Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement
By Jason Sibert
My series of stories on sewer socialism represents a lot of things – interesting research where I learned new things about the concept of sewer socialism, a chance to review things I already knew, the opportunity to integrate the ideas of thinkers from a variety of schools of thought, and the hearing of positive feedback.
The one thing I had hoped would develop as the series has progressed is a new breed of aldermen, alderwomen, and mayors who would take the ideas from the stories and put them into action. There are municipal politicians who are working toward a modern version of “sewer socialism,” and I don’t think they’ve read my series, as far as I know, but they are generating ideas for others to use.
The publication “In These Times” recently ran a story on “sidewalk socialism,” a new form of the old “sewer socialism” I recently talked with Aldermen Josh Michtom of Hartford, Connecticut, a city of 121,000 people, who said “sewer socialism” served as an inspiration for his political career. Michtom serves on the council as a member of the Working Families Party. “My conception of what government at any level is, is to maximize common good and provide for the common welfare in a way that individuals can’t do on their own,” said Michtom There are not a lot of WFP members in Hartford, the Democrats are the dominant party, but the mission of the party in the city is to bring the most marginalized people in the municipality into the conversation, said Michtom. He also said the party represents the “best foot forward to take toward an equitable society.”
Two city council members in the New England city are WFP members – Michtom and Tiana Hercules. Alex Thomas will run on the WFP ticket in November’s election. Following the contours of sewer socialism, the party pushed for an efficient delivery of public services. In the realm of public safety, WFP pushed for reform of the city’s police civilian review board, giving it a capacity to review and discipline police who are not within the bounds of the law. Micthtom said WFP in Hartford wants to tackle the root causes of crime – lack of affordable housing, recreation services for families and children, and education. WFP also fought for and won the appointment of more fire and housing inspectors, funds to help renters facing evictions, and resources for immigrants facing deportation. The WFP is all about cities for people and not for profit!
Government (the city is the capital of Connecticut), insurance, medical care, education, technology, and research powers Hartford’s economy. The Hartford (insurance), Traveler’s Companies (insurance), the University of Connecticut, and Hartford Healthcare (Healthcare) are among the city’s biggest employers. While these economic activities bring the city much in the way of economic growth, admitted Michtom, they also bring problems. Many of the people who work in these industries live in the suburbs which means they use city services without contributing to the city’s tax base as much as residents, a common problem in central cities. The city’s non-profit hospitals and public golf courses are used by suburbanites, said Michtom.
In the 20th century, sewer socialists were known for certain things – efficient delivery of public services, fighting corruption to give taxpayers the best bang for their tax buck, and fighting for municipalization of certain services (sewers, electric grids, trash collection, ect.) In Hartford, the Metropolitan District Commission, a public municipal corporation, provides drinking water and sewer systems to the city and surrounding cities.
Michtom said he considers a municipally run grocery store on the North side of town a possibility. “We have areas of our city which are food desserts,” he said. The alderman also said that there are areas where private grocery operators won’t locate because the profits aren’t high enough. He considers grocery stores a public good and that he supports a study of the viability of such a store.
The sewer socialist said that Hartford experienced some gentrification, but it’s limited and not a huge issue at this time. At the same time, affordable housing is an issue. He said he would like to see rent control, illegal under Connecticut law, and more public housing, as public housing limits the amount landlords can charge by offering an affordable alternative. Michtom also supports better housing codes. However, his ideas on housing extends into municipalization, as Michtom supports city-owned housing. He said the city can purchase old buildings and the buildings of current landlords and turn into affordable, city-owned housing. “I’d like to see a Hartford that’s focused on improving the lives of residents,” he said. “We spend too much time trying to attract outside investors…”
Let’s hope the revival of sewer socialism continues. Maybe there’s more sewer socialists candidates reading this series just waiting in the wings!
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.