Infrastructure Is Good Politics—Just Ask Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialists of 1904

Left: A sewer line under construction along St. Paul Avenue in Milwaukee in 1920. Right: Victor Berger, co-founder of the Socialist Party of America, editor of the Milwaukee Leader, and the first Socialist elected to Congress. Lower: Construction of a Milwaukee sewer line in 1932. (Photos courtesy: Wisconsin Historical Society and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. Graphic by Morgaine Ford-Workman.)



By christinalieffring

April 12, 2021

Voters have a history of rewarding public officials who pay attention to long-neglected public needs.

As poll after poll after poll has shown, investment in infrastructure is an issue so popular with the public it bridges both sides of the aisle, even in today’s highly-partisan political atmosphere. In fact, investment in quality infrastructure paved the way for the Milwaukee Socialist Party to gain a foothold in city politics in the early 20th century.

Derided by their opposition as the “Sewer Socialists” the Milwaukee Socialists wore the moniker with pride, emphasising their party’s focus on public infrastructure that improved quality of life, which included, of course, sewers.

“Milwaukee saw a lot of deaths every year from polluted water, [such as] typhoid fever from all the sewage in the water,” said Milwaukee historian John Gurda. “They believed in using public funds for the public good. And that meant emphasizing everything that’s public: public parks were huge for them, public schools, public libraries, public ports, public buses, public housing. All these things that were the greatest good for the greatest number were part of their platform.”

The Sewer Socialists’ imprint is still visible in Milwaukee today. The Trust for Public Lands, an organization that analyzes park systems across the country, found that 90% of Milwaukee residents live within a ten minutes walk of a public park. They also influenced public policy nationwide and in fact, their downfall as a party was a result of their success; many of their ideas were incorporated into The New Deal.

The ‘Forty-Eighters’

Like any good story about socialism, this one starts with a revolution. 

After almost a decade of economic depression and years of food shortages, Germany’s leftists and lower classes were a powder keg ready to blow. In 1848, inspired by Karl Marx’s early writing and republican revolts to overthrow the monarchies in Sicily and France, German leftists launched a revolution that was quashed as the fledgling leftist government tried to find its footing.

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Marx fled to England and many of the “Forty-Eighters”, as the leaders of the crushed revolution were called, fled to the United States. Many Forty-Eighters landed in Milwaukee, which had become the self-proclaimed “Machine Shop of the World,” and blended in with the city’s already sizable German population.

Like most immigrants, the Germans found themselves working long hours at hard, dirty, low-paying jobs and living in squalid conditions. 

“The gap between the haves and the have-nots was getting wider all the time,” said Kevin Abing, an archivist with the Milwaukee County Historical Society. “The situation at that time was really ripe for the socialists to gain a foothold because the socialists, they emphasize all these working-class issues, which appealed to all these laborers around the city.”

Milwaukee also had a reputation for being one of the most corrupt cities in America, which at the turn of the century, was saying something. A culture of corruption and bribery was prevalent among Milwaukee Democrat and Republican mayors but Mayor David Rose, a German-American Democrat, was particularly notorious. 

“[Rose] ran a wide open town,” said Gurda. “Prostitution, gambling, dancing, all night saloons. You actually had brothels in the shadow of City Hall. It was at a time when it was pretty much standard practice in American cities, but it really was a cesspool of corruption.”

The Socialist Party in Milwaukee’s pitch was that they would clean up the city’s government and focus on bread-and-butter issues that would improve workers’ quality of life. Perhaps they’d learned their lesson from the failed 1848 revolution, because the Milwaukee Socialists were not interested in overthrowing the government. Instead they were closer to Europe’s Democratic Socialists today: a political party aimed at winning elections and implementing incremental change. 

“It was basically a common, goal-oriented reform movement,” said Gurda. “And, in Milwaukee especially, it had the interests of the working class very much at the front of their minds.”

That orientation was personified in the party’s leader, Victor Berger.  Berger was a non-observant Jew, raised and educated in Austria. When his family moved to the US, he worked as a newspaper editor, a teacher and eventually an organizer who was known for his pragmatism and founded the Socialist Party of American in 1901 with Eugene Debs.

“He wanted to win elections,” said Gurda. “So he put together a very pragmatic platform of reforms.”

Gurda said Berger was also the architect of the “Milwaukee Idea”, a “two-headed movement” where socialism and organized labor would work hand-in-hand.

“That was a stroke of genius,” said Gurda. “That really helped the party break through politically.”

Rise and Fall

By 1904, Socialists were being elected to the Milwaukee city council, county board and the Wisconsin State Legislature. In 1910, Berger was the first socialist elected to the US Congress and his colleague, Emil Seidel, a Milwaukee alderman, was elected mayor of Milwaukee, the first socialist mayor of a major US city. 

Seidel was apparently so effective at cleaning up Milwaukee’s government that Democrats and 

Republicans joined forces to back a nonpartisan candidate, Gerhard Adolph Bading, to get Seidel out of office. Seidel went on to become Debs’ running mate when he ran for President in 1912.

Victor Berger, left, and Emil Seidel, were some of the first prominent American Socialists elected to public office in 1910. Berger was elected to the US Congress and Seidel as Mayor of Milwaukee, the first Socialist mayor of a major US city.
Victor Berger, left, and Emil Seidel, were some of the first prominent American Socialists elected to public office in 1910. Berger was elected to the US Congress and Seidel as Mayor of Milwaukee, the first Socialist mayor of a major US city. (Photo courtesy: Wisconsin Historical Society)

Berger lost his bid for reelection in 1912 and returned to editing his newspaper, the “Milwaukee Leader.” As World War I approached, the American Socialist Party declared its opposition to the war, calling it “a crime of our capitalist class against the people of the United States and against the nations of the world.” The Milwaukee Leader took an anti-war stance and the government suspended the paper’s mailing privileges, then Berger was indicted on conspiracy charges for voicing his opposition. 

Despite those charges, Berger was reelected to Congress in 1918. When he went to Washington, DC to take office, Congress refused to seat him. A special election was held the next month and Berger won his seat again and again, Congress refused him his seat. He lost reelection in 1920 but his charges were overturned in 1921 so he went on to serve in Congress from 1922 until 1928. 

Milwaukee continued to have socialist mayors for decades but the party’s overall power waned. Socialist Daniel Hoan served as mayor from 1916 to 1940 and was recognized for cleaning up the city’s government. After him, Frank Zeidler served as mayor from 1948 until 1960, but Zeidler was the only Socialist elected to public office in the nation at that time.

“[Zeidler] was as honest as the day is long,” said Abing. “He tried to run the city government as efficiently and honestly as you possibly could and I think enough people realized that. They overlooked this attempt to lump the socialists in with the communists and so he was able to hang on to the mayor’s office until 1960.”

Gurda said a big part of the party’s downfall was its policies’ success. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal platform co-opted the Socialist’s ideas, policies, “and, very importantly, their labor base.”

While socialism today has become a buzzword for any and all ideas left of center, in Milwaukee the socialist party left behind a legacy of honest, accountable government, social services and a built environment–roads, bridges, housing, parks, schools, plumbing and sewers–that improved everyone’s quality of life.


CATEGORIES: Infrastructure


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