Sewer Socialism: The Legacy of Socialist Government
in American Cities
By Ren Walstrom
May 1, 2022
“The application of political theory to the practical problems of government always presents problems for both party theoreticians and party practitioners.” - Frank Zeidler
The name sewer socialism originated as a pejorative term intended to diminish the accomplishments of socialists in Milwaukee, but it became a badge of honor for those dedicated to improving the living conditions of the urban working class. The legacy of the Socialists in Milwaukee is not only an exemplary sanitation system, but a commitment to public service in a broad sense. The rich history of socialist city governments in the United States provides many lessons about the potential and limitations for socialist movements at the local level. By studying both the achievements and failures of historical socialist administrations, socialists today can strengthen their own campaigns for city government.
The first example of a socialist city administration was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Although this was not the first time a socialist was elected mayor, it was the first time socialists had near complete control of a city government. Milwaukee socialists, then still under the label of the Social Democratic Party, began making inroads to city government in 1904, electing seventeen socialists to local offices and six to the state legislature. After increasing their gains over the next few years, the Socialists swept the city government in the 1910 election, in which Emil Seidel was elected Mayor of Milwaukee, and Socialists secured a majority on the Common Council. The same year, thirteen Socialists were elected to the state legislature, and Victor Berger was elected to represent Wisconsin’s 5th district in the House of Representatives, the first Socialist ever elected to federal office.[i] At a time when the Socialist Party did not seem to be a viable third party at the national level, Milwaukee was ripe for political change.
Emil Seidel saw the Socialists’ landslide victory as a sign of socialism’s inevitable rise and an opportunity to begin building socialism at the local level. While in office, he advocated strongly for the municipalization of utilities, but his most significant achievement was the reorganization of the city government. Seidel streamlined city administration by eliminating several departments and creating the Bureau of Economy and Efficiency, arguing that there would be fewer opportunities for politicians to skim the city budget.[ii] He also worked with the common council to raise the minimum wage for city laborers from $1.75 to $2.50 per day, make the 8-hour day standard for municipal crews, and strengthen local Health Department inspections.[iii] Although his two years as Mayor had been quite productive and transformative, it made Democrats and Republicans all the more determined to unseat him.
Seidel was defeated for re-election in 1912 by Gerhard A. Bading, Milwaukee’s Municipal Health Commissioner. Not wanting to risk another Socialist victory, Democrats and Republicans nominated Bading on a fusion ticket in an effort to protect their mutual interests against a candidate for the working class. The city also made elections non-partisan, which prevented socialists from having their party affiliation listed on the ballot. In spite of this, Seidel remained active in politics, serving as Eugene V. Debs’ running mate in the 1912 Presidential Election, and later returned to the Milwaukee Common Council to serve two non-consecutive terms from 1916-1920 and 1932-1936 respectively.
By his final term on the city council, the idealist attitude he had entered office with in 1910 had waned and he came to adopt a more gradualist approach to socialist reform. He was often frustrated with younger socialists on the city council, whose dogmatism and intransigence he believed cost the socialists seats on the council. After retirement, he regretted not making more compromises, stating in his autobiography, “My term as mayor might have accomplished more if we had been a little more patient with some of our enemies. We should have reasoned with them and they might have been converted.”[iv] Although Seidel may not have been able to make the revolutionary changes he had hoped to as Mayor, the movement that brought him into office would continue to have a lasting impact on Milwaukee politics for decades to come.
The Democratic-Republican alliance that ousted Seidel controlled the mayor’s office for only four years. The next socialist to hold the office of Mayor was Daniel Hoan, whose administration, spanning from 1916-1940, remains the longest of any socialist mayor in a major city to date. Hoan was first elected City Attorney in 1910 on the socialist ticket and worked under multiple administrations to lower fares and improve service of the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company.[v] Even when Seidel was defeated in 1912, Hoan was re-elected to his office, a testament to voter confidence in him.
As Mayor, Hoan didn’t have a socialist majority on the city council, so he had to be prepared to compromise. However, his experience as City Attorney under Seidel’s administration helped prepare him for his own legislative proposals. Many of Seidel’s proposals violated the Wisconsin Constitution and were challenged in the courts. Hoan’s meticulous process of crafting legislation entailed more extensive legal research and carefully chosen wording to ensure that all proposals complied with state and local laws. [vi] This practice, though it slowed down the lawmaking process, resulted in lasting changes that could not be struck down by judicial review.
When the United States entered the First World War, Hoan was caught between his philosophical opposition to the war and the federal mandate for all major cities to facilitate draft registration. In the end, he complied with the federal draft provisions, but he was determined to see that the domestic war effort included the welfare of civilians at home. Hoan and other local officials established a local council of defense to cooperate with the State Council of Defense. Of particular importance to Hoan was the Bureau of Food Control, which would help prevent speculation and price gouging, and provide adequate food distribution for civilians.[vii] When the Socialist Party’s opposition of the war was made the subject of the 1918 election, Hoan was removed from the Council of Defense and as Chair of the Bureau of Food Control, although he remained on the Bureau, and other Socialists remained on the Council of Defense. In spite of the challenges posed by WWI, Hoan was able to secure the municipalization of the city’s water system in 1917 and establish a municipally owned power plant in 1918.[viii]
When Hoan was finally free from both political and material constraints of the war, he was able to devote his attention to Milwaukee’s deepening housing crisis. In 1923, Hoan and the city’s lead planner, Charles Whitnall, established a public housing project called “Garden Homes.” The project was managed by a joint municipal and cooperative corporation, which issued stock to city, county, and private agencies at a fixed return of 5% in order to keep interest rates low for tenants. [ix] Although Hoan and Whitnall were not able to accomplish the extent of housing development and urban planning they had hoped for, Garden Homes provided housing and reduced congestion in a densely populated area.
Daniel Hoan saw his biggest victory in 1932 when he was not only re-elected alongside a Socialist City Attorney and Treasurer, but for the first (and only) time in his tenure as mayor, he had a working majority on the city council. However, this would be shortly followed by a fierce effort to recall him. Hoan preferred operating the city on a “cash only” basis, meaning that the operating expenses of each year were financed by taxes already collected by the beginning of the year in order to avoid debt. When the city found itself struggling with a shortfall in property tax collections Hoan to proposed issuing scrip – a substitute for the legal currency when consumers could not access their funds or did not have cash. Scrip had been used by both private and state entities before, and its use increased during the Great Depression as a way for local governments to mitigate the effects of reduced currency flow. Regardless, the Taxpayers’ Advisory Council denounced the issuing of scrip as a “confession of bankruptcy.” [x] Although the Common Council initially rejected a proposal in February of 1933 because the scrip would not pay interest, they approved a modified plan in May to issue $5,000,000 in tax redemption coupons, which came to be called “baby bonds,” paying 5% interest, with the first notes to be issued June 1st.[xi] The approval of the plan prompted the Taxpayer’s Advisory Council, along with other groups opposing Hoan, to begin petitioning for a recall election.
In spite of a seemingly well organized campaign, the recall effort failed when thousands of signatures were contested in court. Signatures were invalidated for a variety of reasons, including individuals signing more than once or falsely reporting their address. One woman, who identified herself as a supporter of Hoan’s, said she only signed the petition because the circulator told her it was for lower taxes. [xii] The recall effort failed to damage Hoan’s reputation, and the unethical methods of petitioning may even have helped him. Although he was re-elected in 1936, he was defeated in 1940 by Carl Zeidler, a Democrat who had previously served as an Assistant City Attorney for Milwaukee and would resign in the middle of his Mayoral term to volunteer in the Second World War. Hoan subsequently switched his party affiliation to Democratic and ran unsuccessfully for a variety of offices from state legislature to governor. Ironically, though Hoan joined the Democrats because he recognized the declining influence of the Socialist Party in American politics, he himself would never match the level of political influence he wielded as a socialist mayor.
Halfway across the country, Jasper McLevy sought to emulate the success of Milwaukee socialists in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Although Bridgeport was considerably smaller than Milwaukee, taking control of the largest city in the state was no small feat. After nine unsuccessful campaigns for Mayor, McLevy was elected in 1933 with 48% of the vote, along with a socialist City Clerk, City Treasurer, and twelve of sixteen city council seats up for election that year. Much like the Socialists in Milwaukee, he benefited from widespread dissatisfaction with Democrats and Republicans at the city level, and made a direct comparison in a statement issued following his victory:
“We intend to carry out our campaign pledge of rehabilitation of the city’s financial and social affairs and introduce civil service and the merit system in the fire and police departments. I intend to pattern my administration on the successful policies of Mayor Daniel Hoan of Milwaukee.” [xiii]
McLevy may have been referring to policy, but he also managed to replicate Hoan’s political longevity, and was re-elected for eleven more two-year terms. His Mayoralty was noteworthy enough to have been the subject of James Blawie’s Master Thesis in 1951, even as he was still in office. While not technically a complete account of his mayoralty, the essay details how his policies evolved as he stayed in office, and he shifted from progressive reform to political opportunism. Blawie noted that “the low real estate tax rate is the backbone of the McLevy political success.”[xiv]
In spite of a controversial legacy, McLevy’s first few terms were marked by significant reform and high approval from voters. When audits and investigations of city departments revealed the prevalence of public officials receiving excessively large public contracts, Bridgeport became the first municipality to create and enforce an ordinance forbidding the awarding of city contracts to city officials. McLevy replaced private garbage contracts with municipalized service, which saved the city money even after factoring in the cost of trucks and equipment. He also established the first city-owned garbage disposal plant and initiated a new sewage program to eliminate the pollution of the harbors.[xv] Eliminating unnecessary departments and wasteful spending was a much welcome reforms for citizens who were frustrated with corrupt officials skimming the city budget for their own benefit.
The New Deal programs benefitted McLevy immensely. He was able to finance city projects with help from state and federal grants, but seldom gave credit to the state and federal legislators who secured it, attributing the balanced budget to his own fiscal prudence. Much of the accomplishments of McLevy’s first few terms were made possible by federal funds from the Civil Works Administration and Works Progress Administration, some of them accomplished exclusively with federal funds. When these programs came to an end, there was a sharp decline in large infrastructure projects like street paving and sewage construction. [xvi] The loss of jobs brought by the programs combined with the deterioration of public structures contributed to growing dissatisfaction with his administration in its final years.
Although the Socialist majority on the Common Council was initially to McLevy’s advantage, he soon found himself facing intra-party opposition. Socialist Alderman Michael Gratt called McLevy a “traitor” for failing to act on the municipalization of public utilities.[xvii] McLevy exercised considerable control over Socialist Party nominations and became notorious for replacing Socialist alderman who criticized or voted against him. This frustrated the remaining socialists, many of whom would leave the party or decline nomination for positions because of the mayor’s undue influence over the city and state legislatures.
McLevy’s relationship with organized labor deteriorated over the course of his administration as well. While union support was integral to his first election victories, his record of activity on labor did not live up to his campaign rhetoric. In March of 1937, when faced with garbage collectors striking over the firing of a co-worker, he at first defused the situation by promising to investigate whether the dismissal had been unjust and promising a conference before any future dismissals. This lasted until May, when they went on strike again after yet another worker was fired without conference. McLevy responded by discharging all sixty striking workers and hired replacements immediately.[xviii] Later, when an ordinance was proposed that would confirm the right of city employees to organize, McLevy rejected it, claiming that it was unnecessary, as the right to organize was inherent. Even when the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), United Mine Workers (UMW) and Railroad Brotherhoods came out in support of the ordinance, McLevy’s alternative proposal offered far weaker protections and was widely rejected by labor groups.
In addition to organizing challenges, city employees had to fight McLevy every step of the way for pay increases. Eventually, even the Bridgeport Manufacturer’s Association and Chamber of Commerce, two of the largest contributors in local tax revenue, sided with city workers in their demand for a wage increase.[xix] When the Socialist Mayor of Bridgeport was not only facing opposition from socialists and labor groups, but some of the largest capitalists in the city, the extent of his conservative transformation became glaringly obvious. It also became obvious that his budgeting was contingent on underpaying city workers. By the time McLevy was finally defeated for re-election in 1957, after twenty-four years in office, the honest, idealistic socialist had long since been replaced by a cynical opportunist whose political moves were calculated toward further consolidation of city power.
The last socialist mayor of Milwaukee, and the most recent of any major city, was Frank Zeidler, who served for three terms, presiding over a period of both economic and geographic expansion for the city. He was first elected as a Milwaukee County Surveyor in 1938, and later to the School Board in 1941. After an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1942 and Mayor in 1944, Zeidler was re-elected to another term on the school board. He was offered encouragement by Jasper McLevy who, although well established in Bridgeport by that point, was no stranger to losing elections, having waged several unsuccessful campaigns for Governor of Connecticut throughout his tenure as Mayor. McLevy told him, “Losing elections at your age can teach you a lot. It don‘t hurt you none.” [xx] Undeterred by his previous defeat, Zeidler ran for mayor again in 1948 and managed to stand out amidst a crowded primary which included former Mayor Daniel Hoan, now running as a Democrat. Zeidler advanced to the general, where he defeated Democrat Henry Reuss with 55% of the vote.
Zeidler made it clear that housing was his major priority from the beginning. The passage of the Housing Act of 1949 meant that federal funds would be available, but it was contingent on states and localities establishing housing authorities before they could apply for funding. When the Milwaukee Housing Authority released a proposal to construct 7,260 new units for low-rent residents there was opposition from the real estate industry, who recognized the elimination of scarcity as a threat to their profits, as well as anti-socialist groups who thought government housing was a plot to foster dependence on the government. [xxi]
The most significant resistance came from a group called the Affiliated Taxpayer’s Committee (ATC), which managed to put a
referendum on the ballot that would require every project for public housing to be approved by referendum vote..[xxii] Although Zeidler had initially planned for 10,000 new units to be constructed, the referendum blunted the city’s public housing program, and only 3,200 were constructed by the end of his third term.[xxiii]
While Mayor, Zeidler had a contentious relationship with public sector unions, but for different reasons than McLevy. Whereas McLevy was determined to keep city wages low at any cost, Zeidler was more concerned about ensuring the provision of public services. In his view, striking by public workers was fundamentally different than striking against a private sector employer, because it adversely impacted members of the working class dependent on those services such as garbage collection or public transportation.
“City government is unlike private management. Private management bargains with its own funds. The city government bargains with the funds of others. If private management feels that too hard a bargain has been driven against it, it can fold up. The city government has no such alternative; it must carry on its functions and place the burdens on the citizens whether they can afford it or not.” [xxiv]
Zeidler decided not to run for a fourth term in 1960 but remained an active force in politics, helping to (re)constitute the Socialist Party USA after the 1972 convention had passed a motion to re-name the organization Social Democrats, USA and pursue a strategy of re-alignment within the Democratic Party. Zeidler remained committed to both his philosophy of socialist reform and acting outside of both major parties.
The next socialist administration did not come from the Socialist Party, but from an independent candidate affiliated with Vermont’s Liberty Union Party. In 1981, Bernie Sanders won the Burlington Mayoral election by 10 votes in a historic upset. The first year of his two-year term was marked by struggle against a city council in which only two of the thirteen members supported his agenda, while conservative Democrats formed a coalition with Republicans to block his appointments.[xxv] In spite of this, Sanders was able to begin reforming city government in his first term, merging the Street and Water Departments to create a Public Works Department for more efficient coordination of resources.[xxvi] Over the next several election cycles, he would expand his base of support on the city council.
In 1983, he established the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO) to help expand affordable housing, locally owned small businesses, and greater community involvement in planning. With the creation of the Burlington Community Land Trust, Burlington was the first city in America to fund community land-trust housing, which enabled working class people to purchase homes below the rate offered on the market.[xxvii] Sanders fought alongside tenant organization and nonprofit housing groups to stop a subsidized housing development in Northgate from being converted into high-priced condominiums, and with a federal grant secured by Senator Patrick Leahy, was able to convert the development into a cooperatively owned housing project.[xxviii] The Sanders administration also allocated city funds to the development of Neighborhood Planning Assemblies in each of the city’s wards so residents could participate in deciding how federal Community Development Block Grant funds would be used in
There were many property development projects which placed Sanders between business owners and working class community activists. One such instance was the waterfront on Lake Champlain, which went through several different proposals for development in 1985.[xxx] Although Sanders was in favor of developing the waterfront for public use, his dependence on tax revenue to finance such projects made him more inclined to compromise with them than environmentalist activists. Sanders supported what came to be known as the Alden Plan, a compromise he felt was the city’s best option for development, but many others, including supporters of his, found it prioritized the development of high-price condominiums, hotels, and retail outlets at the expense of a public space open to all. In the end, the Alden Plan was defeated, and the revised plan allotted more space for the public beaches, parkland, bike paths, and community boat house that Burlington residents enjoy today. [xxxi]
Although the Democrats and Republicans in Burlington never formally ran a fusion ticket against Sanders, the Republican Party did not nominate a candidate for mayor in 1985 or 1987. Even with his opposition consolidated, Sanders still won both elections with a decisive majority of the electorate behind him. When he announced that he would not run for re-election in 1989, the progressive and socialist coalition in Burlington had to preserve the reforms they had fought so hard to secure over the last eight years, so they formed the Vermont Progressive Coalition, which would eventually become the Vermont Progressive Party. The coalition supported the Mayoral candidacy of Peter Clavelle, who had served as the Director of the Community and Economic Development Office under Sanders and would go on to serve two terms as Mayor. To this day, the Progressives retain a strong presence in Vermont politics, comprising a majority on the Burlington City Council, with several elected representatives to both chambers of the state’s legislature.
Socialists running for office today face a different political landscape than their predecessors, but many challenges remain the same. The Democratic and Republican parties, though in fierce competition with each other, will protect their power-sharing duopoly against third parties by any means necessary. Even when socialists overcome the electoral hurdles put in their way, they will still depend on cooperation from other local and state officials, and the task of governing presents its own unique set of problems.
Along with keeping up the traditional demands for education, housing and infrastructure developments, socialists must keep pushing forward to address new and emerging community needs. Broadband access is an increasing necessity as employers move their application process to a digital format, more people are working remotely, and students require internet access to complete their assignments. With more households where both parents are working full-time, providing pre-K education and day care is more important than ever. Decreasing dependency on fossil fuels means exploring renewable forms of energy, public transportation, and future urban development with walkable space and bike paths available. Creating a welcoming public space also means fighting and removing hostile architecture and laws designed to antagonize the homeless population, which inhibit the use of such public spaces for everyone rather than addressing the housing crisis at the root of the problem.
Local politics is often overshadowed by the seemingly larger events happening at the national level, but city government is an indispensable battleground. Socialists should not be afraid to make small, modest gains as they advocate for larger and more sweeping reforms. These local struggles addressing the immediate needs of the working class, while not appearing grand in scale, are integral to the movement as a whole. The transition to socialism will not come in one fell swoop, but through thousands of smaller victories as working people take control of their own communities and workplaces. The fight for economic and social justice begins at home.
[i]Elmer Beck, The Sewer Socialists, Volume 1 (1982), page 24. [PDF]
[ii]Edward A. Benoit, III, “A Democracy of Its Own: Milwaukee’s Socialisms, Difference and Pragmatism,” (Master’s Thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2019), page 71. [PDF]
[iii]Tula A. Connell, “Socialists,” Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. 2016.
[iv]Edward S. Kerstein, All-American Mayor (Prentice-Hall, 1966), page 71.
[v]Michael E. Stevens, "Daniel Webster Hoan," Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. 2016.
[vi]Todd J. Fulda, “Daniel Hoan and the Golden Age of Socialist Government in Milwaukee,” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Volume 75, Issue 1 (January 18, 2016), page 249. [PDF]
[x]Scott R. Letteney, “The Saga of a Landslide Reelection, Baby Bonds, and a Recall:
Mayor Daniel W. Hoan 1932-1933,” e.polis, Volume V, Fall/Winter 2012, page 11. [PDF]
[xiii]“Socialists Sweep Bridgeport Poll,” New York Times (November 8, 1933) [PDF]
[xiv]James L. Blawie, “Jasper McLevy: The Man, The Mayor, and His City,” (Master’s Thesis, Boston University, 1951), page 73. [PDF]
[xx]Tula A. Connell, “Frank Zeidler and The Conservative Challenge to Liberalism in 1950s Milwaukee,” (Doctoral Dissertation, Georgetown University, 2011), page 11. [PDF]
[xxv]Bernie Sanders, Outsider in the House (Verso 1997), page 57.
[xxix]Peter Dreier and Pierre Clavel, "What Kind of Mayor Was Bernie Sanders?” The Nation (June 2, 2015)
[xxx]Katharine Q. Seelye, "As Mayor, Bernie Sanders Was More Pragmatist Than Socialist," New York Times (November 25, 2015)
[xxxi]Molly Walsh, "Flashback: Did Bernie Sanders Really Save the Burlington Waterfront?" Seven Days (June 17, 2015)