Democratic Socialism is Back in Milwaukee

Two Milwaukee DSA members discuss electoral campaigns, sewer socialism, and next steps for their chapter.

Last April, Milwaukee DSA ran three candidates for public office in their city. Unfortunately, none of the three candidates won their elections. Despite these losses, Milwaukee DSA members are taking the lessons they learned from these campaigns and putting them toward strengthening their chapter for the long haul. Two Milwaukee DSA members, Alex Brower and Arthur Edmund, recently spoke with Socialist Forum about the campaigns, the local legacy of Milwaukee’s “sewer socialists,” and next steps for their chapter. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Socialist Forum: Tell us a little bit about Milwaukee DSA. How did your chapter come together? What has it been like organizing as democratic socialists in Milwaukee today?

Alex Brower: I joined this chapter in 2017, a year after it was founded. From what I understand, a number of Bernie-inspired people came together and reached out to DSA to get the charter. A few of those founding members are still involved, and at this point I believe we have about 500 members.

We have grown very significantly compared to other organizations. Our local Democratic Party, for example, is actually a membership organization. We don’t have party registration here in Wisconsin, but people can choose to pay dues to the Democratic Party. Last I heard, it had about 1500 members in Milwaukee. So when we look at the scope of what other organizations are doing and who’s funding them, we’re catching up really quickly with the establishment. In addition to our electoral work, Milwaukee DSA members are involved in many different things. There’s a group working on a grassroots mesh internet network to compete with the mainstream corporate internet providers here. They’re intending for it to be a co-op. We have groups that are doing direct solidarity economy, mutual aid stuff. We have a socialist-feminist working group, we have an ecosocialist working group. So we have many things going on. Our chapter is growing, and I think we’re so much more vital than other organizations here in Milwaukee.

Arthur Edmund: When I first came into DSA I was bouncing around from organization to organization, or trying to create my own projects, just trying to do something to help after 2016. I joined DSA in 2018, but I didn’t really get active in it until the beginning of 2020. And now I’m completely inundated with it, most of my free time is dedicated to DSA. The experience, in my opinion, is very unique for people who want to be effective and get things done. We trace our roots back to the sewer socialists of the 1910s and 1920s. Some of them were very problematic in certain ways, but the thing I really like about them was they talked about or coined the term “constructive socialism,” because they cared less about getting into ideological battles than concretely improving their community. They wanted to clear the river way, they wanted to build parks and promote public health. I think that approach translates into our organization today very well. Our working groups are very autonomous. They have a lot of freedom to work as they see fit in a democratic way, as long as they’re in alignment with the overall goals and values of DSA. So for me it’s a very good home for activism, especially if you’re a person with initiative. So I adore it.

Anyone who knows even a little bit about the US socialist movement in the US probably knows that Milwaukee was one of the Socialist Party of America’s (SP’s) biggest strongholds. Is the SP’s legacy a part of popular consciousness in the city? To the extent that it is, does it help the work that you’re doing as DSA organizers in Milwaukee?

Alex: I would say maybe two-thirds of people here have no idea about it. But in some ways the socialist history helps us because a lot of politically active people know that it existed. If I knock on somebody’s door and we start talking about Daniel Hoan, who was one of the city’s Socialist mayors, I can see that they’re proud of that history. The regular people who know about that history are inspired by it, but the local corporate and Democratic Party elites despise socialism, we’ve found that out the hard way. They despise socialism and they don’t let the fact that the SP did many good things for our city get in the way of their worldview.

So overall, the legacy of Milwaukee socialism helps us more than it hurts us. Let me say this. Some of the more prominent Milwaukee socialists, take Victor Berger for example, were racist. We’re certainly not proud of that. This isn’t the whole story, though. Dan Hoan, who was the mayor from 1916 to 1940, fought against the Ku Klux Klan in Milwaukee and fought to expel racist members of the SP. There are definitely some negative aspects of the SP’s legacy here, but there are many positive things too. Milwaukee was one of America’s best cities when the socialists were in charge, and I think our chapter needs to do more popular education about the party’s legacy here. It’s an important resource for us to draw on.

Arthur: I would just add that the legacy is still intact. It’s definitely been diluted over time but to this day people still identify socialist politics with integrity and public-spiritedness. The socialists had a reputation for being incorruptible. There are still people who were alive during some of these times. The last socialist mayor we had, Frank Zeidler, only left office in 1960. We have members who served on various boards with Zeidler, or knew him personally. So the legacy is still there. People still understand that there’s a linkage between socialism and integrity. So that’s something that we can continue to build on.

Alex: Last year, I ran for city comptroller and I was at a progressive comedy show and our city’s historian, John Gurda, was there. I don’t believe he’s a member of our chapter, but during the show the host interviewed him and asked what he thought of the fact that a socialist was running for comptroller today. Gurda said almost exactly what Arthur said. He said when the socialists were in control here, they had nothing but integrity and I think that socialists going forward will be the same way. I’ll take that endorsement.

Arthur: The Milwaukee Turners is a socialist gymnastics organization, but it’s much more than that. It started in the 1800s back in Germany, and a lot of the Turners came to Milwaukee after the revolution of 1848. To this day, we have a concert venue here called Turner Hall, which was built by this old German socialist organization. All three of our socialist mayors were members of the Milwaukee Turners. And the president of the board, Art Heitzer, is a wonderful activist. People go to see these concerts that come through Turner Hall, and it’s just got all this history to it. So some people do know that, some people don’t. So the legacy is still very much alive, even in those organizations that have been around here since the mid-1800s.

The Milwaukee socialists were by far the most electorally successful section of the old SP. Your chapter recently ran three campaigns for local office, including Alex’s campaign for school board. How did those campaigns turn out, and what did you learn from them?

Alex: All three of our endorsed candidates, including myself, lost their races on April 6. That was very disappointing. Despite our losses, we’ve still got to fight. I have been so heartened in seeing so many of our folks in our DSA chapter not even be fazed by it, and Arthur is one of these people. One of the first things we learned is that we have a really resilient bunch of people in our chapter. That is super important for us to build long-term success and advocate for socialist policies.

In addition to myself, our candidates included Reverend Dana Kelly for Milwaukee school board district 4 and Darrin Madison, Jr. for Milwaukee county board district 10. Two of our three slate members were people of color – Dana and Darrin were actually the first non-white socialist candidates in Milwaukee’s history. We were all fighting for the same stuff. Dana and I had almost the same exact platform, for example. We were all really united and working together, and Arthur had a lot to do with that because he and our comrade Olivia Litzenberg set up a whole system for us to be more streamlined and working together. So one of the other main things we learned is that working together is better than working separately.

We came really close to winning all of these races. Darrin Madison lost by just 12 votes, out of about 3000 cast in the race. I ran 900 votes behind my opponent, which translated into about a 10% margin. Dana Kelly ran about 600 votes behind her opponent. So none of us fell flat on our faces, which meant that the corporate media and establishment Democrats couldn’t just point their finger and laugh at us.

As far as next steps, one of the reasons why the old sewer socialists were so successful is that they had their own extremely effective campaigning apparatus. We started that with this election, and I think it’s only going to grow. The sewer socialists here in Milwaukee didn’t just have their own media outlets in English and German. They also had their own print shop as well to print all their campaign materials. As a candidate, I can tell you that the printers are the real winners of every election because they get paid no matter what!

I’m joking a bit here, but I never understood why the sewer socialists had their own printing operation until I started running for office and saw how much it cost to do basic things like print up fliers and other things. So the need for more independent electoral infrastructure is something we’ve taken away from these races. For us to win enough power to make change in this city, we’re going to have to have our own operation and resources.

Arthur: Despite the losses, I think it went well. This was a very movement-based set of campaigns. About 100 people participated in these three campaigns in some way, shape, or form. I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual number was larger than this, so that was really cool. When we stumbled, it was because we honestly didn’t really know what we were doing in certain areas. It became very clear that consistent divisions of labor are very crucial when you’re doing a movement-based campaign. Candidates and volunteers can get really burned out. Events start to move very fast, and you’re never going to be caught up on all the stuff that you have to do. It’s a matter of clearly prioritizing the things that you’re working on because you will never get all of them done. And that can be really hard.

I’m very excited about all the ways that we’re going to do it better next time. We’re not done running for office, we’re just getting started. We did a debriefing session after the campaigns, where we created a very thoughtful “feedback funnel.” It was basically a Google form that asked many different questions, and we just wanted to collect all the data and feedback and criticism we could because that is all just going to make us better.

The current iteration of our chapter’s Electoral Working Group (EWG) started to support Alex’s campaign, back in June 2020. He was definitely an early adopter for this election. In September 2020, I became one of the co-chairs of the EWG, and I’ve been very focused on helping us figure out a long-term roadmap for our local electoral work. These three campaigns helped us to gain some real-world experience on how to get there in a collective, movement-based way. The roadmap has about 10 points on it, and it has to do with taking over your local government from the perspective of an organization like DSA. The two main themes are, one, what are our values, and two, how can we use our government structures in our area to try to put our values into practice? Smash those two together, and then you have your policy priorities.

It takes a long time to work through all of that stuff. But once you have that list of priorities, which will never be static, you have a way to vet the candidates that you want to endorse. You have a way to go to elected officials and say, Hey, we want you to do these things. You have a way to speak about what it is that you’re actually doing in the electoral politics space. So we’re looking forward to the future right now. We are starting to have conversations about what this is all going to look like the next time around.

Things got a little bit icky in Alex’s race because of identity politics. In my opinion, some messages were put into the public realm that were not in good faith, which basically boiled down to an appeal to voters to choose Alex’s opponent, because she was a woman of color, over Alex because they were “the same.” A good faith examination proves otherwise. Alex has been in this fight a long time – he went on a 21 day hunger strike to help get substitute teachers in the Milwaukee schools health care coverage and has a lot of other examples of proven bold leadership, not to mention he was the only candidate in the race that was an educator that had taught in the Milwaukee Public Schools classroom for seven years.

Speaking only for myself, I think Alex’s opponent won the election in part because her prominent establishment supporters, many of which are liberal Warren Democrats, are so fixated on identity that they allowed themselves to look past the value in Alex’s unique accomplishments.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the accomplishments that some of these local liberal establishment folks have obtained, but I absolutely disagree with them on who the right candidate was for this race.  And that’s the one that I know is willing to go on a hunger strike to get something important done.

But here’s the exciting part, the local liberals’ candidate won because the general public is much more familiar with them than our organization, which is only just getting started, and since their supporters had more of a base in the community than us people listened to and trusted that argument. And honestly, it would be inappropriate for us in DSA to expect the same level of trust when we haven’t been working in the community as an organization as long as they have. We have an opportunity between now and the next election to build on the successes we acquired during this election cycle by way of continuing to engage with our communities in meaningful ways.  As we continue this work we will build more trust and I hope that an eventual outcome of this work is that we will eventually seat Milwaukee’s fourth socialist mayor!

Alex: One thing I would add here is that democratic socialists across this country who are considering running for office should expect to face strong opposition from corporate Democrats. Sometimes we catch them sleeping, like AOC did in her first race. That incumbent member of Congress was asleep at the wheel, the same with Jamaal Bowman. I certainly don’t mean to take anything away from the two of them because they are both extremely talented politicians, but it definitely helped to face such weak opposition. So sometimes we catch them sleeping, and sometimes they bring the hammer. That’s what happened in my race because our opponents don’t want to let socialists on the school board.

What are some of the next steps for Milwaukee DSA, when it comes to both electoral work and non-electoral work? And how do you see those two general modes of organization relating to each other in your work in Milwaukee?

Alex: Arthur has already kind of alluded to this, but DSA has to build more trust and notoriety with the public so people know that when we put our seal of approval on someone that should be enough for voters to know that they should be in public office. And in addition to that, we need to get people to understand that socialists are different from other kinds of people in politics, who may be very good individuals interested in improving people’s lives, but who accept the limitations of this system we live under. I think we do that through issue advocacy, and taking on the fights the corporate Democrats don’t want to take on but have popular support, in addition to the electoral work.

For example, Milwaukee DSA was one of the only local organizations that got involved in the county-level budget fight. We did work with some coalition partners, but we were the leaders of the fight to de-fund our County Sheriff’s department. 25% of our county’s budget goes to the County Sheriff’s department. So we’re working with one of our elected allies on the country board, Ryan Clancy, to get that reduced and spent on more constructive programs and services. I think we gained some traction with activists because we did that. Now, the city of Milwaukee’s budget fight made most of the headline news, not the county’s budget fight. So moving forward, we need to make sure we pick issues that are as widely and deeply felt as possible that can gain us both attention and respect.

One other major thing we need to do is get more voters to consciously identify as democratic socialists, who are going to be skeptical of any candidate or power holder who says they’re OK with capitalism. We saw how this played out a bit in the competition between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the presidential primary campaign, it played out in my race, and it played out in Rev. Kelly’s race in district four too.

Arthur: I think that we should go even wider than what Alex just said. I am down with everything about issue advocacy, but we need to prove to our community that we’re showing up in ways that other organizations do not. We need to prove our worth. We need to prove our integrity. It’s very clear to me that the average American citizen does not trust the average Democrat politician, even if they vote for them they expect to be let down by them. They know that establishment Democrats are easily corruptible. But I think that the jury is still out on us, and breaking through is actually going to be really easy, it’s just going to take a lot of hard work.  Growth through repetition.

DSA is not just a political organization in my opinion, it’s a broader community organization. We are a socialist organization, which means we exist because we’re trying to help our communities. Sometimes that takes the form of electoral work, sometimes it’s mutual aid, other times it’s labor solidarity, etc. I think it would be very beneficial if we all thought about our work in the same way, that the good work we do in mutual aid or labor solidarity, also elevates the electoral politics work, and vice versa. So to me at the end of the day, it’s a matter of time and effort, and of showing up in our communities in a myriad of different ways to prove our worth to people that also want to see Milwaukee be a better place.

Alex: I encourage every DSA chapter to run people in elections, for offices that are winnable. I don’t necessarily believe in the martyr type of election campaign, although sometimes those can be useful. By running for office, we can get the socialist message out there to a broad audience. It really does move the needle – I think our campaigns really helped to build the socialist movement here in Milwaukee.