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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Plenty of Brickbats

"I will always be true to the working class," promised mayor of Milwaukee Daniel Hoan, who was born on this day in 1881. If that remark sounds odd today, how about this matter-of-fact one from press coverage of a party in his honor: "In February, the Socialist aldermen..." Plural? Not just a single socialist, considered a crack-pot utopian by the media? That surely must have been a different city than the Milwaukee we know today.

Hoan left school early and worked menial jobs in the city's kitchens while taking evening classes. In 1908 he qualified as a lawyer and in 1910 was chosen Milwaukee's city attorney in the same election that sent Victor Berger to Congress. In 1916 Hoan was elected mayor of Milwaukee, an office to which he was successively re-elected until 1940 -- the longest continuous socialist administration in U.S. history.

During his three decades at the helm of city government, he enacted many progressive changes that were held up nationally as examples of Milwaukee's "Sewer Socialism" -- government-run services that improved everyone's quality of life at the most mundane levels. Hoan's administrations reformed corruption in awarding of city contracts, cleaned up the civil service, improved the efficiency of public health and transportation systems, and built low-cost housing called Garden Homes. After he was defeated for re-election by Carl F Zeidler in 1940, Hoan ran unsuccessfully for Governor and then largely retired from politics as the nation and state became more conservative after World War Two. He died in 1961.

At a 1935 banquet honoring his 25 years of public service, Hoan admitted, "It has not been strewn with roses" -- perhaps a veiled reference to his predecessor, mayor David Rose (1856-1932), whose chameleon-like public image deflected criticism of ethically questionable practices. Hoan said he was no Teflon politician: "There were plenty of brickbats."

Today Hoan is perhaps best-remembered as the namesake of the massive highway bridge along Milwaukee's waterfront built between 1970 and 1977. Although construction delays nicknamed it "the bridge to nowhere" and the film Blues Brothers immortalized it, the bridge stands today as a lasting memorial to a nearly forgotten era in Wisconsin history when citizens voted again and again for socialist leaders.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on March 12, 2008

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