Historic Milwaukee: Changing of the Mayoral Guard

Milwaukee has had a propensity to stick with its mayors since well before Tom Barrett. A look at one of those rare passings of the baton from the mid-20th century.

Milwaukee doesn’t really elect its mayors for life; it just seems that way. Mayor Tom Barrett left office in December as only the seventh chief executive of the city in 115 years, a pattern of longevity practically unheard of in urban America.

This 1940 photograph provides visual evidence that the mayor’s office does change hands on occasion. The tired-looking figure on the right is Daniel Webster Hoan, the Socialist warhorse who governed the city from 1916 to 1940, a 24-year tenure second only to Henry Maier’s 28-year run from 1960 to 1988. The confident young man on the left is Carl Zeidler, the Democratic assistant city attorney who had just unseated Hoan in the 1940 race. 

Hoan had been an exemplary mayor, earning praise from Time magazine in 1936 as “one of the nation’s ablest public servants,” but Zeidler was the standard-bearer of a new generation. Innocent of ideology, he ran a personality-driven campaign that stressed his youth, his Teutonic good looks and his melodious baritone singing voice. “Hats off to the past, coats off to the future!” Zeidler proclaimed, and voters chose the newcomer. 

His term lasted less than two years – Milwaukee’s shortest mayoral tenure since 1890. In 1942, Zeidler resigned to join the Naval Reserve and take command of the gunnery crew on an American merchant vessel. Eight months later, his ship went down with all hands following a German U-boat attack in the south Atlantic.  

The Zeidler name would not soon be forgotten. Benefiting from strong name recognition, Carl’s younger brother, Frank, won the mayor’s office in 1948, staying for 12 years and leading a return to the Socialist principles of Dan Hoan.



This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s March issue.

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