Red Star Over Milwaukee


Fans of American third parties, take note: Frank Zeidler, mayor of Milwaukee from 1948 to 1960, died on July 7. Zeidler was the last mayor of a major American city to be elected on the Socialist Party line.

Wisconsin was relatively tolerant of third parties in those days: The left-wing Progressive Party elected several state officials in the '30s and '40s, including a governor and a senator, before the party folded itself into the GOP in 1946. (The Republicans were more ideologically diverse back then.) Thanks mainly to a large local contingent of German leftists, Milwaukee had been a Socialist stronghold since the early decades of the century. The party's first mayor, Emil Seidel, served from 1910 to 1912; the second, Daniel Webster Hoan, held the title from 1916 to 1940. He was knocked out of office by Zeidler's brother Carl, who was not a Socialist, and whose chief claim to fame was to have the pulp writer Robert Bloch running his campaign. Bloch's friend Harold Gauer recalls: "most of the active Socialists were old parties with white underwear showing over the tops of their high-button shoes, with chewed cigars sticking out of their choppers, who had no idea of how to appeal to young people—who didn't know how to stop printing doctrinaire tracts and do something innovative. And when guys like myself and Bob Bloch, who depicted the city hall as a 'House of Mystery' and a lot of other whoopee stuff, came along, they ran into something that could only happen once in a lifetime, and they were lost."

Milwaukee's "sewer socialism" was never particularly radical. Indeed, in the first quarter of the century, Milwaukee Leader editor Victor Berger was the head of the party's right wing. Obviously, "right wing" is a relative term when you're discussing the Socialist Party; I'm following the spectrum laid out by James Weinstein in The Decline of Socialism in America, which stretched from Berger's reformists on the right to the IWW's revolutionary syndicalists on the far left.

Berger was also a virulent racist. According to Weinstein, he

proclaimed that only by keeping the United States a "white man's" country could socialism be victorious, and at one point went so far as to appeal for the defense of white womanhood against the invasion of "yellow men." Early in the debate Berger warned that the United States was already beset with one race problem and that if something were not done, "this country is absolutely sure to become a black-and-yellow country within five generations."

That may be part of the historical background to one of the more surprising coalitions of 1924, described in Kenneth Jackson's The Ku Klux Klan in the City:

The political situation in Milwaukee led to a curious alliance between the Socialist party and the Klan. Through the common bond of anti-Catholicism, the two groups supported John Kleist for the state supreme court as both a Socialist and a Klansman. The Klan had more Socialists on its rolls, Kleist told party leaders, than they did.

I'm not sufficiently familiar with the Milwaukee politics of that era to say how much that reflected bigotry among the Socialists, and how much it reflected "progressive" ideals within the Klan.

Unlike Berger, Zeidler was, to his credit, a vocal supporter of equal rights for blacks. Indeed, his politics were largely indistinguishable from those of the left wing of the Democratic Party; the sewer socialists built a lot of public housing and other municipal projects, but they never made a move towards, say, workers' control of the means of production. Their most welcome legacy was to make Milwaukee a place where politicians can be a bit more maverick than is the norm on the national stage. Even after it went back to electing Democrats, the city had room for pols like John Norquist, mayor from 1988 to 2003, a "fiscally conservative socialist" who quoted Jane Jacobs, supported school choice, spoke at the Cato Institute, and crusaded against freeways and modern architecture. He was eventually felled by a sex scandal, proving that even a Milwaukee mayor can behave like a conventional politician.

NEXT: Northern Fights

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  1. and at one point went so far as to appeal for the defense of white womanhood against the invasion of “yellow men.”

    And I fully support this. Getting raped by a guy with jaundice totally sucks.

    Or so I’ve heard.

  2. and at one point went so far as to appeal for the defense of white womanhood against the invasion of “yellow men.”

    “And I fully support this. Getting raped by a guy with jaundice totally sucks.”

    Also, jaundice-on-albino crime used to be much more common than it is now.

  3. I was not aware of that. Were you aware of that, Garth? Does this guy know how to party or what?

  4. BTW, when I read Red Star Over Milwaukee I expected a nostalgic look at the smells from the old yeast plant!


  5. Kevrob: As far as I can tell, Norquist’s leftist/libertarian mixture is a genuine reflection of his thinking, not a pair of incompatible poses. Sam Staley and I were planning to interview him for Reason a few years back, but for various reasons it never happened.

    He gave his rap about highways, architecture, planning, etc. at the Cato event I mentioned in my post. It was a witty speech, and I agreed with a lot of it. I talked with him a bit afterwards. If I’d known I’d never get a chance to do a proper interview, I would have asked him much more then & there.

  6. BTW, when I read Red Star Over Milwaukee I expected a nostalgic look at the smells from the old yeast plant!

    The yeast factory certainly beats the smell coming from the lake each time the Milwaukee Metropolitian Sewage District dumps the contents of the “Deep Tunnel Project” after every spring drizzel. It was claimed that the tunnel could handle usually storm capacity and discharges of “blended” sewage would only occurred during the odd 40-year-storm.

    The smell of crap coming off the lake indicates otherwise.

  7. Wow, GenCon. I went to that in the late 1970s, maybe 1980, when it was held in northwestern Ind. Named after Geneva, Wisc. When’d it move to Milwaukee?

  8. Akira:

    You make me glad to be moving to Cleveland.

    Cleveland: at least it’s not Detroit!

  9. Robert: As far as I know, GenCon moved from Lake Geneva (then, home of TSR Hobbies until they folded and were bought up by Wizards Of The Coast which is in turn owned by Hasbro.) to Milwaukee in late 1980s. The reason was simply that the con had gotten too big for Lake Geneva, the same reason it moved from Milwaukee to Indy. Of course, the fact that they built the Midwest Express Center far smaller than was originally planned and their hasn’t been a new hotel constructed in the city since the 70s should give you a good indication why the con moved. Of all the conventions that came to Milwaukee, GenCon was the biggest money maker and a lot of business owners around the convention center took a major hit when it moved.

    I’ve been to Indy for GenCon a couple of times since the move. The trouble is I can no longer afford the trip and there are no descent gaming events to fill the gap.

    That said, compared to Milwaukee, Indianapolis is downright cosmopolitan! In Downtown Milwaukee, the major shopping center, Grand Avenue Mall, closes around 6 pm, as do most of the surrounding businesses and restaurants. Indianapolis, the main drag near their convention center is jumping with bars and restaurants that stay open well into the night (some even were 24 hrs destinations). The Mall that connects to the Indy convention center has a movie theater in it and doesn’t close until around 10 pm.

    Yeah, Indianapolis maybe in the center of Midwestern conservatism, but at least they know what makes a city work.

  10. In the discussion afterwards, I referred to the late-70s takeover of the local bus outfit,

    Well that was true of mass transit in every US city in the late-70’s early 80’s.

    Not being a Milwaukee resident I don’t know too much about this, but I thought one of the big issues in MKE a few years back was the push/resistence of getting a commuter rail system going. It seems to be one of those chicken & egg things, hard to attract white-collar development downtown when the workers are in the suburbs and have little option but to drive; can’t drive in if the big transport plans won’t increase road capacity. Even the RTA of Illinois was able to reach into Wisconsin.

  11. Russ:

    Yeah, the bus takeover wasn’t unusual. It was Zeidler’s attitude about it that struck me as different.

    Norquist was a huge booster of rail and opponent of expanding the freeways. During his terms Tommy Thompson was Governor, and while he was a a rail nut, even serving on the federal Amtrak board, his first allegiance has always been to the guys who sell paving to the state. None of the plans for light rail the transniks touted would actually build lines out of the city of Milwaukee into the Milwaukee County suburbs, to say nothing of the really thriving `burbs in fast-growing Waukesha County. Their latest goofy idea is to replace several busy bus lines with wheeled trams guided by a rail embedded in the street, and powered by overhead electrical wires. On street parking in an already parking starved neighborhood – mine! – would be sacrificed, and while the trams would be larger than the current buses, the system would be made less flexible. As it is, buses run nearly empty outside of normal commuting hours. To top it off, the system they want only runs in two cities in France, neither of which has the winters we have on Lake Michigan. The trams are supposed to be able to leave the guide track to avoid obstacles, but I expect that snow removal would become very hairy with a system like that on the streets. Pedestrians getting smacked by the larger vehicles that take longer to stop is a real risk, especially in inclement weather.

    At the heart of this is a pot of federal money that has to be spent or it will be “lost.” Fortunately, the county executive and Mayor Barrett have both raised objections, delaying this potty plan. The CE may be able to divert the funds into the existing bus system, and avoid sinking more millions into an inflexible new system.

    The Illinois-based METRA commuter rail has reached over the border into Kenosha. Some want to push it up to Racine, then Milwaukee. That does nothing for the western suburbs, and there is already the Amtrak Hiawatha line, including a new station at Mitchell Field. I shudder to guess what the per-rider-trip subsidies are on all this spending, including capital costs.


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