Metropolis

Bring Back the Sewer Socialists!

Leftists need a new (old) pitch to lead America’s cities.

Former NYC mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia, against a backdrop including the Sewer Socialists of Milwaukee in the 20th century.
She, and they, had the right idea. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images, Wikipedia (Wikipedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Debs_campaign.jpg), Heritage Auctions/Wikipedia, wisconsin.edu (http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1793/6805) and fcknimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

“There’s no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage,” goes a famous quip usually attributed to New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. The meaning is clear: Running a city government requires elected officials to be pragmatic, deliver services, and check their ideology at the door. It’s a witty but misleading quote. Providing public services might technically be a nonpartisan matter, but it’s hardly a nonideological one. How to distribute power between the public and private sectors, which services to cut first when budgets are tight, whether decisions should be made by civil servants or elected officials—these are values-based questions, not empirical ones.

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New Yorkers have had more immediate reasons lately to think about garbage pickup: 1) It’s summer and therefore Hot Trash Season; and 2) the city’s former sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, came within one percentage point during ranked choice voting of winning the Democratic primary for mayor. Garcia was a lifelong civil servant whose pitch to voters was almost entirely about her own competence and managerial skill; she promised to “get shit done,” a wry nod to her past in sanitation and sewage. Her policy positions were mostly moderate, but her message contained a kernel that the city’s progressive left can adapt and make its own after a disappointing showing in the mayoral race. The most electorally successful leftists in U.S. history ran and governed on this very kernel—the belief that delivering basic services, building public works, and running a functional local government are inseparable from what it means to govern from the left in a major city.

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That Garcia came so close to victory, despite no political experience and almost no name recognition before the race, means her message hit a nerve. There’s a lesson there for candidates across the country. Maya Wiley, the left-most major candidate in the race, mostly campaigned on nonprofit-esque platitudes after serving as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s counsel. Garcia offered New Yorkers a clear value proposition instead: improving the public services they rely on for daily life. The eventual primary winner and now presumptive next mayor Eric Adams was always going to be a formidable candidate, given his rock-solid support from some of the city’s largest voting blocs and his close ties to labor, real estate, and the traditional Democratic machine. But Adams has vulnerabilities: He is openly tolerant of corruption, and said the party hacks at New York’s patronage-riddled Board of Elections did a “great job”. (Narrator: They did not.) If Adams won’t promote good governance, the city’s progressive left should do it instead. Voters who lack strong ideological beliefs but simply want the city’s many public services to work well might be willing to take a chance on something new in order to avoid dysfunction and stagnation.

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When I say “the progressive left,” it’s shorthand for the forces ranging from loyal liberal Democrats to leftists who reject capitalism and are hostile to the Democratic Party. Most major U.S. cities have some version of this formation, which in New York is anchored respectively by the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America (who only endorse self-identified socialists, and thus didn’t endorse for mayor). These groups hardly form a single, unified movement, but if they’re a big tent, Garcia was still outside it. She was against reducing the New York Police Department’s budget, supported raising the cap on charter schools, and rejected calls to raise taxes on the wealthy. Garcia’s focus on her own managerial skill almost recalled Michael Bloomberg, the consummate neoliberal politician. But there’s a key difference: While Bloomberg preferred business to government and expressed his desire to make New York a “luxury product,” Garcia is a creature of the public sector. She was reportedly beloved by her staff — a rare feat, since rank-and-file bureaucrats are often surprisingly progressive and often resent agency managers and electeds who maintain a complacent culture of mediocrity. (I say this from personal experience as an ex-bureaucrat.) Some of her more progressive proposals, including free childcare for low- and middle-income families and an extensive climate platform with a Green New Deal for public housing, would have required a significant expansion of New York City’s fiscal authority and governmental capacity.

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Not only can good governance and public services jibe with leftist ideology, the two have gone together before. For 38 of the 50 years between 1910 and 1960, and under three separate mayors, Milwaukee was run by a democratic-socialist political faction nicknamed the “Sewer Socialists.” The first mayor, a woodworker named Emil Seidel, was swept into office on the Socialist Party line as a response to the deep corruption of the incumbent Democrats, and immediately got to work raising the minimum wage, strengthening the power of the civil service against patronage appointees, and laying the groundwork for what would become a nationally famous network of parks centered on the city’s lakefront. His successors opened the first municipal public housing project in America, built libraries, pioneered adult vocational education, and required the city’s private streetcar company to pave streets and run frequent service in exchange for its city-granted monopoly. As racist urban renewal schemes took hold in the 1950s, socialist mayor Frank Zeidler refused to participate in slum clearance unless integrated public housing was built for displaced residents.

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A glorious-looking garbage truck.
Just imagine. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Nerthuz/iStock/Getty Images Plus.
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As their nickname indicates, the Sewer Socialists’ achievements were most famous in the realm of public health. Daniel Hoan, the second of their three mayors, ran public vaccination campaigns and built water-treatment plants around the city to end the longstanding practice of mixing raw sewage with drinking water. They instead recycled sewage sludge into fertilizer using a city-operated plant that continues operating today (you can take tours). The “sewer” moniker actually began as a way for more theoretically minded leftists to mock the Milwaukeeans’ obsession with clean government and direct services, but they refashioned the term as a badge of pride. Seidel memorably dismissed their critics as “Eastern smarties” and wrote, “We wanted a chance for every human being to be strong and live a life of happiness. And, we wanted everything that was necessary to give them that: playgrounds, parks, lakes, beaches, clean creeks and rivers, swimming and wading pools, social centers, reading rooms, clean fun, music, dance, song and joy for all.”

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If bureaucratic excellence and “honest, frugal government” seem like small ball compared to global socialist revolution, it’s partly because U.S. cities face serious limits to their legal and political power. As Richard Schragger writes in his book City Power, cities are creations of their state governments with few rights of their own. They rarely have permission to raise and spend revenue as they see fit, must balance their budget every year, and are hobbled by the U.S.’ lack of serious regional government structures. Partly because of these difficulties, the original Sewer Socialists were almost fanatical about their commitment to fiscal discipline. In 2021 most Americans would associate this attitude with austerity-loving conservatives, but there’s another way to look at it: Every dollar in the municipal budget that’s saved by rooting out inefficiency and graft is another dollar to be spent on better public services.

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What would running on Sewer Socialism look like in 2021? Start with (obviously) sanitation. New York’s residential garbage collection is under the purview of the city’s Sanitation Department (formerly run by Garcia), but commercial collection is handled by unaccountable, dangerous private companies that overwork and underpay their drivers. We know a unionized public agency can do the job better than the unregulated private sector, so let them take it over. There’s also New Yorkers’ infamous habit of leaving trash bags on the sidewalk, since the city doesn’t have alleys. The obvious solution—replace some parking spaces on every block with rat-proof garbage containers—is currently being implemented, but the pilot program to do this makes applicants go through neighborhood groups or business improvement districts. The Sewer Socialist rejoinder: You shouldn’t need an intermediary to get usable trash cans.

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Speaking of parking spaces: The streets are a mess. Increased car ownership during COVID has led to more congested roads, reckless and unaccountable drivers, and the highest number of road deaths since 2014. Sewer Socialists could run on a platform of managing the streets with separated bus and bike bus lanes in every corner of the city, for rich and poor alike. They could replace curb parking with loading zones to prevent double-parked delivery trucks, and implement a parking-permit system to raise revenue and stop rampant car-registration fraud. The result would be safer streets for the city’s nondriving majority and proof that our public realm does not have to be chaotic and dystopian.

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Eventually, any Sewer Socialist movement in New York will have to contend with the political and financial might of the police. Last summer, Bill de Blasio’s impotent response to the NYPD’s brutal treatment of anti-racist protestors confirmed the agency is effectively outside civilian control. Even if the “Defund” slogan is a nonstarter with the incoming mayor, there’s a more utilitarian argument: The police are doing too many jobs they simply aren’t good at. A new city pilot program to replace police with social workers for mental-health-related 911 calls has shown promising early results. Several elected officials have proposed getting the NYPD out of routine traffic stops, which would be a win for both street safety and racial justice. (There’s strong public support for doing this, especially since police are famous for breaking the city’s traffic laws with impunity.) Public attitudes on defunding or reforming the police are complex, and usually hinge on how the question is framed. But the worldview that Sewer Socialists champion, rooted in competence, anti-corruption, and democratic public life, provides a useful framing to understand why power and money need to be taken from the NYPD.

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Because New York is a large, wealthy city with a vibrant progressive movement, there are more resources to make Sewer Socialism work here. (Likewise, when Milwaukee was run by socialists it was the 12th largest U.S. city and frequently annexed its suburbs.) Elsewhere the task might be harder, but the tradition still inspires. In Somerville, Massachusetts, DSA-backed candidates are running for City Council this September as “sidewalk socialists,” promising to invest in municipal plows to clear the sidewalks and provide union jobs during snowy Boston winters. On the same day that Eric Adams won in New York City, Buffalo, N.Y., picked socialist India Walton in its Democratic mayoral primary. In addition to running a dogged field operation, Walton heavily criticized incumbent Mayor Byron Brown’s investments in overpolicing and big-ticket economic-development schemes instead of basic public services. In Jackson, Mississippi, 38-year-old Mayor Chokwe Lumumba began his first term in 2017 promising to both deliver high-quality services and pursue racial justice. Jackson is a poor, majority-Black city in a state run by white conservatives, and Lumumba has had trouble summoning the tax base he needs to fulfill his promises, but he won re-election in a landslide this spring.

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All these struggles fit within a long history of Americans stripping cities for parts, hoarding the wealth in the suburbs, and then claiming urbanites can’t govern themselves. That process has accelerated since the 1970s, as U.S. cities have embraced “private sector-driven solutions to what we might normally think of as being in the realm of the state or public resources,” in the words of historian Kim Phillips-Fein. New York has been at the forefront of this trend starting with the city’s 1975 fiscal crisis “emergency” financial controls that are still in effect. And while progressive candidates’ recent primary victories are partly a backlash to this neoliberal turn, it’s noteworthy that these candidates also defeated allies of the city’s Democratic machine. Eric Adams will be a machine mayor, one with strong working-class support and deep roots in the city’s governing institutions. Offering a better vision will mean electing progressives with their own community roots who care about urban policy, but will also mean stacking the city bureaucracy with committed leftists and progressives who are inspired by the promise of public life and unafraid to speak up and act when their values and expertise are aligned.

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The progressive left will have a hard time getting every item on its urban-governance wish list, because the rules of our political system conspire to make cities weak and underrepresented. American public-benefit programs at all levels of government are also designed so they’re aggravating for citizens to access and hard for civil servants to implement well. Changing all of this is a necessary long-term project for the left. In the meantime, take it from Cea Weaver, the lefty housing organizer behind the coalition to pass New York State’s historic tenants-rights package in 2019, who tweeted in May, “I need the left to get someone like Kathryn Garcia.” Delivering safe streets, joyful parks, affordable housing, and a livable planet will take the organizers in the streets and the nerds with the spreadsheets, working together.

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