­per edi­tor Paul Grot­tkau, who helped spear­head a city­wide strike in the spring of 1886

In 1886, Grot­tkau was among the founders of Milwaukee’s Eight-hour League, a group of work­ers ded­i­cat­ed to short­er work­days. That same year, Pol­ish labor­ers began meet­ing at a local church to orga­nize a gen­er­al strike in protest of their 10-hour work­days. Togeth­er, they recruit­ed thou­sands of peo­ple to join their cause.

On May 2, around 14,500 pro­test­ers marched through the streets of Mil­wau­kee, chant­i­ng and wav­ing ban­ners. Tens of thou­sands of spec­ta­tors turned out. Accord­ing to a 1910 arti­cle in the Mil­wau­kee Free Press, Reports came in thick and fast that in all parts of the city upris­ings were tak­ing place and that large bod­ies of labor­ing men were march­ing toward the man­u­fac­tur­ing plants intent on riot­ing and destruction.”

Afraid that the local police would not be able to con­trol the crowds, Wis­con­sin Gov. Jere­mi­ah Rusk dis­patched the state mili­tia to sub­due them. By the time his troops reached the city, pro­test­ers had shut down every major fac­to­ry in the metro area, save for the Bay View Rolling Mills, whose man­agers had insist­ed on keep­ing it open. On May 5, around 1,500 pro­test­ers — includ­ing many women and chil­dren who had joined the strik­ers — marched toward the fac­to­ries, intent on con­vinc­ing the work­ers there to shut them down.

When the marchers neared the mili­tia, they stopped. But Major George P. Traeumer, antic­i­pat­ing vio­lence from the pro­test­ers, ordered the sol­diers to fire at will. At least five peo­ple were killed, includ­ing a 13-year-old, and many more injured. The bloody retal­i­a­tion brought the 1886 strike to an abrupt end. In the months that fol­lowed, the pub­lic began to empathize more with the social­ists who helped orga­nize the strike. 

When Grot­tkau was con­vict­ed of incit­ing a riot and sen­tenced to a year in prison, he lever­aged all the media atten­tion he was receiv­ing to announce a run for may­or of Mil­wau­kee. He didn’t win, but he helped pop­u­lar­ize work­ing-class caus­es like pub­lic own­er­ship of util­i­ties and the elim­i­na­tion of graft in local gov­ern­ment, lead­ing the way for the suc­cess­ful elec­toral cam­paigns of oth­er socialists.

In 1904, Emil Sei­del became one of nine social­ists to join Milwaukee’s city coun­cil as an alder­man. In 1910, Sei­del became the first social­ist to win a may­oral race in a major U.S. city, with about 6,500 more votes than the next can­di­date. That same year, social­ists car­ried 14 of the city’s 23 wards. 

Sei­del became inter­est­ed in pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics and Marx­ism while study­ing wood­carv­ing in Berlin. From 1910-12, he estab­lished the first pub­lic works office in the city. Sei­del also closed many of Milwaukee’s gam­bling par­lors and broth­els and cre­at­ed a pub­lic parks sys­tem. And he infu­ri­at­ed both Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans by crack­ing down on polit­i­cal corruption.

Dems and the GOP col­lab­o­rat­ed to beat out Sei­del in 1912 by joint­ly endors­ing a dif­fer­ent can­di­date, but many oth­er social­ists man­aged to hold onto pub­lic office and con­tin­ued to push for pro­gres­sive reform. One of them was Daniel Hoan, who was elect­ed Milwaukee’s city attor­ney in 1910. While hold­ing that office, he pushed the country’s first worker’s com­pen­sa­tion law through the state leg­is­la­ture and helped Sei­del reduce cor­rup­tion in the local gov­ern­ment by mak­ing their process­es stream­lined and trans­par­ent. Hoan gained enough pop­u­lar sup­port to mount a suc­cess­ful may­oral cam­paign in 1916 and held the office for 24 years.

Hoan estab­lished a pub­lic bus sys­tem and the nation’s first pub­lic hous­ing project and suc­cess­ful­ly steered Mil­wau­kee toward pub­lic own­er­ship of its stone quar­ry, street­lights, sewage dis­pos­al sys­tem and water purifi­ca­tion sys­tem. Hoan cre­at­ed a pro­gram to make text­books free for local stu­dents and anoth­er to admin­is­ter free vac­cines. He is still wide­ly con­sid­ered one of the most altru­is­tic may­ors in Amer­i­can history.

The most recent Mil­wau­kee may­oral social­ist, Frank Zei­dler, held office from 1948 to 1960. His biggest achieve­ment as may­or was incor­po­rat­ing many sub­urbs into the city, near­ly dou­bling Milwaukee’s size and tax base (which fore­stalled the urban blight that had begun to plague cities that failed to incor­po­rate their sub­urbs, like St. Louis, around the same time). Zei­dler was also a staunch advo­cate for civ­il rights leg­is­la­tion and helped push for the estab­lish­ment of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

Near the end of his time in office, Zei­dler released an Inner Core Report,” a study describ­ing Milwaukee’s inner-city con­di­tions with a detailed plan to improve the city’s increas­ing­ly strained race rela­tions. The sug­ges­tions, which could have helped pre­vent much of the redlin­ing that would even­tu­al­ly trans­form Mil­wau­kee into one of the most seg­re­gat­ed cities in the Unit­ed States, were large­ly ignored by his successor. 

The greater lega­cy of Milwaukee’s social­ist politi­cians is still pal­pa­ble today. Milwaukee’s pub­lic parks sys­tem is one of the most exten­sive in the coun­try. Its pub­lic beach­es (in the ear­ly 1900s, wealthy Mil­wau­keeans bought up most of the city’s lake­front prop­er­ty — social­ists then poured sand and soil into the har­bor in front of their land to cre­ate sev­er­al pub­lic beach­es) draw crowds every year. 

Milwaukee’s social­ists also seem to have influ­enced lat­er gen­er­a­tions of pro­gres­sive politi­cians, such as Robert La Fol­lette, a left-wing Repub­li­can who became gov­er­nor of Wis­con­sin and found­ed The Pro­gres­sive mag­a­zine.

Cur­rent mem­bers of Mil­wau­kee DSA cer­tain­ly see them­selves as present-day sew­er social­ists. Mem­ber Bran­don Pay­ton-Car­ril­lo, 35, says he draws inspi­ra­tion from the prag­mat­ic approach to local gov­ern­ment adopt­ed by Sei­del, Hoan and Zei­dler. Pay­ton-Car­ril­lo hopes his chap­ter can lever­age the 2020 DNC con­ven­tion to shine a spot­light on DSA cam­paigns like Get the Lead Out, a coali­tion formed to pres­sure Mil­wau­kee politi­cians to remove lead from the city’s drink­ing water. That bot­tom-up grass­roots expe­ri­ence is the foun­da­tion of Mil­wau­kee social­ism,” he says.

When Bernie Sanders and the rest of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates arrive in Mil­wau­kee in July 2020, the world will be wait­ing to see how they artic­u­late their vision for a bet­ter future. If any of them point to Milwaukee’s sew­er social­ists, and the way they gov­erned their city, the world will be listening.

Lind­sey Ander­son is an Ohio-born, Wis­con­sin-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cul­ture and politics.
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