A link to the past was forever snapped last Friday when Frank Zeidler, the last in Milwaukee’s line of Socialist mayors that dominated city politics in the first half of the twentieth century, died at the age of 93. He held the position for three consecutive terms in the 1950’s, and was the last Socialist to serve as mayor of any major American city.
Zeidler was the consummate organic intellectual; no picture of him at home is without those trademark stacks of books lining the rooms. His son Michael said that he had probably read every book in the Merrill Street library. He translated Shakespeare into contemporary vernacular. He didn’t drink or smoke, and his memory and knowledge of the city was encyclopedic until the day he passed. He was the authority on the city’s history and regarded by all, regardless of political persuasion, as a living historical treasure. He never earned a college degree, though he attended Marquette and briefly the University of Chicago, which was the only time he lived outside of the city.
This perhaps only made his appeal stronger. Who needed college in those days, when any child of a German or Polish immigrant could get a job in the breweries of Miller, Pabst, or Schlitz (The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous) and build themselves a decent and dignified life in a Milwaukee bungalow? Those years were a golden age for the city, forever associated in my imagination with all those ubiquitous little wood-paneled taverns that kept Blatz on tap, a jar of pickled eggs on the bar, and hosted countless thousands of games of Sheepshead; the kind of places my grandfathers went after work.
Zeidler was elected in 1948, at the same time that another Wisconsin politician by the name of McCarthy had begun to build a legacy of a different kind and one-hundred years after the revolution in Germany in which the political traditions of Milwaukee’s immigrant workers were rooted. He went on to be re-elected twice in the heart of the McCarthy era, the roots of those traditions proving stronger than anything the Right could level at him.
His resilience came from his base of support in the breweries and industrial centers of the city and probably also his from his moderation which likely spared him the worst of McCarthy’s blows. Zeidler was a Lutheran, not a Marxist. His politics seemed motivated not by ideology but instead by simple pragmatism and old-fashioned big-heartedness that insisted that all should be fed. In an interview long after his time as mayor Zeidler said “I particularly picked Socialism because of several things in its philosophy. One was the brotherhood of people all over the world. Another was its struggle for peace. Another was the equal distribution of economic goods. Another was the idea of cooperation. A fifth was the idea of democratic planning in order to achieve your goals. Those were pretty good ideas.”
He had plenty of good ideas, and maybe a few silly ones. In the midst of cold-war hysteria he called on Milwaukeeans to build fallout shelters in their homes in case nuclear war. Yet he replaced the horse-drawn carts that still collected garbage in the post-war years with a fleet of state-of-the-art trucks, started a public educational television station for children, and build 3,200 public housing units for veterans and the poor. Milwaukee doubled in size under his tenure. He took particular pride, however, in his record on race. In a 2004 interview he said “my finest accomplishment as mayor was in civil rights. The migration of African Americans into Milwaukee after the Second World War dominated everything in Milwaukee during the 1950’s.
And my opponents would point to depressed wages and property prices, and say ‘Zeidler did that.’ But I would say ‘I don’t care where anybody comes from, as long as they’re here. Everybody gets equal treatment and equal responsibility.'” His opponents ran vicious race-baiting campaigns against him in both re-election campaigns, claiming (falsely) that he had paid for billboards in the South encouraging blacks to move to the city. He declined to run for a fourth term in 1960, telling his supporters “This job is an awful drain on a guy’s energy It’s a hard thing to swim upstream all the time and carry the banner of progressive ideas.”
The decades after Zeidler’s reign were not kind to the city. The 60’s and 70’s brought deindustrialization, de-unionization, and economic decline. The city population and tax base shrank as a growing white middle-class moved to the suburbs and racial tensions escalated. In 1967 a race-riot erupted as part of the wave of urban rebellions that swept the nation. Four people were killed and the city was placed under curfew. Today Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country.
But Zeidler never went out with the tide. In 1976 he ran for president on the Socialist Party USA ticket, garnering over 5,000 votes. He would remain active in the SPUSA until the end of his life. His last days were lived in the same house he inhabited before he was first elected, in a working-class neighborhood on 2nd St. The Zeidler legacy lives in a thousand little places throughout the city, and I can’t help but wonder if it doesn’t live in bigger ways as well. Certainly the infamous New Left milieu of nearby Madison in the late 60’s owed more to Lenin and Che than to Frank Zeidler’s brand of temperate common-sense Socialism, and yet how many of those student radicals grew up under the zenith of Socialist Party power in the Milwaukee of the 1950’s?
His memoirs were released last year from Milwaukee Publishers. A city government now mired in corruption, crude self-interest, and a recent scandal over racist police violence would do well to buy themselves a copy and, like Frank did, read deeply.
KEVIN PROSEN grew up in Milwaukee, and is now a freelance writer and activist living in Durham. He can be reached at email@example.com