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Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009

By Popular Appeal Milwaukee’s legacy of Sewer Socialists

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With the way Fox News pundits and other rightwing conservatives have thrown the S-bomb around when it comes to topics like health care and bank bailouts, you’d think Socialism was as sinister as a nuke. Milwaukee, on the other hand, has a history of rewarding members of the political organization with long terms in public office, especially in the city’s top job: mayor.

Gambling dens, 24-hour saloons and brothels thrived in Milwaukee during the tenure of David “All the Time Rosy” Rose, who served as mayor between 1898 and 1910. City Hall was plagued with corruption like bribery and theft, and a standard of administrative inefficiency prevailed. Drawing on Milwaukee’s large German population and active labor movement, Socialist candidates offered a muchneeded alternative to the city’s morally compromised officials.

Victor Berger, an immigrant from Austria, organized the Socialists into a viable political powerhouse that grew stronger with each election. In 1910, the party won the majority of seats on the Milwaukee Common Council and the County Board, and Emil Seidel was elected the nation’s first Socialist mayor. Another first, Berger journeyed to Washington as the country’s first Socialist Congressman. The next two years in Milwaukee were a whirlwind of initiatives designed to improve conditions for the working class and to achieve a more efficient government. Voting procedures were revised and tightened; government spending was meticulously accounted for; the Health Department intensified inspections; municipal workers were given an eight-hour workday, a higher minimum wage and more time off; and the Milwaukee Vocational School (now MATC) opened.

Both Berger and Seidel lost in the 1912 elections, but the Socialists weren’t out. Milwaukee voters approved of the Socialists not because of their allegiance to the tenants of Socialism but because of their successful citywide reform programs, and so voted another Socialist mayor into office in 1916, Daniel Hoan. Twenty years after he took office, Mayor Hoan appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. The publication called him “One of the nation’s ablest public servants, and under him Milwaukee has become perhaps the best-governed city in the U.S.” For an impressive mayoral marathon of 24 years, Milwaukee repeatedly re-elected Hoan until 1940.

In 1948, Milwaukee elected its third Socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler. The buckle tightening of the Great Depression and World War II left Milwaukee with a need to update its services. During Mayor Zeidler’s tenure, Milwaukee purchased its first fleet of garbage trucks; the Central Library was given a new addition and library branches were created; the Fire Department expanded with nine new stations; the Milwaukee Arena was constructed; and bridges and streets were repaved or rebuilt. This is all while the city was doubling in size and population. Zeidler also took on the mounting race and poverty issues in Milwaukee by implementing a number of strategies, such as clearing slums and creating new public housing, to remedy the problems. Before he stepped down in 1960, Zeidler once said he believed the underlying purpose of a city was to “create an environment in which a better people can evolve.” That’s a great mission for any city to adopt, no matter who—Socialist, Republican, Democrat—holds the banner.

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