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.


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