Sewer socialists give lesson in governing

If government could show it isn't inherently inept, maybe the term socialist would stop being the insult of choice.

Published: Sunday, November 17, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 15, 2013 at 6:15 p.m.

The term "socialist" gets thrown around by some of our letter writers to describe everyone from local commissioners to President Barack Obama.

A look back on socialists in U.S. history shows that's a stretch. Yet while the term really doesn't apply to most of today's elected officials, they might learn something from the last major American city to be led by actual Socialists.

The Socialist Party of America had a stronghold in Milwaukee during the late 19th and early 20th century. The city elected the nation's first Socialist congressman in 1910 and Socialists as mayor from 1910 to 1960.

Party members there were described as "sewer socialists." The term originally was coined to tease the locals about their pride in an upgraded municipal sewer system, according to John Nichols' book, "The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition ... Socialism."

Milwaukee Socialists embraced it. At a time when sewage ran into rivers, the city's leaders were proud to put in place infrastructure that protected the water supply, according to historian and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist John Gurda.

They also pushed other projects with a tangible impact on the average citizen's quality of life such as public parks, public libraries, public schools and public health, Gurda wrote in his column.

"Underlying their notion of public enterprise was an abiding faith — curiously antique by today's standards — in the goodness of government, especially local government," he wrote.

As Gurda tells it, Milwaukee Socialists didn't try to socialize everything in sight and weren't "tax-and-spend radicals intent on emptying the public coffers." They governed with integrity and funded projects on a pay-as-you-go basis. They were so frugal that Milwaukee became debt free in 1943.

All of this comes to mind when I see letter writers or conservative commentators use the term socialist to slam garden-variety Democrats. Given the recent problems with the biomass plant on the local level and the Affordable Care Act on the national level, liberals should be so lucky as to be as effective as the sewer socialists.

Perhaps it's time for a "back to basics" approach. Gainesville Mayor Ed Braddy described his political philosophy this way during his campaign. Yet, while Braddy wants government to do as little as possible, a more fitting approach for left-leaning Gainesville would be to focus on running things that truly benefit people's lives as efficiently as possible.

I think most residents here would agree that means having good schools, quality parks and a utility that protects the environment without boosting rates too high. Since local liberals tend to identify themselves as progressives, perhaps being known as "pragmatic progressives" would be something for which to strive.

That means being forward-thinking on issues such as transportation, but not getting carried away with expensive ideas like streetcars. On the national level, it means providing health coverage for the uninsured but first making sure the technology works to get them that coverage.

If government could show it isn't inherently inept, maybe the term socialist would stop being the insult of choice.

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