Bernie Sanders Wasn’t Our First Socialist Mayor: Remembering Milwaukee’s Socialist Party History

Frank Zeidler served the city as mayor for three terms, and his Socialist Party held seats in the city council, state legislature and even Congress.

Shaun Richman

Frank Zeidler celebrating his election as mayor of Milwaukee. (Socialist Party archives)

As the country’s politics take a right turn, an unlikely progressive wins office as mayor of a major U.S. city. In an era marked by conformity and the primacy of business interests over the common good, he has the temerity to call himself a socialist. Both locally and nationally, his example serves as a beacon of hope for the waning left and a lightening rod of criticism for the resurgent right. His fundamental decency and fealty to the democratic process and the public good see him continually reelected, with most voters regarding him on a first-name basis. He goes on to run a quixotic campaign for President.

His record in office contributed significantly to the city’s socialist legacy. Milwaukee's stock of public housing was expanded dramatically; a lucrative new channel of newfangled television broadcasting was reserved for public education programming; and the city’s tax base was preserved through an aggressive campaign of suburban annexation.

If this sounds familiar to fans of Bernie Sanders’ career, it should. But I am describing Frank Zeidler, the socialist mayor of Milwaukee who served three terms from 1948-1960. When the producers of the television series Happy Days wanted to cast a nostalgic look back on the supposedly placid 1950s, they chose to base their sitcom in Milwaukee. Of course, no mention is made that not only is the mayor a socialist, but the state’s junior Senator is the demagogic anti-Communist Joseph McCarthy. 

This is a history that’s been hiding in plain sight, given focus by a new book from the University of Illinois Press’ Working Class in American History series. Conservative Counterrevolution: Challenging Liberalism in 1950s Milwaukee, by Tula A. Connell, explores the record of a socialist administration in an era that is popularly thought to be when Americans definitively turned against socialism and abandoned urbanism.

But there was, nevertheless, a right turn in the 1950s, and Connell’s book is a vital study of the roots of modern American conservatism. The election of Scott Walker and the battles over his anti-union attacks and the subsequent recall effort revealed to many outsiders the extreme polarization that have marked Wisconsin politics since before Zeidler and McCarthy shared the stage (A polarization that can be seen in Tuesday’s primary results, where Wisconsin Democrats went strongly for socialist Bernie Sanders and Republicans chose Ted Cruz because he is more reliably conservative than Donald Trump).

Connell’s history documents how Milwaukee business and suburban interests inveighed against the expanded role of government in as an attack on American free enterprise” and used racial demagoguery to peel off voters from the New Deal coalition. This local right-wing pushback became part of a national network that gave rise to Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan. If Wisconsin DNA is so central to modern conservatism, then today’s polarization of national political discourse was seemingly inevitable.

The public good or the virtue of selfishness?

Milwaukee was an early stronghold of the Socialist Party, furnishing the party with wins for mayor, council, state legislature and even a seat in Congress. In city government, they emphasized honest government and effective public services. Critics on the party’s left derided them as sewer socialists.” The Milwaukee Socialists wore the term as a badge of honor.

Although, to this day, the Socialist candidate can draw upwards of 20% in first round balloting in Milwaukee’s non-partisan mayoral elections, Zeidler’s election was something of a last hurrah for the party. He ran as part of a liberal coalition and benefited as much from name recognition (his older brother’s tenure as mayor was cut short by his WWII casualty) as it did lingering voter loyalty to socialism.

But his record in office nevertheless contributed significantly to the city’s socialist legacy. Milwaukee’s stock of public housing was expanded dramatically; a lucrative new channel of newfangled television broadcasting was reserved for public education programming; and the city’s tax base was preserved through an aggressive campaign of suburban annexation.

Zeidler’s annexation agenda was particularly crucial for Milwaukee, and represents a road not taken for too many other post-war cities. The combination of white flight, highway construction, suburban development and tax breaks for mortgage interest is a uniquely American tragedy that left great cities blighted and broken down. Zeidler refused to accept that suburbanites could just cut themselves off from responsibility from the wider society. His office organized over 300 annexation votes that incrementally expanded the city by more than 35 square miles. Zeidler’s preferred method to win these votes was through education campaigns about the benefits of pooling resources and the efficiency of Milwaukee government, but he was also not shy about engaging in water wars. Suburbs that insisted upon independence were denied Milwaukee city water and sewer services, among other benefits.

Of course there was a backlash. The suburbs sued, right-wing elements pushed state legislation to make annexation more difficult while some townships merged to form cities” of their own to forestall annexation by Milwaukee. An iron ring” of rich suburbs encircled Milwaukee, ultimately producing the same racial tensions and defunding of public services that plagued other American cities.

In fact, much of Zeidler’s agenda was vociferously opposed by a rising right-wing movement. This subject is the heart of Conservative Counterrevolution. Author Tula Connell calls the post-war consensus around full employment and living standards that rose with productivity a mirage” and documents how modern conservatism was not newly generated in the 1950s or 1960s but rather represented a resurgence of a deep current in America’s history.”

It is perhaps not surprising that it was small and mid-sized businessmen who first chafed at the New Deal, and were in the vanguard of right-wing opposition. Conservative Counterrevolution’s bête noir is William Grede, who operated a Milwaukee area steel foundry that he (of course!) inherited from his dad. Grede was a viciously anti-union boss, who took the then uncommon step of hiring permanent replacement scabs when his employees went on strike in 1946.

Grede served a term as the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, and, according to Connell, had a fundraising finger in nearly every organization that challenged perceived encroachments on free enterprise,” including Americans for Constitutional Action, the National Association of Businessmen and the John Birch Society. His philosophy – which can be efficiently summed up by the title of the book he never finished writing, The Virtue of Selfishness – remained far outside the mainstream of Republican policymaking during his lifetime. Today, his brand of selfishness has utterly captured the GOP, thanks in part to the deep pockets of odious men like the sons of Grede’s Birch Society co-founder, Fred Koch.

Although Grede’s and others’ opposition to Zeidler’s public housing program was rooted in a fear of creeping socialism” and a desire for private profit, his opponents resorted to the most base racism in order to win voters over. His opponent in his third and final election, Milton McGuire, waged a demagogic campaign that focused on the rising number of African-Americans moving to the city. McGuire accused Zeidler of placing billboards throughout the south, to attract new black residents with promises of low cost public housing. Zeidler won re-election handily, but had decided that his third term would be his last.

The greatest living American”

Zeidler was succeeded by Henry Maier, a conservative Democrat who won office by race-baiting his opponents. His administration abandoned public housing construction, slow-walked civil rights, responded to 1967 riots with a law and order agenda and consolidated power. He remained in office for an unprecedented seven terms. By 2002, research showed that Milwaukee’s racial disparities were the worst in the nation.

One of the reasons Frank cited for not running for re-election in 1960 was his frail health. He was always in poor health, and yet he somehow lived to the ripe old age of 93. He even ran for President as the standard-bearer of the reconstituted Socialist Party in 1976! It was in his capacity as the party’s chairman emeritus that I had the pleasure of getting to know Frank.
I always found it fascinating to visit Milwaukee while Frank was still alive; it was a bizarro world where the Socialist Party’s leader was revered as a statesman and warmly greeted as a neighbor. To whit: when I was doing press for the party’s 100th anniversary conference in 2001, a reporter for the Journal-Sentinel asked me what socialists in other parts of the country thought of Frank. I answered that most of us think he’s a really great man. The reporter naturally heard that as the greatest living American” and put it in the story, embarrassing Frank slightly.

With the racial strife and economic decline of the city that came later, it’s not hard to see how Milwaukee residents look back on the Zeidler years as, indeed, happy days.

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Shaun Richman is a labor expert at SUNY Empire State College and author of Tell The Bosses We’re Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the 21st Century.

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