Why the Democrats Chose Milwaukee

It’s not about socialism. It’s about showing Wisconsin they care.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett claps during a press conference to announce the selection of Milwaukee as the 2020 Democratic National Convention host city.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett claps during a press conference to announce the selection of Milwaukee as the 2020 Democratic National Convention host city. (Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP / Getty)

When it was announced on Monday that Milwaukee, Wisconsin, would host next year’s Democratic National Convention, I wondered how long it would take for someone to point out that the city was once run by Socialists.

As it turns out, just minutes.

“No city in America has stronger ties to socialism than Milwaukee,” declared the executive director of Wisconsin’s GOP. “And with the rise of Bernie Sanders and the embrace of socialism by its newest leaders, the American left has come full circle. It’s only fitting the Democrats would come to Milwaukee.”

Well, yes. And no. Milwaukee has had three Socialist mayors: Emil Seidel (1910–12), Daniel W. Hoan (1916–40), and Frank Zeidler (1948–60). But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez they were not. Unglamorous municipal officials, they were stolid, competent, somewhat dour practitioners of what became known around here as “sewer socialism.” By modern standards, their policies were not particularly controversial or divisive. Among Hoan’s most radical innovations were public housing, harbor improvements, and a city bus system.

As a child, I knew Zeidler, the last Socialist mayor, who spent much of his time in retirement translating Shakespeare’s plays into modern English. A kindly, mild-mannered man, he gave me a copy of his “translation” of Macbeth, which I lost. I particularly regretted that today, because we are likely to hear a lot about Milwaukee’s Red past.

At any rate, this reputation is not why Democrats chose the city. They chose it because Milwaukee, like so many places in the U.S., has struggled as the economy has changed; it’s a city of immigrants that was known not only as the Beer Capital, but as the Machine Shop of the World. They also chose it because Wisconsin, which the president won in 2016, seems up for grabs, neither solidly blue nor solidly Trump country.

Wisconsin is in the midst of a political transition. Just a few years ago, Republicans controlled all of state government and bragged of Cheesehead domination in national politics as well: Paul Ryan was speaker of the House; Reince Priebus was White House chief of staff; Governor Scott Walker—who launched his political career in Milwaukee County—was still a rising star.

Now all of them are gone from the scene; in effect, the state GOP has been decapitated. “I’m the last man standing,” Senator Ron Johnson tells friends.

Although Republicans still control the state legislature, they have suffered a series of setbacks. They lost a key Supreme Court election and the governorship, and they failed to oust Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin. Even more ominously, they are seeing an erosion of their support in suburban areas.

The Democrats’ formula for winning Wisconsin is relatively straightforward. They need to run up big margins in Milwaukee County and Dane County (home to Madison), while holding down GOP margins in the Milwaukee suburbs and in the state’s rural areas. In defeating Walker last year, the Democrat Tony Evers padded his lead by nearly 290,000 votes in just Milwaukee and Dane Counties. He won statewide by only 29,227 votes.

One Republican insider told me that a better gauge of the current state of play in Wisconsin was the Senate election in which Baldwin decisively defeated her Republican challenger, who ran on an unabashedly pro-Trump platform. Baldwin won Milwaukee County with 71.5 percent of the vote and Dane County with 77.7 percent. She won statewide by more than 10 points and a margin of more than 288,000 votes. If that race really does reflect the political landscape in Wisconsin (and Democrats seem to think that it does), Trump’s reelection is in deep trouble.

But perhaps the best point of comparison is, simply, 2016. Hillary Clinton famously neglected to visit Wisconsin, and ended up losing it by just 23,000 votes. Trump won rural, blue-collar counties, some of which had voted twice for Barack Obama, and won the Green Bay area by double digits. The key to that race, however, was Milwaukee County. Clinton got about 39,000 fewer votes there than Obama did four years earlier. She didn’t show up to ask for those votes, and she didn’t get them.

So the DNC’s decision to come to Milwaukee was less about “socialism” than it was about those votes, and a commitment to voters that they will show up this time.