Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement.
By Jason Sibert
The state of Wisconsin has long been called a progressive state due to the prominence of socialist and progressive politicians in the state. However, contemporary politics’ emphasis on social issues has turned the state into a swing state in presidential elections. Since the presidential election of 1988, it went for the Democrat except for Donald Trump in 2016 due to third party candidates (Green Party Candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson) and low turnout from Democrats. The closeness of presidential elections in Wisconsin, at least going back to the 1980s, means the Democrats must work hard to keep the state in their hands.
However, let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at a time when Wisconsin’s largest city – Milwaukee – was a hotbed of sewer socialists, people who were elected to office in major and mini-metropolitan areas and tried to make life better for the urban working class by the municipalization of natural monopolies (parks, sewers, utility companies, etc.), the quality delivery of public services, and quality management of taxpayers’ money. Milwaukee elected its first socialist mayor, Emil Seidel, in 1910. Mayor Seidel went to work to correct years of corruption in the Democratic and Republican parties, as 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. He also established the first municipal public works department and police and fire commissions in an American city and worked with the common council to raise the minimum wage for city laborers from $1.75 to $2.50 per day. In addition, the Milwaukee mayor made the 8-hour day standard for municipal crews, strengthened local Health Department inspections, and created the city’s park system. Although his two years as mayor had been quite productive and transformative, it made Democrats and Republicans more determined to unseat him. Another interesting fact: Seidel employed noted American poet Carl Sandberg as his personal secretary.
In his 1912 bid for reelecton, Seidel went up against a fusion Democratic-Republican ticket and was defeated by doctor, public health commissioner, and medical school professor named Gerhard Bading. However, Seidel would remain active in politics for the next several years. Socialist Party of America Presidential Candidate Eugene Debs chose him as a running mate in 1912. The Debs/Seidel ticket won six percent of the vote, the best for a socialist party presidential candidate in US history. Seidel was soundly defeated in another run for mayor in 1914. He won reelection as alderman in 1916 and continued in the job until 1920. He ran for Senate in 1932 and won six percent of the vote there as well. The sewer socialist once again returned to the office of Milwaukee alderman from 1932 to 1936.
Seidel died in Milwaukee on June 24, 1947, following an illness of several months’ duration related to complications from a heart condition. He was 82 years old. The legacy of sewer socialism would continue in Milwaukee after Seidel’s tenure as mayor, with Daniel Hoan and Frank Zeidler being elected to serve on as mayor after him.
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.