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India Walton Is Reviving the American Tradition of Municipal Socialism

With her win last week, Buffalo’s India Walton will almost certainly become the first socialist mayor of a major US city in years. She’s reviving a robust American tradition: municipal socialism.

India Walton defeated incumbent mayor Byron Brown in Buffalo’s Democratic primary on June 22. (Photo courtesy India Walton for Mayor)

Last Tuesday, as news coverage focused on New York City’s mayoral race, an upset occurred in New York’s second-largest city. India Walton, a nurse and union activist endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Working Families Party, defeated incumbent mayor Byron Brown in Buffalo’s Democratic primary.

Walton proudly called herself a democratic socialist throughout the campaign, and on election night, she refused to back away from that label. Responding to a reporter’s question about whether she considers herself a socialist, Walton was adamant: “Oh, absolutely. The entire intent of this campaign is to draw power and resources to the ground level and into the hands of the people.”

At a victory party the same night, she laid out her political vision: “All that we are doing in this moment is claiming what is rightfully ours. We are the workers. We do the work. And we deserve a government that works with and for us.”

Having won the primary in Democrat-heavy Buffalo, Walton will almost certainly become the city’s first female mayor — and the first socialist mayor of a major US city in years. Her upset is another milestone in the rise of DSA, which put considerable energy into Walton’s campaign. But her victory also points to an important, if often overlooked, tradition of US politics: municipal and state-level socialism.

During the early twentieth century, the Socialist Party of America (SPA) fielded formidable candidates across the country. The most prominent was Eugene Debs, who ran for president five times, including from a federal prison in 1920. (He was serving time for opposing World War I.) New York’s Meyer London and Wisconsin’s Victor Berger both won election to the US Congress as Socialists in the 1910s and ’20s.

1912 Socialist ticket for president.

The real action, however, was down-ballot, where Socialists secured spots on city councils, state legislatures, county boards, and an array of other governing bodies. The SPA elected over 150 state legislators during the early twentieth century. They also won mayoral races. There was Jasper McLevy in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Louis Duncan in Butte, Montana; J. Henry Stump in Reading, Pennsylvania, and John Gibbons in Lackawanna, New York, just south of Buffalo. In Buffalo itself, Socialist Frank Perkins won a city council seat in 1920. All told, Socialists won office in at least 353 cities, the vast majority in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

The longest socialist administration was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where from 1910 to 1960 the city had three socialist mayors. Emil Seidel, Daniel Hoan, and Frank Zeidler’s administrations promoted “sewer socialism,” a moderate form of socialism aimed at delivering workers immediate material improvements and de-commodifying society through a democratic process. While they de-emphasized strikes and labor struggles, the sewer socialists were able to build an incredibly well-organized machine and a rich working-class culture.

Emil Seidel was elected in 1910, becoming the country’s first Socialist mayor of a major city. During his brief tenure, he created the city’s first public works department and started the city parks system. After losing reelection, Seidel served as Eugene Debs’s running mate in 1912.

Milwaukee Socialists regained power with Daniel Hoan’s victory in 1916. Hoan’s twenty-four-year tenure remains the longest continuous Socialist administration in US history. Milwaukee set up the country’s first public housing project, Garden Homes, in 1923, and the Hoan administration pushed for municipal ownership of street lighting, city sanitation, and water purification. It also financed public marketplaces, raised funds to improve Milwaukee’s harbors, and purged the corruption that had plagued past administrations.

Hoan’s tenure ended in 1940, but socialist governance returned under Frank Zeidler starting in 1948. Zeidler continued the “sewer socialism” tradition while overseeing Milwaukee’s territorial expansion and population rise. He stood out as a strong supporter of civil rights as Milwaukee’s black population increased following World War II (an especially laudable stance given the bigotry of earlier sewer socialists like Victor Berger).

The Wisconsin Socialist Party’s success wasn’t limited to Milwaukee. From 1905 to 1945, Socialists sent seventy-four legislators to the state capital, where they passed over five hundred pieces of legislation, often aimed at supporting the municipal administrations back in Milwaukee. A 1919 socialist bill, for instance, gave the city permission to create public housing.

Like their city-level comrades, Socialist state legislators worked to deliver tangible changes to workers’ lives. Socialists authored Wisconsin’s first workmen’s compensation bill, which passed in 1911, and pushed legislation that allowed women to receive their paychecks instead of having it sent to their husbands. They updated housing codes, reduced working hours for women, and funded public county hospitals. They exempted union property from taxation and made it illegal for company investigators to infiltrate unions.

Daniel Hoan, Socialist mayor of Milwaukee from 1916 to 1940. (Milwaukee Public Library)

Socialist state legislators in Wisconsin didn’t accomplish what they did alone. They aligned with progressive Republicans when possible and, as a result, much of the legislation that came out of the legislature looked like a mixture of socialist and progressive positions.

Still, Socialists were more than happy to call out progressives for not going far enough to help the working class. In 1931, the legislature debated a state unemployment system to combat the effects of the Great Depression. The socialist version of the bill called for $12 a week in benefits and included a provision to create an eight-hour working day across all industries. Progressives rallied around a bill that called for $10 a week in benefits and no cap on working hours. Socialist representative George Tews summarized the caucus’s sentiment when he declared on the House floor that a progressive was a “socialist with their brains knocked out.”

The Milwaukee socialists became mainstays of the state legislature, managing to survive the First Red Scare following World War I. Elsewhere, state repression (and deep splits within the party) proved more devastating. In New York, for instance, state officials operating under the anti-radical Lusk Committee targeted Buffalo, where Frank Perkins had been elected city councilor in 1920, and the nearby steel town of Lackawanna, where socialist John Gibbons won the mayor’s office. Under the cloud of federal repression, neither Perkins nor Gibbons won reelection.

The Wisconsin Socialists’ numbers and electoral victories evaporated following World War II, and for decades, socialists largely found themselves outside the halls of power (some exceptions: Oakland, California mayor Ron Dellums; St Paul, Minnesota mayor Jim Scheibel; Berkeley, California mayor Gus Newport; Santa Cruz, California mayor Mike Rokin, and Irving, California mayor Larry Agran — all DSA members).

But DSA victories in congressional, state, and local races have again placed socialism on the map. The key now will be to fight for concrete improvements in workers’ lives, raising their expectations about what is politically possible.

In her victory speech last Tuesday, India Walton laid out an optimistic view of socialist successes to come. “This victory is ours. It is the first of many. If you are in an elected office right now, you are being put on notice. We are coming.”

That kind of optimism was warranted at the state and local level during the early twentieth century. There is no reason it cannot be so again.