2 freshmen revive Wisconsin Legislature’s socialist caucus

Jan 7, 2023, 4:27 PM | Updated: Jan 8, 2023, 6:36 am
FILE - The Milwaukee skyline is seen Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, in Milwaukee. Socialism is back in the...

FILE - The Milwaukee skyline is seen Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, in Milwaukee. Socialism is back in the Wisconsin Legislature after decades without representation. Freshman Reps. Ryan Clancy and Darrin Madison on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, revived a socialist caucus that has been dormant for more than 90 years.(AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

(AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — It’s been 90 years, but socialism is back in the Wisconsin Legislature.

After taking their oaths of office Tuesday, two freshman Assembly members made it their first order of business to revive a socialist caucus that has been dormant since the 1930s.

As self-identified democratic socialists — a movement that has been regaining popularity in the U.S. with the help of young Democrats — Reps. Ryan Clancy and Darrin Madison plan to hold their own meetings to advance their policy goals while also caucusing with Assembly Democrats.

In the Republican-controlled Legislature, however, the socialist caucus is a minority within a minority. It’s highly unlikely that either Democrats or the new caucus will have their way on most issues.

Clancy, a Milwaukee County supervisor, was still optimistic about bringing to the Assembly ideas he has successfully pushed for at the local level, such as guaranteed counsel for tenants facing eviction.

“The things that we can get done are things which are common sense and have not been looked at as bipartisan fights,” he said.

But Republicans, predictably, don’t see it that way.

“Socialism has failed everywhere in the world that it has been tried,” Republican Majority Leader Rep. Tyler August said. “It is not what makes our country great.”

Clancy and Madison both hail from districts in Milwaukee, a city with a storied past as home to one of the most prominent socialist movements in the nation’s history.

In 1910, during socialism’s heyday in the United States, Milwaukee sent the first socialist to Congress and was the first major American city to elect a socialist mayor. Two years later, it took Democrats and Republicans joining forces behind a single candidate to oust Mayor Emil Seidel, who went on to run for vice president on a socialist ticket.

“Cities from Reading, Pennsylvania, to cities on the West Coast had prominent socialist politicians, but even in that landscape, Milwaukee stood out,” said Philip Rocco, a professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Socialist politicians sat in the Wisconsin Legislature as early as 1878, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau, but most socialist state lawmakers held office between 1917 and 1935, when the first socialist caucus appeared.

Even after socialism fell under the same McCarthy-era stigma as communism during the 1950s, its visibility persisted in Milwaukee. Mayor Daniel Hoan, the city’s second socialist mayor, held the position for 24 years after taking office in 1916. The city’s third and final socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler, left office in 1960 after serving three terms that overlapped with Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious anticommunist campaign.

The unique, pragmatic approach to socialism that made Milwaukee’s socialist mayors so popular with voters also caused friction with the Socialist Party of America, which had more ideological, revolutionary aims, Rocco said. Milwaukee socialists earned the nickname “sewer socialists” for their practical focus on infrastructure projects and improving public health.

It’s a history Madison and Clancy have embraced, identifying as sewer socialists in their campaigns and touting endorsements from the Milwaukee chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.

“We want to continue this legacy and redefine what it means to be a socialist in the state of Wisconsin,” Madison said.

That means, in Clancy’s words, focusing on “unsexy” policy as the socialist lawmakers of the early 1900s did. At the top of the fledgling caucus’s list of priorities are addressing issues with youth prisons and the prison system, improving access to child care and pushing to make utilities public resources.

August said most of those issues would be “nonstarters” for Assembly Republicans but that his caucus was open to working with lawmakers on the left.

Branding themselves as socialists hasn’t always been easy, Madison and Clancy said, especially on the campaign trail where socialism has become a dirty word. Even in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee, where Clancy ran unopposed and Madison’s only challenger was in a partisan primary, the socialist label was often a tough sell to voters.

“There were folks who were really close to me and cared about me who knew that carrying this label would put a target on my back,” Madison said. “They heavily encouraged me, ‘Don’t do it. Be a socialist internally, but don’t push that out into the world.'”

Madison and Clancy’s victories mirror a national resurgence in democratic socialism’s popularity over the past decade, with longtime stalwarts of the movement like Sen. Bernie Sanders joining U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a younger generation drawn to socialist ideals under Trump-era immigration and economic policies.

But Rocco said Milwaukee is once again uniquely fertile ground for the ideology.

“This was where this form of municipal socialism kind of proved itself not just as a possible model of government, but as a model of government that earned the city the moniker of one of the best-run cities in the United States,” he said.

The leaders of the Milwaukee chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America report that their membership has grown steadily since re-founding the chapter in 2016. And for an ideology that hasn’t been represented by so much as a single lawmaker at the state level since some 30 years ago, the opportunity to propose legislation, even if it is quickly dismissed by Republicans, is a big one.

“Just the very fact that we can introduce legislation now and propose ideas can move the conversation,” said Alex Brower, the group’s co-chair. “Those things can be really significant.”


Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Venhuizen on Twitter.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


FILE - The Starbucks logo is seen on a storefront, Friday, Oct. 14, 2022, in Boston Starbucks repor...
Associated Press

Starbucks misses sales, revenue estimates as China falters

Starbucks reported lower-than-expected sales in its fiscal first quarter, with COVID store shutdowns in China overshadowing stronger results elsewhere.
13 hours ago
The Amazon DTW1 fulfillment center is shown in Romulus, Mich., April 1, 2020. Amazon reports financ...
Associated Press

Amazon beats Q4 revenue estimates, but profits slump

Amazon on Thursday reported worse-than-expected profits, but its revenue beat expectations boosted by sales in North America businesses and the cloud-computing unit AWS.
13 hours ago
Associated Press

Washington’s low-income tax credit available for first time

 Up to $1,200 is now available for thousands of low-income working Washington residents, thanks to a 2008 law that has finally been funded.
13 hours ago
Associated Press

Closing prices for crude oil, gold and other commodities

Benchmark U.S. crude oil for March delivery fell $2.49 to $73.39 a barrel Friday. Brent crude for April delivery fell $2.23 to $79.94 a barrel. Wholesale gasoline for March delivery fell 13 cents to $2.32 a gallon. March heating oil fell 12 cents $2.78 a gallon. March natural gas fell 5 cents to $2.41 per […]
2 days ago
Associated Press

Man charged in Tennessee jogger’s death pleads not guilty

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The man charged with raping and killing a Tennessee kindergarten teacher during a pre-dawn run in Memphis last year pleaded not guilty Friday. Cleotha Henderson, who has also used the name Cleotha Abston, was indicted last week on charges that include first-degree murder and especially aggravated kidnapping, The Daily Memphian reported. […]
2 days ago
Two women are bundled up in cold weather clothing while walking during a frigid weather snap, Frida...
Associated Press

New England knows winter, but why so dangerously cold?

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — New Englanders are used to cold temperatures, but a combination of extreme cold accompanied by powerful winds is downright dangerous, and enough to send even bundled-up skiers scampering indoors. It’s that potentially deadly combination that sparked worries as weather forecasters talked about “once-in-a-generation” wind chills in parts of New England. WHAT’S […]
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
2 freshmen revive Wisconsin Legislature’s socialist caucus