Lawmakers Bring Socialism Back to Wisconsin Legislature

Elected officials in the past succeeded by focusing on issues such as infrastructure, public health
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 8, 2023 10:45 AM CST
Freshmen Return Socialism to Wisconsin Legislature
Socialist candidates were popular in Milwaukee in the first half of the 20th century.   (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

It's been 90 years, but socialism is back in the Wisconsin Legislature. After taking their oaths of office Tuesday, two freshman Assembly members made it their first order of business to revive a socialist caucus that has been dormant since the 1930s, the AP reports. As self-identified democratic socialists—a movement that has been regaining popularity in the US with the help of young Democrats—Reps. Ryan Clancy and Darrin Madison plan to hold their own meetings to advance their policy goals while also caucusing with Assembly Democrats. In the Republican-controlled Legislature, however, the socialist caucus is a minority within a minority. It's highly unlikely that either Democrats or the new caucus will have their way on most issues.

Clancy, a Milwaukee County supervisor, was still optimistic about bringing to the Assembly ideas he has successfully pushed for at the local level, such as guaranteed counsel for tenants facing eviction. "The things that we can get done are things which are common sense and have not been looked at as bipartisan fights," he said. But Republicans don't see it that way. "Socialism has failed everywhere in the world that it has been tried," GOP Majority Leader Rep. Tyler August said. "It is not what makes our country great." Clancy and Madison both hail from districts in Milwaukee, a city with a storied past as home to one of the most prominent socialist movements in the nation's history.

In 1910, during socialism's heyday in the US, Milwaukee sent the first socialist to Congress and was the first major American city to elect a socialist mayor. Two years later, it took Democrats and Republicans joining forces to oust Mayor Emil Seidel. Socialist politicians sat in the state Legislature as early as 1878, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau, but most socialist state lawmakers held office between 1917 and 1935, when the first socialist caucus appeared. Even after socialism fell under the same McCarthy-era stigma as communism during the 1950s, its visibility persisted in Milwaukee. Mayor Daniel Hoan, the city's second socialist mayor, held the position for 24 years after taking office in 1916. The city's third and final socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler, left office in 1960 after three terms that overlapped with Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy's notorious anticommunist campaign.

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The unique, pragmatic approach that made Milwaukee's socialist mayors popular with voters also caused friction with the Socialist Party of America, which had more ideological, revolutionary aims, said Philip Rocco, a professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee. The city's socialists earned the nickname "sewer socialists" for their practical focus on infrastructure projects and improving public health. It's a history Madison and Clancy have embraced, and Rocco said Milwaukee, which became known as one of the nation's best-run cities, is again uniquely fertile ground for the ideology. "We want to continue this legacy and redefine what it means to be a socialist in the state of Wisconsin," Madison said.

(More socialism stories.)

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