James Farmelant farmelantj at
Wed Apr 7 06:32:59 PDT 1999

April 7, 1999


Reforms Punish Poor, Veteran Socialist Says


MILWAUKEE -- Welfare's sudden death has stunned many residents of the central city here, but few have expressed more dismay than an elderly gentleman on a poverty-pocked block who has been monitoring the neighborhood's civic affairs since the Great Depression.

At 86, Frank P. Zeidler is the last of Milwaukee's three Socialist Mayors -- no other major American city has had even one -- and a living link to a time when Wisconsin politics was synonymous with safety-net expansions, like workers' compensation and unemployment insurance.

Now Wisconsin is known for a seemingly opposite passion, an anti-welfare campaign that has cut the state's cash assistance rolls by more than 90 percent. And Zeidler -- learned, courteous, still sharp as a tack -- is mulling the question that may keep political scientists busy for the next generation:

What happened to the state's famously progressive traditions?

"What you're seeing in Wisconsin is a deconstruction of the progress we made in the first decades of the 20th century," Zeidler said recently at his home in Milwaukee's poverty belt. "It's a kind of neo-anarchism that says, 'Nothing the Government can do is right,' and only the profit motive is justified. This is one manifestation of it: 'Get rid of the people on welfare.' "

Then again, the welfare restrictions have the support of some of the city's leading Democrats, who say they are building on a progressive past that celebrated toil and toilers. One of the most vocal welfare critics here is the current Mayor, John Norquist, a three-term Democrat who has run each time with Zeidler's support. As Norquist puts it, progressive reforms like unemployment insurance aimed "to help workers get through a tough time and get back to work -- the idea wasn't to keep people on welfare."

Ideological disputes aside, most people here agree on one thing: Zeidler is a civic treasure. A gold mine of local lore -- he interrupted his welfare talk to help a caller trace the origins of Milwaukee fish fries (they started in taverns in the Depression) -- Zeidler observes the attack on welfare through a unique set of lenses.

As an organizer, he has been working the north side wards since 1932, when German-American factory workers formed the core of the Socialist vote. As Mayor from 1948 to 1960, he fought battles for public housing that foreshadowed the welfare wars. And as a central-city homeowner for 53 years, he has endured white flight, black riots and a rash of break-ins that left him sleeping behind a saw-horse barricade, as devoted to the neighborhood as ever.

"Moving is a terrible hassle," he said. "And you don't want to get pushed out of your own house."

Zeidler, a Socialist Mayor when Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin was busy hunting Communists, knows that political heritages are complex. In his view, the city's progressive ways have been eroding for more than 40 years, partly for racial reasons. The postwar boom brought poor Southern blacks streaming into Milwaukee, and a white backlash followed. Indeed, as an advocate of public housing, Zeidler himself was a target. "There was a feeling that benefits were attracting the poor and that cutting benefits would stop it," he said.

The City Council blocked his drive to build more subsidized apartments. (Oprah Winfrey was reared here in one, he notes with pride.) His 1956 opponent called for time limits for public-housing residents -- presaging the time limits on cash assistance that followed 40 years later. And Zeidler won that race despite wildfire rumors that he was urging blacks to move to town by posting billboards across the South.

"They said I was bringing in all the blacks and secretly moving out," said Zeidler, who is white. "And here I am, 53 years in the same house."

Yes, he is here, but control of the state has shifted to conservatives in the Milwaukee suburbs and their rural allies, like Gov. Tommy G. Thompson.

Thompson, a Republican from the small town of Elroy, has ridden an anti-welfare crusade to an unprecedented fourth term.

To Zeidler's chagrin, the drive to end welfare came with early support from Milwaukee Democrats, the closest thing he has to political heirs. As early as 1990, Mayor Norquist was denouncing welfare as harmful to the poor and calling for its replacement with public jobs.

Milwaukee has a long tradition of left-wing politics, noted for its conservative quirks. The city's Socialist pioneers were so pragmatic -- obsessed with services like sanitation, not revolution -- that radicals dismissed them as "sewer Socialists."

Consider the cry of the first Socialist Mayor, Emil Seidel, at his inauguration in 1910. "The eyes of thousands of stricken cities are today directed toward our Milwaukee," he began in soaring fashion -- before promising the masses such consolations as to "place the finances of our city on a sound and sane basis." (His assistants included a Socialist newsman, Carl Sandburg, who later turned to poetry.)

In holding City Hall for 38 of the next 50 years, Milwaukee's Socialists were known for clean water, more parks, strict zoning, low debt and honest and efficient rule -- a sensibility that elsewhere might have been known more simply as "good government." Working in the State Legislature with their off-and-on allies, the rural Progressives, they also passed the nation's first programs of workers' compensation (1911) and unemployment insurance (1932).

By 1993, the Socialists were gone and a war on welfare was under way. In the view of Democrats, Governor Thompson had been denouncing the program without offering a credible alternative. One of Mayor Norquist's protégés, State Representative Antonio Riley (a former welfare recipient himself), introduced a bill that dared the Governor to abolish cash aid and create public jobs.

By passing the bill (with no Republican votes), most Democrats hoped to goad the Governor into an embarrassing veto. But instead, Governor Thompson agreed to "end welfare" three years before Congress followed suit. (He vetoed the jobs provision and fudged the issue later by creating modest community service positions for those unable to find work.) Forced now to work for welfare, most recipients have simply left, to find private jobs or rely on friends.

Recently, another of Mayor Norquist's aides paid Zeidler a visit. A left-leaning critic of welfare, the aide, David Riemer, brings a near-religious faith in work programs like those created in the Depression. Indeed, it sometimes seems that Riemer knows every building, bridge, and trail left in Milwaukee by the public works crews of the 1930's.

Though he wants real jobs for the poor -- not community service, where those left on welfare simply work off their checks -- he considers the current system a good start.

The state now offers low-income workers an impressive array of benefits: wage supplements, child care subsidies and subsidized health insurance. Even welfare recipients have gotten a raise, to $673 a month from an average of about $517.

"Once people are seen as workers, it's a lot harder to say no to them," Riemer said. "That was part of 'sewer Socialism': the idea that people who could work, should work -- and society then should help."

Politely, but firmly, Zeidler disputed the parallels with the past.

Socialism was a movement of the poor, he said, while the welfare reductions have mostly come "from people who want to punish the poor." Socialists stressed education, he said, while the reductions have forced many women to leave school. The Socialists protected minors through child labor laws. They would have been distressed, he said, by a program that puts infants in day care when they are 12 weeks old.

Speaking from nearly nine decades of experience, Milwaukee's last sewer Socialist warned against simple theories of the poor. "People are poor for lots of reasons -- you have to have a net to catch the ones that don't fit your system," Zeidler said. "And I don't see that anymore. That safety net is gone."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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