Last Socialist Mayor in US?
Frank Zeidler’s Remarkable Legacy
By Roger Bybee
The recent death of Milwaukee’s former mayor Frank Zeidler, 93, an ardent Socialist, ignites memories of a truly remarkable man who combined a lifelong commitment to justice, an unquenchable burning curiosity about every facet of life, and a legendary humility.
I first met Frank Zeidler at a protest rally back in 1973, just days after the September 11 coup in Chile where the CIA has sponsored the overthrow of democratic socialist Salvador Allende.
In the wake of Allende’s death and the instantaneous, scrupulously-coordinated crushing of the mass movements backing the Popular Unity Government, the mood that gray Saturday was somber outside the old Gothic-style Milwaukee Federal Building. The polite protest drew an incongruous blend of scruffy New Leftists like me and older democratic socialists like Frank, clad in a neat suit and fedora.
In introducing Frank to the throng, I made the somewhat macabre joke that the CIA had relentlessly targeted Allende but had somehow overlooked Zeidler and his efforts at “public enterprise” during his 12 years as mayor of Milwaukee.
Ironically, neither the local corporate class nor some elements on the Left fully understood Zeidler’s approach to running the city. Some ultra-Leftists disparaged Milwaukee’s tradition as mere “sewer socialism”—meaning clean government and a robust program of public works—and imagined that Milwaukee’s socialist mayors could have quietly snatched a few local means of production without the corporate elite noticing or sounding an all-out national alarm.
Unfazed by these fantasies, Frank Zeidler recognized the limits of his power, but stretched them to build a city meant to serve working people and the poor, not only the owners of major corporations. Zeidler championed an aggressive people-first direction that few big-city mayors except Chicago’s late Harold Washington have dared to attempt during recent decades.
“Socialism as we attempted to practice it here believes that people working together for a common good can produce a greater benefit both for society and for the individual than can a society in which everyone is shrewdly seeking their own self-interest,” he once explained.
As a three-term mayor 1948–1960 and throughout the rest of his life, Zeidler was an outspoken advocate of what he called “public enterprise.” In contrast to the current “privatization” trend that now cloaks crony capitalism— the transfer of public assets and contracts to favored corporations—Zeidler championed the notion that genuinely democratic local government could be a humane and efficient provider of public services so that working people and the poor could be full citizens.
During his regime, Milwaukee doubled the size of its library system, built new housing for veterans and low-income people, public swimming pools, maintained and expanded an incomparable park system that he inherited from the city’s previous socialist mayors Emil Seidel and Daniel Hoan, and constructed a variety of major projects like the Milwaukee Arena. Zeidler also launched an aggressive annexation program that doubled the city’s area and thus helped to contain white flight and make municipal services infinitely more cost-effective.
Moreover, he was also an unflinching advocate of racial justice in housing. His racist critics attacked Zeidler with rumors that he had posted billboards in the South urging African-Americans to flock to Milwaukee.
It is hard to look back at the Zeidler years without seeing them through a haze of nostalgia and feeling the immense setbacks afflicting workers and the poor. Milwaukee, long known as an industrial powerhouse, has lost some 75,000 manufacturing jobs since 1979, with some of its best-know firms like Johnson Controls and Master Lock now employing more workers in low-wage Mexico than Milwaukee. The incomes of city families, once supported by unionized industrial and public-sector jobs, are now less than half of the surrounding suburbs. The privatization trend has even reached Milwaukee’s water system, now run by the French firm Suez.
The beautiful park system, once Milwaukee’s “green necklace” has disintegrated under budgets strained by ever-expanding jail populations and fast-shrinking corporate taxes. Milwaukee now bears the distinction of being one of the most “hyper-segregated” cities in the nation, and an all-white jury acquitted white off-duty cops of beating a black man nearly to death despite plenty of witnesses. Instead of programs aimed at helping working people and the poor to become full participants in society, the city subsidizes huge corporations.
For instance, the city recently provided $25 million to Manpower (the temporary help agency) for a parking structure, even though Manpower enjoyed $14.9 billion global revenues and provided its CEO with $4.7 million in total compensation including stock option grants in 2004, not including $1.9 million in stock options from previous years.
During the last mayoral campaign, neither of the two leading candidates—solid liberals Congressman Tom Barrett (the eventual winner) and former AFSMCE local president and Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt—dared offer a peep of criticism when Tower Automotive announced that it was moving its 500 remaining jobs (out of a peak of 7,000) to Mexico. (Meanwhile, then-presidential candidate John Edwards met with the Tower workers about to be displaced.)
Under the constant threat of more corporate relocations, Milwaukee’s experiments in public enterprise in Milwaukee have seemingly been suspended indefinitely. Policy initiative now resides decisively in the hands of private real-estate developers and the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, the largest right-wing foundation in the US. The Bradley Foundation has been the most important funding source for ideological products (spending nearly $1 million on the overtly racist “Bell Curve”) and divisive social programs like school vouchers on the domestic front, while simultaneously promoting the neo-conservative game-plan for Iraq by bankrolling the Project for a New American Century.
The Bradley Foundation, with its blame-the-victim and tough-love philosophy being echoed constantly by its well-paid “scholars,” played a crucial role in popularizing welfare “reform.” The AFDC program, embedded in the Social Security Act to aid jobless parents caring for small children, was successfully transformed, in elite opinion, from an integral economic-aid program to a wasteful subsidy for moral degeneracy. As a result, enrollees in the new W-2 program find themselves stuck on a treadmill of low-wage jobs, inadequate childcare, and a future without exits.
But while the intellectual fashions in Milwaukee and the nation shifted to the Right with the financial momentum provided by Bradley and others, Frank Zeidler remained dedicated to the poor and working people on the domestic front and to multilateral justice on the international scene. Zeidler, to nearly the very end, kept alive the rich social and labor history of Milwaukee through painstaking research, incessant lectures to rapt audiences, and walking tours of the city.
Zeidler was also the driving force behind the United Nations Association and numerous other efforts to establish a framework for international peace and a just redistribution of resources, in sharp contrast to the prevailing doctrines of “preventive war” and “full spectrum dominance” from outer space to the ocean depths by US military might.
The New York Times, perhaps reflecting some neo-liberal wishful thinking that democratic socialism has been relegated to the dustbin of history, titled the obituary: “Frank P. Zeidler, 93, last socialist mayor, dies.”
Yes, former Frank Zeidler is gone, but he leaves behind a profoundly inspirational legacy of commitment to social justice both in his city and internationally.
And given smoldering public resentment against soaring economic inequalities and the deterioration of the public “commons” in Milwaukee and across America, it is far from certain that Zeidler will indeed be the last socialist to run a major US city.
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee writer and activist (he is at Zeidler’s immediate right in the photo). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.