Thabault stands by the door, clipboard in hand, taking notes. “I’ll get that rebate information for you,” he assures her in a low voice.
She murmurs, “I don’t take welfare.”
The mayor says, “It’s not welfare. It’s money that never should have been taken from you in the first place, for God’s sake.”
The old woman looks at him and smiles indulgently. She clearly likes the mayor. “I shouldn’t say this,” she tells him, “but I saw you on TV the other night, with my son, when they finish fixing North Avenue? And my son says to me, ‘That Mayor Sanders, he’s a communist, you know.’ And do you know what I say to him?”
Sanders shakes his head no.
“I say to my son, ‘Don’t go around saying such things where intelligent people can hear. They’ll think you are stupid.’”
She laughs, a silvery laugh, and the mayor laughs, too, and rising from the sofa, he puts his huge hands on her tiny shoulders, thanks her and makes sure Thabault has got her address.
Stopping him at the door, the woman says, “I told my son that you’re a socialist, not a communist.”
“Precisely!” the mayor shouts.
“My son, he tells me, ‘What’s the difference?’ And you know what I tell him? I say, ‘If you can’t tell the difference, then you should not call the mayor a communist!’”
The Mayor grins, shakes the woman’s hand energetically and pushes open the door, following the alderman out.
On the sidewalk again, he says to Thabault, “What an intelligent, dignified woman!” Then he exclaims, “That damned reappraisal has been the absolute worst thing I’ve had to deal with in five years as mayor!”
Thabault nods, as if he believes that what Sanders says is true, and the two men walk up the porch steps of the house next door and the mayor knocks. “Hi, I’m Mayor Sanders, and this is Alderman Thabault, and we’re out talking to people tonight just trying to find out how things are going.”
* * *
It’s extremely difficult for a self-described socialist to get himself elected to municipal office in the United States. It’s not as rare an event as one might think, however, especially in two types of small cities, cities that have had a long and intimate relationship with organized labor, like Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, or, since the 1960s, cities that have been associated, mainly through large, politicized universities, with counterculture politics, as in the Bay Area of California or Madison, Wisconsin. The socialist mayor of Bridgeport, Jaspar McLevy, was elected to office five times in the 1940s and 50s; the present city manager of Santa Monica calls himself a Democratic Socialist; and there have been numerous others.
They get elected for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with the incompetence or greed of their predecessors, but when they are reelected, it’s mainly because they have taken care of municipal business—keeping the streets paved and holding taxes down—and have talked tough to the politicians and money-men in the state capitol and Washington. They’re in an honorable tradition, these “sewer socialists”, as they’re sometimes called, and over the years they’ve articulated a kind of urban populism that seems to have spoken directly to the political and economic needs of certain types of small cities. And it’s a tradition that ought to be of more than passing interest to the Democratic National Party in the next decade,