Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement.
By Jason Sibert
As the last socialist to serve as mayor of a large American city, Frank Zeidler was the mayor of the City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin from 1948 to 1960 and a practitioner of the school of politics known as sewer socialism. However, he was different from many of America’s sewer socialists, as most came from the right-wing of the old Socialist Party of America. Zeidler was on the left-wing of the party but as mayor of Milwaukee his power was limited, like any mayor, and he compiled an impressive record as a sewer socialist. After his stint as mayor, he ran for president of the United States in 1976 on the ticket of the Socialist Party USA, a successor organization to the SPA [Socialist Party of America] on a platform that included a shift of national priorities from bloated defense spending to fighting poverty, rebuilding cities, and creating a national health care program. He also favored the nationalization of some heavy industry.
Zeidler was born in the upper Midwest city in 1912 and became a socialist in 1933 because of socialism’s emphases on peace and improving the lives of working people. The writings of SPA presidential nominees Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas impacted his thinking. He studied at the University of Chicago and Marquette University but never graduated. Zeidler loved the idea of democratic planning to achieve goals. So, he distanced himself from belief in revolutionary Communism. Zeidler was an active Lutheran, a religious commitment which he saw as being fulfilled rather than contradicted by his Socialist activism.
He served as Milwaukee County Surveyor and on the Milwaukee Board of School Directors. In 1948 he ran for mayor as a socialist and won in a field of 14 candidates, making him the city’s third socialist mayor after Emil Seidel and Daniel Horan. During Frank Zeidler’s administration, Milwaukee grew industrially and never had to borrow money to repay loans. Fiscal responsibility was a key part of sewer socialist administrations. During this period, Milwaukee nearly doubled its size with an aggressive campaign of municipal annexations: large parts of the Towns of Lake and Granville were annexed to the city. In addition, the park system was upgraded. Zeidler spearheaded planning and construction of the beginning of Milwaukee’s freeway system (as infrastructure was a key part of the sewer socialist agenda) and turned it over to Milwaukee County in 1954. There was opposition to the annexation program: suburban residents and governments fiercely resisted annexation and the politics of regional Milwaukee became highly factional.
Zeidler was a key supporter of the civil rights movement, and the African-American population tripled during his mayoralty. After leaving office, he worked as a mediator, as development director for Alverno College, and served in the administration of Wisconsin Governor John Reynolds. Zeidler was key in forming the Socialist Party USA in 1973 when the SPA split into three different factions. Three years later he earned the party’s nomination for president of the United States. In 2004 he went to the Green Party convention to welcome delegates.
This prolific politician, socialist, and writer who passed away in 2006 wrote several books on municipal government, labor law, socialism, Milwaukee history, poetry, renditions of four of Shakespeare’s plays into present-day English, and children’s stories. His 1961 memoir of his time as mayor, “A Liberal in City Government,” is a treat for social democrats!
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.
Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement.
By Jason Sibert
In the past, sewer socialists municipalized certain capital-intensive economic functions like electric grids, sewers, and trash collection and fought for the efficient delivery of public services like fire protection, public safety, and infrastructure. A modern version of sewer socialism must make room for modern technology and embrace the information technology revolution. Therefore, sewer socialism must promote municipal Wi-Fi. Like garbage collection and electric grids, Wi-Fi is a capital-intensive function that comes with economic rents, a regularly recurring economic benefit. When worse comes to worse, those who possess economic rents can abuse their power by raising the costs, in this case on Wi-Fi, and make customers pay more on a regular basis. Those who provide Wi-Fi cannot argue that they’re competing in a free market. Those who compete in a genuine free market rely on a revolving group of customers. A municipal Wi-Fi network would be accountable to democratic legislatures, unlike private Wi-Fi.
The economic facts mean that municipal Wi-Fi would be a perfect project for contemporary sewer socialists. Albany, New York, Chicago, Illinois (in many public places), Burlington, Vermont, El Paso, Texas, Indianapolis, Indiana (downtown), Houston, Texas (downtown and in a few other select neighborhoods), Madison, Wisconsin (central part of the city), and Minneapolis, Minnesota are just a few American cities with municipal Wi-Fi.
There are other reasons why municipal Wi-Fi is essential, not just for individuals but also for businesses. An increasing number of citizens use the internet in their educational, professional, and social lives. People check regularly their emails and WhatsApp messages. They use the internet to find shops, restaurants and museums, to compare product prices and to get a taxi. Free public Wi-Fi contributes to a better-connected society and more agile interactions between citizens and business.
Sewer socialist mayors, aldermen, or alderwomen would increase the competitiveness of his or her city by pushing this reform. Tourists visiting a city on business would find their stay more pleasant. The reputation of cities with municipal Wi-Fi would increase and these cities would attract more business conventions. A modern-day sewer socialism can be good for business! According to the National League of Cities, cities with economies based around digital technologies are more likely to have lower unemployment and poverty levels, and an urban area’s median income level and gross domestic product per capita correspond to the strength of its internet sector. Municipal Wi-Fi can also be used to combat inequality because it will bring Wi-Fi to areas where it doesn’t exist.
Wi-Fi is also a part of smart city plans, allowing data to flow more quickly. It allows cities to know where to allocate resources to address these gaps and trouble spots. In northern Alaska, for example, an IoT solution is used to more efficiently clear roads in bad weather. In Philadelphia, the water department is using sensors to monitor infrastructure. And in Georgia, intelligent traffic solutions are helping municipalities respond to extreme weather events and improve traffic flow and vehicle and pedestrian safety. Devices like cameras can also be used by first responders.
As part of any movement to elect sewer socialists around the country, municipal Wi-Fi should be the top reform!
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.
This blog has been publishing Jason Sibert’s series on sewer socialism — municipal leaders utilizing taxpayer funds to support good infrastructure and create a happier, healthier and more sustainable situation for their citizens. The recent blizzard which covered Buffalo and nearby cities over Christmas, and has thus far claimed over three dozen lives, is a heart-wrenching example of why sewer socialists are the very best type of leader — of why the Hope of Mankind is often shining where we least want to look for it, in the tedium of keeping up the plumbing of our lives by mending a little hole now so it doesn’t become a bigger, more expensive and dangerous hole later. I spoke to Buffalo-are resident and comrade, SDUSA Vice Chair Michael Mottern, to fill us in on what this treacherous blizzard has been like. Michael lives in government housing near Buffalo, in a neighboring city where the leaders have done a much better job prioritizing winter storm readiness.
Susan: Can you describe the moment when you first realized you were in for some really severe weather?
Michael: When the fifth person told me that it was coming and we should look out, because it was like nothing we’d ever heard of from the National Weather Service before.I didn’t think it would be that severe of a storm, but when the fifth person told me, I said, “Okay, let me not go anywhere, and really quickly, I’ll run to the store near my house.”I’m not in a food desert if you count the convenience store and the Rite Aid right across the street. You can get enough food there if you’re just willing to pay more.
What made it possible for you to shelter safely in your home until the travel ban was lifted?
Michael: I live in a fairly modern public housing complex, and the electricity did not go off at all. As soon as my friend left for the day, I made myself a good dinner — but the snow came down early, and I watched a pure white out for three days, and was able to call my family because my cell service and electricity were fine. And I’m pretty sure my building, built in the late 1960s or early 1970s, is retrofitted with emergency generators that will kick on after the power in the building goes off, but that never happened.
Susan: What was the weather like from your perspective?
Michael: Warm at first, but the temperature dipped and that’s when the snow came. Out my window, I saw white out conditions not even five feet in front of my face where I normally get a nice view of the park and the houses in front of it. It was severe white out for several days, until finally it went on Christmas Eve by 11:00 PM, and then the snow was steadily coming down on Christmas day, but not as severe as Christmas Eve.
I was able to step out of the house briefly on Christmas Eve at 12:00 AM, after I put on my full hunting gear, and take out my trash. The snow was waist high.
Susan: Can you share about your experiences with your neighbors while you were all snowed in over Christmas?
Michael: My neighbor from upstairs came over Christmas Eve, and I cooked boiled beef over scrambled eggs for her, because she didn’t want the venison roast with potato wedges that I was making for myself. It was humbling making WWI food for my neighbor considering that it was Christmas Eve, the birthday of Jesus Christ.On Christmas Day, I made myself another venison roast and ate it with raw carrots.
I still have a freezer full of meat because of the deer I shot earlier this month while out hunting with my father in Lancaster on a friend’s land.Since the blizzard, I’ve just occasionally been going to the store for milk and bread.
Susan: How’s the situation with your apartment building different from that of the housing situation in the older and poorer part of Buffalo?
Michael: It’s much better in my municipality — Kenmore/Town of Tonawanda — because the infrastructure is a little bit better and newer, and it has its own plow service, but that did not stop the plows from getting stuck on my street.
Susan: What do you know of the experiences of your fellow-Buffalonians attempting to survive the blizzard in buildings with poor infrastructure?
Michael: Two people — a mother and her teenaged son — who were in a more modern structure got caught because the ground floor was below the parking lot, and the area all around it filled in with snow, and the power went out. She was very smart and hung a red towel over the top of the door and then closed it, so that when rescuers did come after the snow started to melt, they would see the towel and know that somebody was in there. Then they hunkered down with a lot of blankets, and waited. She called 911 and they told her no service was available yet; she got no response when she called her property management for help. The first person who got to her was 7 News reporter Michael Schwartz, nearly a week after the blizzard started. https://www.wkbw.com/news/local-news/blizzard-of-22/buffalo-woman-gets-path-from-basement-apartment-after-trapped-for-five-days
Myles Carter, our former SDUSA-endorsed Sheriff candidate, and his friend, local activist David Louis made national news on Good Morning America by helping an elderly woman who’d lost power get to her daughter’s home, before she became a victim of the elements. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAk8TkrCnF8
Some people became so desperate to find a warm place when their power went out, that they went out in their cars and then were blinded and stopped by the whiteout, and either froze to death, or some died from carbon monoxide poisoning because they kept their cars and heaters running, and the snow quickly covered their exhaust pipes.
Susan: What’s the relationship between the political representation that citizens get in Buffalo, Tonawanda, North Tonawanda and any other nearby cities you think of, and how prepared these cities’ infrastructure and services were to protect people during the blizzard?
Michael: I’ve learned through national and local news articles, and from Buffalo meteorologist Don Paul — Channel 4 — that Buffalo doesn’t have the plow team that it should have — primarily, in my opinion, because of property tax caps, and lack of spending on infrastructure and good municipal equipment. Tonawanda is not only smaller: it also has a stronger tax base, whereas Buffalo covers more area, has more narrow, winding streets that a plow can get stuck on, and has a median income of only $39,000 a year. For several years, Buffalo has been among the top four poorest cities in America.
Susan: While we were talking the other day, you said that Buffalo received state and federal funding that could be used to update infrastructure — or maybe was even designated for that purpose? — but elected officials wanted to appear conservative with regard to spending. Yet we’ve learned from Jason Sibert’s articles on sewer socialism here at the blog that socialist leaders who put people first are great for city budgets. How can this be?
Michael: There’s a lot of public money that flows through Buffalo, but a lot of it is so mismanaged that all that money doesn’t mean that they can get a bigger plow team. Leaders are more focused on pleasing rich developers and funding microcosm projects.
Susan: Please share anything else you’d like that I didn’t think to ask about.
Michael: I think a lot of city residents are really brave to ignore these travel bans in order to rescue people. However, they should also remember not to take their car out in a snowstorm.
In the summer and fall of 2021, SDUSA endorsed and campaigned for young socialist Buffalo Mayoral candidate India Walton, who defeated longtime incumbent Byron Brown in the Democratic Primary. https://socialistcurrents.org/?p=3743 Brown, however, staged an aggressive write-in campaign, well-funded by his big-money donors, and won the general election in November. Should Walton run a second time, perhaps her vision for getting resources to the people and neighborhoods most in need of them will resonate with an even greater number of Buffalonians who struggled to keep warm and stay alive during this blizzard in outdated buildings.
Susan Stevens is the Chair of Kansas City, Kansas SDUSA.
SDUSA’s National Executive Committee passed the following unanimously this week:
Social Democrats USA stands with the people staffing our rail industry. The economy is for the good of people: it’s unacceptable to rationalize sacrificing worker wellbeing as fuel for economic prosperity. As social democrats, we hold fast the truth that wealth has no value except as a tool to enrich the lives of everyone.
We affirm and uplift Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the sole Squad member who voted against President Biden’s recent legislation designed to curtail our rail workers’ exercise of their hard-earned right to bargain for a healthy, people-friendly work situation, including a situation wherein they have paid sick leave that they can use as needed without fear of negative repercussions.
We also affirm and uplift the seven other Democrats — Judy Chu, Mark DeSaulnier, Jared Golden, Donald Norcross, Mary Peltola, Mark Pocan and Norma Torres — who remembered, in this one vote, their mandate to serve the American people. Thank you!
We understand the eight rail unions — representing just under half of our unionized rail workers — that voted in favor of accepting the deal as it stands were satisfied with the positive changes, including a pay raise and the addition of one more paid day off. However, the workers in one of these unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), have just voted in a new president, Eddie Hall, who opposes the deal and asserts that incumbent Dennis Pierce, who pushed for the deal, was not listening to workers.
In contrast, the four rail unions — representing just over half of our unionized rail workers — that voted against it were not satisfied with the areas of lack, including the absence of any paid sick leave. The justification that they could just use a paid vacation day or paid personal day in lieu of sick leave, fell flat given their common experience of being threatened with punitive action if they actually did so.
Again, we at SDUSA stand with the right of workers to strike to improve their situation, understanding that it’s when a strike has a larger impact that it can actually shift things in workers’ favor!
We grow and create new life through connections. America cannot thrive in a US-centric vacuum. Early social democrats understood this well and were founding members of the worldwide organization, the Socialist International. Then, over time, succeeding leaders went in different directions, left SDUSA and allowed its membership in the SI to lapse.
In our new century, SDUSA’s big-tent vision for authentic democracy that unites in power the working class, poor and otherwise-marginalized people has inspired and brought together a new group of social democrats to take up the torch. In part, this meant contacting SI leadership and learn what steps we should take to reunite with this amazing global organization.
When we received, in October, their thrilling invitation to attend their Congress the following month in Madrid, three out of our group of four delegates had to apply for expedited passports. As the Kansas delegate, I got mine uncomfortably close to departure time, yet this stressful circumstance granted me a firsthand glimpse of the benefits of living in a representative democracy when your rep takes her duties to her constituents seriously.
Our National Chair, Patty Friend, urged me to contact my Congresswoman Sharice Davids, and when I did, her Senior Constituent Services Representative, Outreach Representative and Veteran Coordinator Michael Williams promptly got back with me and got things moving. This experience bore immediate fruit on our very first night in Madrid, when I got to meet a dear online friend — an immigrant who’d been there for 20 years– and learn of her current struggles with unemployment and with government agencies. When she learned how my Rep’s office went to bat for me regarding my passport, she wondered what the Spanish equivalent was for the US House of Representatives, but we weren’t able to find anything conclusive online.
The next day, the first day of the SI Congress gifted me with another seeming setback that ended up being an answer to my prayer for some information for my friend. We were browsing around in the lobby and I joined my gregarious comrade, SDUSA’s Vice Chair Michael Mottern, who’d struck up a lively conversation with the young people manning the merchandise table. It turned out they were Spanish government employees, and when I told them about my friend’s plight, one of them looked up her location and was able to give me the address and hours of the specific office where she should go. Soon after that, we were warmly ushered into the session, and I went in so happy to be there, yet even happier about the divine delay that provided a supportive connecting-point for my friend.
Last but not least, I was honored to get to room with and grow closer to my fellow-female delegate Carolyn Delvecchio Hoffman, a victorious SDUSA endorsee and a young elected Democratic legislator in New York’s Monroe County. Carolyn has the same outgoing spirit as Michael Mottern, unhesitatingly springing forward to meet and strike up conversations with every new person who crosses her path. Many of Carolyn’s constituents are Black Americans or more recent immigrants from Africa, and I got the impression that coming to this event in a location so close to the African continent, and getting to meet so many laborers for social democracy from various African nations, has been a sort of homecoming and home-expanding act for her, a way to intertwine her political roots with those approaching freedom and opportunities for economic growth in fresh new ways. I look forward to seeing how this experience shapes her ongoing service to her constituents!
And I look forward to experiencing ever-warmer and closer ties with all my comrades. The only way forward is towards one another. In solidarity forever, unity without end, amen.