In the 1 890s, Victor Berger was a Milwaukee German teacher and newspaper editor who was one of the city's most prominent advocates for socialism and organised labor. In 1894, when Democratic politician and union organiser Eugene Debs was jailed for his participation in the Pullman Strike, Berger visited him in jail and gave him a copy of Marx's Das Kapital. Debs credited this visit for his conversion to socialism. Berger went on to become one of the principal founders of the Social Democratic Party of America in 1898, and then the Socialist Party of America in 1901, and Debs came along with him.
The Socialist Party grew rapidly in strength in Milwaukee. The city elected nine Socialist aldermen (out of 46) in 1904. One of these aldermen, Emil Seidel, ran for mayor in 1908, receiving about 20% of the vote. Seidel ran again in the Spring 1910 mayoral election and won, defeating notoriously corrupt Mayor David Rose (whose slogan was “everything is rosy under Rose”). Socialists also won outright majorities in the Milwaukee city and county legislatures. The Socialist wave reached its zenith on November 8, 1910. On that date, Victor Berger was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Wisconsin's 5th congressional district, which at that time included western (Waukesha County) and northern (e.g., Whitefish Bay) portions of the Greater Talossan Area (GTA). For the first time a Socialist was mayor of a major U.S. city, and for the first time a Socialist was in the U.S. Congress., and Milwaukee was responsible for both of them.
Riding this wave of electoral success, Emil Seidel was Eugene Deb's running mate on the Socialist Party's 1912 presidential ticket. The ticket won over 900,000 votes, or 6% of the total. The Socialists would win slightly more votes in 1916, but never again came close to 1912's vote share.
Seidel was defeated after only one term in 1912 by Gerhard Bading, running on a Democratic-Republican fusion ticket. Berger was also defeated for re-election to Congress in 1912. He was elected again in 1918, but was convicted of violating the Espionage Act a few months later for his opposition to U.S. participation in World War I and sentenced to 20 years in prison, and the House of Representatives voted not to seat him. Berger's conviction was overturned in 1921, and he was elected to the House again in 1922, 1924, and 126.
Meanwhile, back in Milwaukee, Mayor Bading served two terms before the city elected its next Socialist mayor in 1 91 6: Daniel Hoan. Hoan had been elected Milwaukee’s city attorney at the same time that Emil Seidel became mayor. Upon election as mayor in his own right, he maintained his mainstream appeal and distanced himself from many other Socialist politicians by declining to oppose U.S. entry into World War I. Under Hoan, Milwaukee implemented the first public bus system in the U.S., as well as the first public housing project. Hoan served as Mayor of Milwaukee for 24 years until 1 940, in the longest Socialist administration in U.S. history.
The Daniel Hoan Memorial Bridge, which connects the southern tip of Talossa to South Milwaukee, is named for him.
The next Socialist Mayor of Milwaukee, who was also the last Socialist to serve as mayor of any major U.S. city, was Frank Zeidler. Zeidler was elected mayor in 1 948, and served three terms until he was defeated by Democrat Henry Maier (creator of SummerFest) in 1 960. Maier served as mayor until 1 988, surviving a few more challenges from Zeidler over the years.
In 1 972, the Socialist Party ofAmerica voted to abandon political party status and rename itself as Social Democrats, USA. A majority of the organisation felt that it had to be realistic about its lack of electoral success, and hoped that the rebranding would allow it to work more effectively to promote social democratic ideas and policies within the Democratic Party. Frank Zeidler led a faction of the Social Democrats that opposed this move and split off to form the Socialist Party USA a few months later. He was the Socialist Party USA’s nominee for President of the United States in 1 976. Zeidler received only 6,038 votes, but over 70% of them came from Wisconsin.
Milwaukee's Socialist mayors reached a level of electoral success unparalleled in the United States by de-emphasising Marxist theory and focusing on clean government and public health improvements. More ideologically-minded East Coast Socialists coined the contemptuous term “sewer socialism” for the pragmatic Milwaukee socialists who always seemed to be bragging about their city's sewer system, but the Milwaukeeans came to adopt the term as a badge of honour.
Interesting Facts about Milwaukee Socialists• Two of the three Socialist mayors of Milwaukee were associated with prominent American literary figures. Poet Carl Sandburg served as Emil Seidel's personal secretary, and fiction writer Robert Block (author of Psycho) worked on Frank Zeidler's 1 948 campaign. During that campaign Bloch invented the “balloon drop” gimmick that has since become ubiquitous in American politics.
• Construction of the Hoan Bridge was put on hold for several years due to delays in the construction of the connecting highway system. In its unfinished state, the bridge was used for the epic car chase/crash scene in the movie The Blues Brothers.
• Frank Zeidler's older brother, Carl, had been elected mayor as a Democrat in 1 940. Carl was known as the “Singing Mayor of Milwaukee” because couldn’t resist singing at practically every public appearance. He resigned in 1 942 to serve in World War II as an officer in the U.S. Navy, and died when his ship was torpedoed off the coast of South Africa, 72 years ago yesterday.
• Mayor Hoan replaced Milwaukee's streetcar system with buses partly because too many people were being run over by streetcars. One of these victims was Victor Berger himself, who was struck and killed by a streetcar while crossing the street in front of his newspaper office in 1 929. The only other Socialist elected to Congress, New York City's Meyer London, had died three years earlier when he was run over while crossing the street—but London was struck by an automobile, not a streetcar.