Socialism is on the rise in MKE

City’s history of socialist politics may return

Milwaukee’s hometown hero is coming home. Its name? Socialism.

This town has always been socialist. Milwaukee was a working class city, one full of laborers. We built railroads and dockyards and other infrastructure to transport Wisconsin wheat. As a result, during the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, labor ruled Milwaukee. In 1910, the City Council was controlled by the Socialists. The County Board was controlled by the Socialists. The Mayor was Emil Seidel, a Socialist. Milwaukee was known for our “sewer socialism”, a term referring to Milwaukee’s socialists who would proudly talk about our sanitation system, which they reformed along with our education, water and power systems.

However, this wouldn’t last. The Red Scare came, and wrenched Socialists and Communists out of political positions, union boards, schools, and other positions of power or influence. Labor rights and civil rights movements, which at the time were mainly composed of socialists and communists, became enemies of the state. The last Socialist mayor of a large city in the United States was Frank Zeidler, whose time as Milwaukee’s Mayor ended in 1960. In 2011, Wisconsin passed “Act 10”, which effectively destroyed public-sector unions in the state. We had gone from being the most labor-friendly state in the nation to being one of the least. Now, a new chapter is unfolding in Milwaukee’s story of labor and the left.

Milwaukee, and America as a whole, is experiencing an explosion in labor and left-wing politics, largely due to workers watching both major political parties fail to adequately tackle issues relating to Covid-19 and the economy.  In addition, during the pandemic many companies forced their workers to work in dangerous and unfair working conditions. This has led to surges in unionization and militant union action. Here in Milwaukee we’ve seen this ourselves, with the Colectivo workers and other groups, including the Carmen Workers Collective.  However, the main place where the left is making grounds in Milwaukee is in elections. There is already one socialist in office in the County Board of Supervisors, Ryan Clancy, serving District 4.  Clancy supports taking money from the Sherrif’s Office and using it in 24 different initiatives across many differing issues. However, he may not be alone soon.

Are the working-class people of Milwaukee content with the status quo?


In District 3, just south of Shorewood, Eric Rorholm is a socialist running against the neoliberal incumbent, Sheldon Wasserman. Rorholm only just got by in a run-off where Wasserman got 51%. But with exceptionally low turnout in that run-off and the more than 500 strong Milwaukee DSA on his side, he has a definite chance. A 23-year-old renter on Oakland Avenue, his platform centers on affordable housing, climate change initiatives, public transportation, and parks. Eric’s chances may seem low at a first glance, but with many of the 23% who voted for Jennifer Currant in the run-off likely to also vote for Rorholm, and with the exceptionally low turnout seen in the run-off, the chance of victory is not small at all. In a district stretching from the wealthy northern and lakeside edges of the county to the poorer city center, a victory here would be a huge indication of widespread political change.   

Eric is not alone in his efforts. He is accompanied by Juan Miguel-Martinez, who is running in District 12, a heavily Latinx district, in a race for an open seat. Miguel-Martinez is a labor organizer, and a lot of his platform revolves around labor, and he supports union jobs, better wages, and more reliable transit.  Miguel-Martinez is running against Josh Zepnick, a former State Assemblyman who admitted to having sexually assaulted two women at political events. Zepnick had a larger percentage in the primaries than Miguel-Martinez, both advancing with 41% and 30% respectively. Both candidates are accompanied by fierce canvassing efforts.

In the end, this is another one of the many recent tests we’ve seen of whether or not socialists can succeed in elections here in America. Can Milwaukee repeat what we’ve seen in other American cities, and what we saw here in 2020? Will the low turnout stand, or change, and change the election as well? And finally, are the working-class people of Milwaukee content with the status quo? Or do they think that it’s time to take a tip from the past, and go socialist again?