By Jason Sibert
Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement
Jasper McLevy, mayor of Bridgeport, Conn. from 1933 to 1957, was a very important figure in the story of sewer socialism. As a source of information, I found James Blawie’s master’s thesis, “Jasper McLevy: The Man, The Mayor, and His City” to be very informative. Blawie stated that McLevy’s rise represented a response to the political corruption in Bridgeport at that time. He was elected mayor several times on at appeal for clean government. Some referred to the Socialist Party of Bridgeport as the “McLevy Party.” McLevy was born on March 27,1878, in an unpretentious house on West Liberty Street, Bridgeport, Connecticut, to poor and hard-working parents. His formal schooling ended with grammar school. He attended the Prospect Street School, Oak Street and Old South School. He was the oldest of nine children. McLevy worked for the Connecticut Web and Buckle Company, Wilmont Hobbs, and Burns and Silver, becoming involved in the roofing trades.
Learning the power of organization from an early age, he organized the Central Labor Union of Bridgeport and the Building Trades Council. He served several terms as International President of the Slate and File Roofers Union, American Federation of Labor, as President of the General Labor Union, and of the Building Trades Council of Bridgeport. He was first vice President of the Connecticut Federation of Labor, has been a member of the Socialist National Executive Committee for many years, and served on all the important committees of the Socialist Party. Jasper McLevy ran for mayor of Bridgeport for the first time in 1911. A split in the Democratic Party and rising discontent in the country allowed the Socialists to run strong in the mayor’s race that year, although they didn’t win. However, McLevy’s increased stature allowed him the opportunity to push for the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1913 through the General Assembly. Keep in mind, orphanages around the country were filled with children whose parents couldn’t make a living because of factory accidents.
Eugene Debs was accompanied by McLevy in New England during his 1908 presidential campaign. The Bridgeport socialist ran for mayor again unsuccessfully in 1931 in the early years of the Great Depression and was swept into office in 1933. His views were formed by the moderate Germanic socialism brought to the United States by immigrants. The political corruption of the Democrats and Republicans had drained the city’s coffers, and the Great Depression amounted to a double whammy. McLevy’s platform was a true reform one, hard-headed, and with no trace of dreamy idealism. He was very much in the tradition of sewer socialism and its pragmatic, scientific way of managing cities. He called for a merit system, open contracts, “pay as you go”–a balanced budget, no bond issue except with public approval at the polls, open meetings, municipal ownership of public utilities and a return to city control of its own finances. When he was elected, the socialists carried the day with Fred Schwarzkopf elected City Clerk, Richard Schultz Town Clerk, John Shenton City Treasurer, and John Bergen School Board. The Republican party disappeared from the city.
Congratulations poured in from socialists around the nation – Socialist Party Leader Norman Thomas, International Ladies Garment Workers President David Dubinsky, lawyer Louis Waldman, and journalist Devere Allen. Not all socialists were enthusiastic, as the socialist magazine “The World Tomorrow” issued a statement: “McLevy has been under fire from radicals in the party for his moderation. That he is a conservative Socialist goes without saying but, since his platform is the same as that of the national Socialist party, we venture to believe that Bridgeport will lead the way for Socialism in America.”
From the beginning, Mayor McLevy proved himself a steward of the taxpayers’ money. He sold the mayor’s car and used the money for police cars. The mayor’s chauffeurs, normally policemen, were ordered back to regular duty. The meetings of the Common Council and committees were opened to the public, hitting on the concept of transparency. He opened Bridgeport’s insurance (like fire, boiler, and liability) to competitive bidding and saved the taxpayers money. This is consistent with socialist politics which should favor citizens in the lower-to-middle portion of the income spectrum. McLevy also purchased coal directly from the mines, a cost saver for the city. In addition, he passed an ordinance forbidding public officials from winning city contracts. His administration’s goals were helped by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Works Progress Administration provided between $250,000 and $300,00 from 1935 to 1937. The projects completed were a $80,000 city garage, seven miles of sewage facilities, and a $76,000 addition to Englewood Hospital.
What did the socialist mayor do with the savings he promoted? His administration repaved streets and set up grassy areas around city hall. There were reforms in his administration that were much more aggressive than just being more fiscally prudent and fighting corruption. He eliminated the trash collection contract and created a municipal trash collecting service – a money saver for Bridgeport because the profits of the private contractor were eliminated in the municipalization of the former private function. In addition, the first city-owned garbage disposal plant was built by McLevy. Bridgeport’s printing costs were cut when the mayor allowed the city to purchase printing equipment to do the city’s printing; printing costs for the city went down. When McLevy took office, the city’s debt was $16 million and interest rates on its debt ran at $2,000 a day. This was eliminated, partially due to his municipalization of some services. Who says socialism (or at least certain forms of it) doesn’t make sense for the taxpayer? During his tenure as mayor, both Democrats and Republicans accused him of being a revolutionary Marxist, an un-American Socialist, and even trying to build a dictatorship in the city! I guess today’s Democrats and Republicans are taking a cue from history. Look at the recent smear campaign against India Walton in the Buffalo, NY mayoral race!
In his 1937 mayoral campaign, McLevy defeated both the Democrats and Republicans. Sixteen Socialist aldermen were elected to office, including the first female in Bridgeport history – Sadie Griffin. Not perfect, like any politician, McLevy demanded that civil servants work for wages that many considered low to deliver services to his constituents cheaply. Later that year, Democrat Stephen Boucher, a candidate for city clerk, called the Socialist mayor a “traitor to the working class” because of his stance on civil service wages, and McLevy did make a 20 percent across the board cut in civil service wages on all salaries above $1,000 at one point in his administration.
The political ideals of social democracy don’t rule out the contributions of private business. However, there’s little distinction in contemporary political dialog between private sector innovators, certain technological startups, computer hardware and software innovators – not to be confused with those who start cat video websites – on the one hand, and rentiers, or landlords who make more money raising the rent on residential dwellers or businesses, Wall Street types who make money cheapening the operations of companies, and fast-food and retail chains who make money off the welfare state because by not paying a living wage, on the other hand. A businessman’s magazine in Bridgeport, Ct., “Bridgeport Life” said this about McLevy’s administration: “His past record for conduct of office was all he needed for another sweeping victory. If we can find a national Jasper McLevy to do for our nation what he has done for Bridgeport, we may succeed in sending the political grafters to the junkpile. If the American people could be assured that what happened in Bridgeport on Thursday will happen for the nation in 1940, most of our fears would be eliminated.”
Jasper McLevy’s organized labor record as mayor is complex. He interrupted his birthday party in 1937 to meet with striking garbage workers who returned to work when he promised a personal investigation into on-the-job injuries. The strike started over the dismissal of a garbage worker by foreman John Sullivan. The union demanded Sullivan’s dismissal. McLevy said he wouldn’t fire Sullivan but would reinstate the garbage worker if an investigation revealed an improper termination. The workers said the mayor had promised a conference with them before the termination of another worker, and they went out on strike again when it didn’t happen. McLevy fired them and chose their replacements.
Mayor McLevy opposed a city ordinance allowing city workers to organize in the 1940s, as he stated employees already had the right to organize. This was criticized by organized labor. At that time, city employees were at the bottom of the scale compared to other Connecticut municipalities. After World War II in 1946, Bridgeport’s Board of Apportionment and Taxation said it had no money to raise teachers’ salaries, and the schools opened with a staff of 25 substitute teachers and short of a full staff. Of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns, Bridgeport was 159th in terms of money spent on education. Even the Chamber of Commerce and the Bridgeport Manufacturers Association backed a raise for city employees! McLevy promised to raise teacher’s salaries as much as the budget would permit. The Connecticut American Federation of Labor disowned the socialist as a friend of labor. The number of quality of people applying for city work declined during his tenure as mayor. The lack of funding extended beyond city employee salaries – the press regularly reported on Bridgeport’s public services (health, recreation) which were underfunded compared to other cities.
McLevy continued to serve as mayor until 1957. He was a part of the Social Democratic Federation which left the Socialist party in 1936. McLevy passed away in 1962. His legacy is mixed but provides a template for a modern-day sewer socialist.
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.