Click the image to learn more. Campaign posters cover this brick wall on Wells Street in 1932. Candidates include Benson for Sheriff, Joseph Shinners for Sheriff, Raymond Cannon for Congress, and Zabel for District Attorney.

Over the course of its political history, Milwaukee has experienced four distinct “party systems,” lasting approximately forty years apiece. During each system, two or more opposing parties have competed, with core constituencies based upon personal identity, ideology, and reactions to state, national, and international developments. Each period began and ended with a “realigning election,” differentiating it from the previous system as well as the one emerging. Milwaukee politics have always been contentious, but seldom boring.

Democrats dominated the first party system, running from the 1840s through the 1870s. The second, extending from the latter decade until 1910, was marked by a highly competitive two-party system, based upon ethno-cultural differences. Voters identified passionately with a single party, an allegiance inherited from their fathers, practiced assiduously, and passed on to their sons. But two movements inexorably shook this system to its foundations. The first was a middle-class reform activism that evolved into the progressive wings of both major parties. The other consisted of a variety of working-class organizations that coalesced into the Social Democratic Party.

Between 1910 and 1960, these two spawned a third party system encompassing Progressives, Socialists, Democrats, and Republicans. Complicating this, the Wisconsin legislature mandated nonpartisan local elections in 1912. During the 1950s, a revitalized Democratic Party, drawing most of its supporters from the rapidly disintegrating Progressives and Social Democrats, quickly overtook the Republicans, restoring a more normal two-party alignment. Thus the beginning of the fourth “party system.”

Two interactive forces have shaped Milwaukee’s electoral history: 1) its unique mix of races, ethnicities, and religions, and 2) a growing class consciousness engendered by industrial development. In some elections, these have been mutually reinforcing. In others, they have operated at cross-purposes. The Cream City has always been relatively short on Irish Americans, and long on Yankees, Germans, and Poles. Germans certainly had the numbers but were divided by Old World geography, religion, and class. Most “48ers” and Protestants were Republicans, whereas Catholics tended to be staunch Democrats. Post-1880 newcomers to Milwaukee tended to be sympathetic to the Social Democrats. Poles usually became Democrats, although a sizable minority leaned Socialist or Progressive. British and Scandinavian immigrants were heavily Republican but split between its progressive and conservative wings. Most Southern and Eastern Europeans—who arrived between 1890 and 1930—emerged as Democrats or Socialists. African Americans overwhelmingly supported the party of Lincoln—until the advent of the New Deal. Latinos and Asians, who arrived mostly during the last half-century, have arrayed on the Democratic side. A veritable kaleidoscope of peoples, Milwaukee has been a crucible in which groups have vied for recognition, respect, benefits, and “clout.” Milwaukee’s electoral history has also been seriously impacted by the Civil War, various business cycles, the New Deal, and both world wars.[1]

In the citywide elections of 1846, Democrats seated all but one of their candidates. Fifteen out of the first sixteen mayors were Democrats. They also won most citywide and countywide elections while dominating delegations to Madison and Washington. Between 1846 and 1881, voters usually supported Democrats for president and governor, with majorities ranging from 54 to 68 percent. Even Abraham Lincoln received only 42 and 32 percent.[2]

The first political uproar came over the proposed 1846 city charter, which featured liberal suffrage requirements, prohibited banks, and protected debtors. In 1848, a new charter, retaining the suffrage requirements—but dropping the anti-banking provisions—was adopted by a ten to one margin. Not even the bitterly divisive issues of nativism, temperance, and anti-Catholicism seriously threatened Democratic hegemony.

The first Republican presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, carried Wisconsin in 1856 but lost Milwaukee by three to one. At the same time, local Democrats elected their entire slate of assemblymen. Then in 1860, although Lincoln carried four of the city’s nine wards, Stephen A. Douglas garnered 58 percent of the votes in Milwaukee. Four years later, Lincoln’s patchwork Union Party won less than one-third of these local votes. In both instances, however, Lincoln won Wisconsin statewide. Although the Democrats continued in power for the remainder of the decade, their margins kept dwindling. Many opponents coalesced into “the People’s Ticket,” which campaigned against Democratic waste and corruption and stressed government run by honest and experienced businessmen. The citizenry adopted a new charter that centralized authority, eliminated duplication, and replaced several elected officials with appointees. Its enactment ushered in the Second Party System.[3]

Late 19th century Milwaukee, according to John Gurda, “was governed by a band of ethically challenged hacks.”[4] Heading the list was five-time mayor David, “All the Time Rosey” Rose, who loudly proclaimed “I believe in winning. Standing for an alleged principle is all damned rot.”[5] Insisting that he lived “to see his people at play,” he made River Street notorious for its protected dens of iniquity. At the same time, he made pious appeals to Catholics as a fearless opponent of “Godless Socialism.”[6]

His Republican counterpart, Henry Clay Payne, “illustrated perfectly the unholy fusion of profits and politics that typified the Gilded Age.”[7] He was a member of county and national committees, and was appointed U. S. Postmaster-General in 1902. He was instrumental in creating the nation’s first utility conglomerate: The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company. When his company increased fares while denying raises to its employees, the Common Council retaliated by raising its taxes. Payne then successfully lobbied to reduce them, leading to bitter strike that polarized the community for two years. This upheaval gave rise to a municipal ownership movement that Rose hijacked by running as a “Popocrat.” He and Payne then brokered a back-room deal granting the company a 34-year franchise.

The rise of the Republican Party intensified partisan conflict, fueling record voter turnouts. Of the eight presidential elections between 1880 and 1908, Republicans carried Milwaukee in seven, by percentages ranging from 51 to 63. The only Democrat to carry Milwaukee—if barely—was Grover Cleveland in 1884 and 1892. Meanwhile, George Peck was the only Democratic gubernatorial candidate to carry Milwaukee, in 1890 and 1892, whereas David Rose garnered less than 50 percent in 1902. This Republican upsurge was due partly to the party’s calculated courting of German Protestants—slating one for mayor in 1884, 1894, and 1896.

Milwaukee’s two major parties were fairly evenly balanced. Except for the 37 percent received in 1904, Democratic presidential hopefuls garnered between 42 and 51 percent. In contests for governor, Democrats failed to receive at least 41 percent only twice. They also won eleven of twenty mayoral elections. From 1896 to 1910, Rose won five times out of six. With both parties boasting core constituencies of around 40 percent, elections often turned on the 20 percent who, for whatever reason, operated outside that paradigm.[8]

The Rose-Payne “conspiracy” gave powerful impetus to two “grass-roots” reform movements: one predominantly middle and upper middle-class, and native-born; the other self-consciously working-class and heavily foreign-stock. The former worked within the existing system and crusaded for tax equity, regulation of public utilities, and honest, efficient, and economical government. The latter placed their faith exclusively in institutions of their own making. While the former sought mainly to rationalize and humanize capitalism, the latter believed in a cooperative commonwealth. Both benefited from the inability of the major parties to alleviate conditions during the severe depressions of the 1870s and 1890s.

In September 1903, the city’s various Turner societies organized a mass meeting to protest “the general and widespread municipal corruption that has prevailed for years.”[9] The meeting attracted some 3,000 people and energized the “graft trials” brought by Republican district attorney Francis McGovern. These revealed a plethora of systematic abuses. Grand juries returned 276 indictments against 83 office holders and bureaucrats while helping to stymie Rose’s 1906 reelection bid. Although Rose subsequently won in 1908, he never again received more than 37 per cent. He lost the 1910 election to Emil Seidel, the first Socialist mayor.

The Socialists and Progressives quickly achieved major party status. The latter operated through civic organizations that advocated civil service, retrenchment, and tax reduction. Pushed by intellectuals, social workers, and labor leaders—and by growing competition from the Socialists—they embraced an “urban progressivism,” with an emphasis upon socio-economic reforms. Led by McGovern, the “Milwaukee crowd” formed a tenuous coalition with the progressive wing of the state Republican Party headed by Robert M. La Follette, Sr., which lasted until their acrimonious breakup in 1912. Just two years earlier, however, that same coalition—with the help of Socialist lawmakers—made the 1911 legislature one of the most “progressive” in all of American history.

In June 1897, Milwaukeeans Victor Berger and Frederick Heath joined with labor’s perennial presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs to form the Social Democratic Party. Although the national organization became the Socialist Party of America, Milwaukee’s contingent continued to call themselves “Branch One of the SDP”—to emphasize their German origins, revisionist philosophy, and collaboration with organized labor. They billed the party as “the expression of the international movement of modern wage-workers for better food, better houses, sufficient sleep, more leisure, more education, and more culture.”[10] Equally crucial was the “interlocking directorate” among the SDP, the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council, and the Wisconsin State Federation of Labor. The party was tightly organized, with “block captains” and “bundle brigades” capable of “leafletting” the entire city within forty eight hours. In 1898, its first mayoral candidate received only five percent of the vote. Within twelve years, however, Seidel became its first mayor, garnering 47 percent in a three-man contest. He carried sixteen of the twenty-three wards, while supporters elected twenty-one of thirty-five aldermen, ten of sixteen county supervisors, and twelve members of the Wisconsin General Assembly. They also elected Berger, the Austrian Jewish-born editor of the Milwaukee Leader, to the U.S. House of Representatives.[11]

Seidel’s success panicked Democrats and Republicans who organized a “fusion ticket” in 1912. Although Seidel garnered 3,000 additional votes, his total percentage dropped by seven points. The only surviving Socialist was city attorney Daniel Hoan. The 1912 state legislature also hastily mandated non-partisan local elections. (Ironically, Hoan and fellow Socialist Frank Zeidler won ten of the next twelve mayoral elections.) The 1910 elections firmly established the SDP and the Progressives on an equal footing with the two mainstream parties. Debs outpolled Republican William Howard Taft in 1912 and Democrat James Cox in 1920. SDP gubernatorial candidates consistently garnered more than one-quarter of the votes from 1910 through 1934. Although La Follette was vilified for his anti-war stance following America’s entrance into World War One, he received 64 percent of the senatorial vote in 1916, and 83 percent in 1922. Running on the Progressive Party ticket for president in 1924, he polled 55 percent.[12]

In the special election of 1925, his successor—Bob, Jr.—received 73 percent. In 1928, the latter polled 92 percent, running against an “independent Republican.” In three-man races in 1934 and 1940, he won pluralities of 43 and 41 percent. Only two Progressive Party senatorial aspirants (in 1938 and 1944) failed to gain at least a plurality. Progressive candidates for governor carried Milwaukee in four straight elections, with majorities ranging between 51 and 86 percent. Gubernatorial candidate Phil La Follette carried Milwaukee as a Republican in 1930 and as a Progressive in 1934, but failed to do so as a Progressive in 1936 and 1938. The last Progressive gubernatorial hopeful, Orland Loomis, took Milwaukee in 1940, 1942, and 1944.[13]

The rise and fall of “four party politics” was also manifest in elections for the state legislature. In 1921, Milwaukee’s assembly contingent consisted of twelve Republicans and six Social Democrats. Ten years later, there were eight Social Democrats, seven Republicans, and one Democrat. By 1941, Milwaukee’s delegation consisted of four Democrats, and six each of Republicans and Progressives. Ten years later, the Progressives had also disappeared, replaced by twelve Democrats and four Republicans.

In national elections, Milwaukeeans never gave majorities to Socialists or Progressives, but Debs consistently polled between a quarter and a third. Although La Follette, Sr. was listed as a Republican, he was clearly “progressive” in his three senatorial bids. Bob, Jr. captured Milwaukee all four times he ran for the U.S. Senate, while Berger was elected to Congress every congressional election from 1910 to 1928, even though his fellow legislators twice refused to seat him because of his opposition to World War One.

In presidential elections, Milwaukee voters demonstrated a growing preference for Democrats. With the exception of 1920, 1924, and 1956, Democrats outpolled Republicans in every presidential contest, with Franklin D. Roosevelt piling up percentages of 68, 78, 64, and 62. In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower became the last Republican presidential hopeful to carry Milwaukee. The Social Democrats and Progressives, however, generally prevented Democratic presidential victories from penetrating “down-ballot.” Only three Democratic candidates—in 1914, 1932, and 1944—won senatorial elections. Since 1950, not a single Democrat locally has failed to triumph in senatorial contests.

The most noteworthy feature of this Third Party System was governance by Socialist mayors; its positive reputation flowed directly from that condition. Hoan first took office with only eleven of the thirty-seven aldermen and none of the other elected officials. In 1920, he was reelected by more than 3,000 votes while helping to increase the number of SDP aldermen. Hoan defeated his opponents by ever-increasing margins, receiving praise for his condemnation of the Ku Klux Klan and for his outspoken campaign against Prohibition. In 1928, he won by 18,000, and in 1932 by 45,000, bringing in a city treasurer and attorney as well as twelve Socialist aldermen (the only working majority he ever enjoyed during his twenty-four years as mayor). He achieved national acclaim for his actions to combat the Depression and for his role in making Milwaukee “an All-American City.” He was seriously undermined by tax delinquency, prolonged unemployment, and labor strife. Hoan generally took labor’s side, and asked city employees—including the mayor—to take voluntary ten percent pay cuts, using the savings to fund public works projects employing 14,000. His “baby bonds” initiative allowed the city to use forfeited lands and buildings as collateral for loans. In 1932, Hoan survived a recall attempt mounted by taxpayer organizations and real estate interests. Four years later, the same groups defeated his proposal to buy up all TMER&L property within the city. Ironically, his efforts were unintentionally undercut by the New Deal and the consequent defection of many labor leaders. In 1936, he won reelection by only one-third of his 1932 margin, losing most of his influence over the Council.

Increasingly frustrated by the Council and by Republican state government, Hoan was finally defeated on April 2, 1940 by 111,957 to 99,798. His victorious opponent was brash young Republican Carl Zeidler. Using his fine singing voice to attract audiences, Zeidler promised “to pull the city out of lethargy that scares away businesses, keeps our men unemployed, and denies our youth a chance for jobs.”[14] Before he had time to make a record, though, the new mayor resigned, joined the Navy, and was subsequently killed in action. He was succeeded by John L. Bohn, the 76-year-old president of the Common Council who proved to be a competent caretaker from 1942 to 1949. In his last term, he raised two issues that dominated Milwaukee politics for the next two decades: 1) a clash between his “pay-as-you-go” financing of public projects and the plan of the Greater Milwaukee Committee for Community Development (GMCCD) to issue bonds; and 2) expansion of public housing. In the ensuing election campaign, Henry Reuss, a Democratic congressman, supported civic improvements but equivocated on housing. Zeidler’s younger brother Frank, an avowed Socialist, advocated large-scale slum clearance, with tenant relocation in public housing. He pulled off a stunning upset by amassing 56 percent of the votes. Once in office, Zeidler faced formidable opposition from the GMCCD, the Democratic Council majority, and the major newspapers. Although he was reelected in 1952 and 1956, he could neither carry other Socialists into office nor get the Council to approve his appointees. The exodus of prosperous whites left an increasing percentage of service users and dependent people, with a shrinking tax base. By stressing the housing needs of veterans, Zeidler initiated four scaled-down projects despite strong opposition that branded them as “socialistic.”[15]

The 1960 mayoral election marked the beginning of the Fourth Party System: fifty-plus years of almost total domination by rejuvenated Democrats. Since then, every single one of the party’s presidential candidates has carried Milwaukee. They have also won almost every gubernatorial election and have sent have sent virtually monolithic delegations to Madison and Washington. In the 1960 mayoral contest, Henry Maier, a state senator who had switched from Progressive Republican to Democrat, upset Reuss. The latter party’s revival reflected two sea changes: 1) the reorganization of the party under the leadership of Progressive and Socialist “exiles;” and 2) its increasing dependence upon African Americans and other racial minorities. As the children and grandchildren of European immigrants moved north and west of the city, the largely non-white North Side was increasingly alienated, engendering bitter conflicts over housing, jobs, and public education.

Combative and manipulative, Maier gained almost complete control of the party machinery, bureaucracy, and Council. He took all the credit for anything positive while blaming failures on the suburbs, state and federal government, the Milwaukee Journal or “outside agitators.” Unable to stem the flight of manufacturing, Maier concentrated on promoting tourism and retail sales. When Maier finally retired in 1988 after seven terms, two prominent Democrats contested the “non-partisan” mayoral election: former lieutenant governor Martin Schreiber and John Norquist, a 38-year-old “conservative socialist.” Norquist won and continued in office for sixteen years, trying to reverse most of Maier’s policies. Forced to resign in 2004, he was temporally succeeded by Council President Marvin Pratt, the city’s first black mayor, who then lost the next general election to Democratic Congressman Tom Barrett. The campaign was marred by widespread racist appeals and accusations of financial malfeasance. Pratt later charged that Milwaukee was “a racist city.”

In a concerted effort to restore its reputation, the opposing candidates for Milwaukee’s newly minted Fourth District Congressional seat steadfastly refused “to play the race card” in 2004. As a result, African American Democrat Gwen Moore garnered 72 percent of the city vote and carried 292 wards out of a possible 314. Whether this outcome signified the emergence of “color blind” politics in Milwaukee or was simply an “exception that proves the rule,” remains to be seen.[16]

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ For a more thorough discussion of the material in this chapter, see John Buenker, “Cream City Electoral Politics: A Play in Four Acts,” in Margo Anderson and Victor Greene, eds., Perspectives on Milwaukee’s Past (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009). For a more complete exposition of its documentation, see the “Notes” section therein, pp. 41-47. Because their focus is much more comprehensive, John Gurda’s The Making of Milwaukee (Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1999) and Bayrd Still’s Milwaukee: The History of a City (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1948) are excellent in situating the city’s political evolution within the widest possible context over all four party periods.
  2. ^ For detailed statistical analyses of election returns over the course of all four party periods, see Robert Booth Fowler, Wisconsin Votes: An Electoral History (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), James R. Donoghue, How Wisconsin Voted, 1848-1972 (Madison, WI: Institute of Government Affairs, 1974), and Sarah C. Ettelheim, How Milwaukee Voted, 1848-1980 (Madison, WI: U.W. Extension Extension, 1980).
  3. ^ Kathleen Niels Conzen, Immigrant Milwaukee, 1836-1860: Accommodation and Community in a Frontier City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976) is the most comprehensive treatment of the First Party System.
  4. ^ Buenker, “Cream City Electoral Politics,” 23.
  5. ^ Gurda, Milwaukee, 200.
  6. ^ Buenker, “Cream City Electoral Politics,” 23-24.
  7. ^ Gurda, Milwaukee, 195.
  8. ^ David G. Ondercin, “Corruption, Conspiracy in Milwaukee, 1901-1909,” Historical Messenger of the Milwaukee County Historical Society 26 (December 1970): 112-117; George Allen England, “Milwaukee’s Socialist Government,” American Review of Reviews 42 (October 1910): 445-55; David P. Thelen, The Origins of Progressivism in Wisconsin (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1972); Marvin Wachman, The History of the Social Democratic Party (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1943); Sally M. Miller, Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973); Roger E. Wyman, Voting Behavior in the Progressive Era: Wisconsin As a Case Study (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilm, 1970) all add significantly to our understanding of the Second Party System.
  9. ^ Buenker, “Cream City Electoral Politics,” 25.
  10. ^ Buenker, “Cream City Electoral Politics,” 28.
  11. ^ Buenker, “Cream City Electoral Politics,” 29.
  12. ^ Buenker, “Cream City Electoral Politics,” 31.
  13. ^ Buenker, “Cream City Electoral Politics,” 31-32.
  14. ^ Buenker, “Cream City Electoral Politics,” 35.
  15. ^ Bernard Fuller, “Voting Patterns in Milwaukee, 1896-1920” (M.A. thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1970); Frederick I. Olson, “The Milwaukee Socialists, 1897-1941” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1952); and Douglas E. Booth, “Municipal Socialism and City Government Reform, 1910-1940 (M.A thesis, Marquette University, 1985) provide a substantial amount of breadth and depth to our knowledge of the Third Party System.
  16. ^ Finally, Richard Bernard, “Milwaukee: The Death and Life of a Midwestern Metropolis” in Snowbelt Cities (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990); Richard C. Haney, “Wallace in Wisconsin: The Presidential Primary of 1964,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 61 (1978): 258-278; and Arnold Fleischmann, “The Territorial Expansion of Milwaukee: Historical Lessons for Contemporary Urban Policy and Research,” Journal of Urban History, 14 (1988):147-176, enhance our understanding of the Fourth Party System.

For Further Reading

Anderson, Margo, and Victor Greene, eds. Perspectives on Milwaukee’s Past. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Gurda, John. The Making of Milwaukee. Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1999.

Fowler, Robert Booth. Wisconsin Votes: An Electoral History. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966.

Kerstein, Edward. Milwaukee’s All-American Mayor: Portrait of Daniel Webster Hoan. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966.

Still, Bayrd. Milwaukee: The History of a City. Madison, WI: Wisconsin State Historical Society, 1948.

Wachman, Marvin. History of the Social Democratic Party. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1943.

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