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New England’s first Socialist mayor was Jasper, not Bernie

If You Ask Me

Nearly 50 years before a Brooklyn boy named Bernie Sanders became the Socialist mayor of Burlington, Vt., the larger city of Bridgeport, Conn., elected native son Jasper McLevy as New England’s first Socialist mayor. It was a remarkable achievement in a very conservative state at a time when Socialists were considered just slightly to the right of bomb-throwing anarchists.

And that wasn’t all. New England’s first Socialist mayor got himself reelected every two years for the next 24 years from 1933 to 1957. Sanders, who ran as an independent, but called himself a Socialist, was mayor for four, two-year terms in the 1980s.

Connecticut had been firmly Republican since 1856 when it voted for James Fremont, the new party’s first presidential candidate. From then on, through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and beyond, Connecticut voted for the Republican in every presidential election but two. The state went for Grover Cleveland once because his Republican opponent was the aptly labeled “James G. Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine,” and once for Woodrow Wilson, because he “kept us out of war” in 1916, the election year.

The Republican dominance continued through the Roaring ’20s and despite the Depression, Connecticut even voted to give Herbert Hoover a second term in 1932.

Vermont’s Republican record was even stronger. When Sanders was elected mayor in 1980, the Granite State had elected Republican presidents every time since 1856 — with only one exception. In 1964, the state chose Lyndon Johnson over the very conservative Barry Goldwater, who carried only his state of Arizona and five deep Southern states.

Bernie moved to Vermont four years later and quickly became a political activist, running unsuccessfully as a third party candidate for governor and senator before lowering his ambitions and getting elected mayor in 1980.

Jasper had a longer apprenticeship. The son of Scottish immigrants, he was self educated and became a Socialist after reading Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel, “Looking Backward.” (The author’s cousin, Ralph Bellamy, a Baptist minister and Socialist, wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage.)

In 1902, the 24-year-old roofer McLevy received 215 votes for state representative in his first of 21 unsuccessful tries for offices high and low.

He finally got elected mayor in 1933 with a lot of help from the Democratic and Republican parties. After a corrupt Republican was succeeded by a so-called reform Democrat, whose principal reform involved the transfer of city funds to his bank account, the voters had had enough of the two great political parties.

McLevy won by a landslide, carrying a Socialist majority on the council with him and proceeded to run the city honestly and efficiently for the next two decades. He balanced budgets, cut taxes and even sold the mayor’s limousine and told his driver to go back to his police beat.

Like Mayor Sanders, the Socialist mayor of Bridgeport retained higher aspirations, becoming a perennial, losing candidate for governor. But in 1938, with the Depression hanging tough, he attracted enough Democratic votes to give the election to liberal Republican Ray Baldwin, who would become a fine wartime governor, U.S. senator and state Supreme Court chief justice.

Years later, Baldwin remembered Jasper fondly, telling me, “Jasper called himself a Socialist but he governed more like a conservative Republican.”

Today, Jasper is best remembered for a comment he didn’t make when he was trying to keep his snow removal budget in the black during an especially bad winter. “God put the snow there,” the mayor allegedly intoned, “let God take it away.”

But, according to Bridgeport political historian Lennie Grimaldi, the actual speaker was McLevy’s public works director, Pete Brewster, dubbed “Sunshine” Brewster by the tabloid Bridgeport Herald for habitually waiting for the sun to remove the snow.

“One day,” writes Grimaldi, “Brewster was sitting in Billy Prince’s, a favorite downtown gin mill,” with reporters who were needling him about his failure to call out the plows.  Finally, “Brewster snapped, ‘Let the guy who put the snow there take it away.’”

Today, McLevy isn’t remembered for being Bridgeport’s longest serving mayor, but for the words he never uttered about God and snow removal.  But then, another former Bridgeport mayor, Phineas T. Barnum, didn’t say, “There’s a sucker born every minute” either.

As Casey Stengel often said, but James Thurber said first, “You could look it up.”

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

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