Frank Zeidler, former Mayor of Milwaukee and Chairman Emeritus of the Socialist Party USA, died last night at the age of 93. Frank occupies a unique place in history as the last bona-fide Socialist mayor of a major American city, serving three terms between 1948 and 1960. To the rest of the country, Milwaukee in the 1950’s seems so bland, so middle-American and middle-class that it was the setting of the tv sitcom “Happy Days.” The most political that “Happy Days” ever got was that Richie Cunningham voted for Adlai Stevenson while his father supported Ike. Meanwhile, their Socialist mayor was holding regular press conferences on the steps of City Hall to denounce the state’ red-baiting Senator, Joseph McCarthy.
The Socialists were a major political party in Milwaukee in the first half of the 20th century, electing numerous state legislators, city council members, a Congressman and two mayors before Frank. The first Mayor, Emil Seidel, served a brief term in 1910 focused on cleaning the city up, closing brothels and gambling parlors, establishing a fire department and improving sanitation and plumbing. The revolutionists of the era, and the “scientific” Marxists of today, scoff at this “sewer socialism,” but it did inspire voter loyalty and keep the party in power.
The Democrats and Republicans teamed up to vote Seidel out of office, but the Socialists returned to office in 1916 with Dan Hoan, who served a staggering 24 years as Mayor. Hoan focused on running an honest government and improving electricity, transportation and sewage. He did succeed in building the first public housing in the country in 1923, but otherwise the more progressive elements of his political agenda were frustrated by a moderate city council until the changed political climate of the 1930’s gave him room to experiment with jobs programs and public ownership.
Hoan was finally defeated for office in 1940 by the Democrat Carl Zeidler, who was Frank’s brother. Carl died “in office” while fighting in the war in Europe. Frank ran to fill out his term and came in fourth in the election.
Frank Zeidler joined the Socialist Party in 1922, when he was 20. Starting in the late 1930’s, he had been running as the party’s candidate for offices as varied as state treasurer, Congress and Governor of Wisconsin – winning a seat on the Milwaukee school board and the position of county surveyor. In 1948, the Socialist Party again asked Frank Zeidler to be its candidate for Mayor. The combination of the Zeidler family name and the Socialists’ still-impressive street organization resulted in Frank’s victory over a field of four candidates, including Dan Hoan who had abandoned the SP for the Democrats.
Zeidler’s administration was challenged to respond to post-war urban development, particularly “white flight” from the city. Zeidler’s masterstroke was the annexation of Milwaukee’s outlying areas, doubling the city’s size and shoring up its tax base to ensure that the city remain solvent and continue to provide services to all its residents. Zeidler was proud of the 3200 units of public housing he built, and the great expansion of the library and parks systems. “The most difficult problem,” Zeidler noted of his administration in a 1997 interview, “was defending the right of individuals of whatever race or ethnic stock to have equal opportunity in this city.” Faced with a reactionary coalition that planned a race-baiting campaign against a fourth Zeidler term, Frank sought to avoid such divisiveness and chose not to run again, citing health reasons.
He actually was in poor health. Frank was always in poor health. He actually dropped out of college because of heart problems. He had a quadruple bypass in 1997 that gave him a new lease on life, but he still maintained a dark, fatalistic humor about his health. If you invited him to any event, he would usually reply that he’d be glad to go if he was still alive.
Frank Zeidler remained a constant presence around Milwaukee, constantly lecturing and attending meetings and always available to the press for a quote. Kinda like Ed Koch, but pleasant. The Socialist Party’s street organization, though a shadow of its former self, remains and that, combined with the legacy of the Zeidler and Hoan administrations, makes the party still a contender in Milwaukee politics as in 2001 when its candidate, Wendell Harris, polled 20%, forcing a run-off. The press treated that election like a fluke that was more a vindication of Frank Zeidler (who remained a party stalwart despite declining fortunes) than of the idea of socialism. So beloved in Milwaukee was Frank that when I was doing publicity for the party’s 100th anniversary conference, a reporter from the Journal-Sentinel asked me what most party members thought of him and I replied that we all think that Frank is a really great man. That somehow was quoted as “the greatest living American,” which flattered and embarrassed Frank.
Frank remained a stalwart of the party. He rallied the party loyalists into a reorganization in 1973 when most of the “scientific” intellectuals marched into the Democratic and Republican parties. He ran for President in 1976 with the mission of saving the party. That campaign recruited the people who would staff the organization for the next three decades. He chaired the party for a number of years before stepping back to the more honorary position of Chairman Emeritus. Ever the Jimmy Higgins, he could often be found sweeping the floors at the party’s office on Old World Third Street.
Frank’s memoir of his years in office, “A Socialist in City Government,” was finally published last year. Bizarrely, the publishers retitled it “A Liberal in City Government,” wagering that readers would find the thought of a liberal in power so unique and fascinating that it would sell more. Go figure.
That book is still sitting on my “to read” pile, under all my school books. Maggie Phair had forwarded it to me a few months ago, during my brief tenure as editor of “Socialist” magazine, suggesting it as good source material for an obituary (which we didn’t think would be so urgently needed). Frank’s epitaph should be his socialist convictions. Speaking on the 100th anniversary of the Wisconsin party, he said, “The basic concept of socialism…still remains and illuminates a dark world. That concept is of a world of commonwealths cooperating with each other for the betterment of all peoples.”