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Could Minneapolis elect a Socialist mayor? It did in 1916

During the 1916 campaign, Thomas Van Lear successfully used controversies surrounding Twin Cities Rapid Transit streetcar fares and corporate control of the city’s utilities to his advantage.

Van Lear during his term as mayor of Minneapolis, 1917.
The only Socialist mayor of Minneapolis (1917–1919), Thomas Van Lear was a machinist and influential union leader. Socialist opposition to World War I proved a major factor in his failure to win reelection in 1918, after which he retired from politics. A talented writer and orator, he later helped found and lead the short-lived Minneapolis Daily Star.

Van Lear was born in Maryland in 1869 to a working-class family. His career officially began at the age of eleven in an Appalachian coal mine. From a young age, Van Lear showed an interest in workplace organizing, joining the Knights of Labor in 1887 on his eighteenth birthday. In the early 1900s he took his activism a step further by joining the newly-established Socialist Party.

After leaving Maryland and serving in the Army during the Spanish–American War, Van Lear relocated to Minneapolis to pursue work as a machinist. After being elected to lead the local chapter of the International Association of Machinists, he organized strikes and unionizing efforts at shops around the Twin Cities and served as the chapter’s “business liaison” in negotiations with owners.

A powerful orator, Van Lear pulled no punches. He won the support of many Minneapolis workers through his withering criticism of business owners, managers, and strike-breakers.

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While he preferred to seek reformist measures in pursuit of socialist ends, he also had a unique ability to make socialist theory relevant to the lives of average workers. The board of the Minneapolis Labor Review, of which Van Lear was also a member, frequently lauded his contributions to the labor movement, opining in January 1908 that workers “may commend Mr. Van Lear’s methods as a good example to follow.”

Van Lear ran for office several times unsuccessfully ― for mayor in 1910 and 1912 and for Congress in 1914 ― before finally prevailing in the 1916 mayoral contest against Republican County Sheriff Otto S. Langum. During the 1916 campaign, Van Lear successfully used controversies surrounding Twin Cities Rapid Transit streetcar fares and corporate control of the city’s utilities to his advantage. Advocating for municipal control of utilities and increased funding for schools, he also benefitted from the support of progressive Democrats wary of the city’s dominant Republican business class. In fact, it was not uncommon to see banners supporting Van Lear alongside those for Democratic President Woodrow Wilson.

As mayor, Van Lear undertook an ambitious reform effort across the city. Though a reluctant City Council blocked several of his main proposals — including a municipal food market and renegotiation of the streetcar franchise — his few successes left a mark on the city. One prominent accomplishment was his appointment of Lewis Harthill, a fellow Socialist and close ally, as police chief. Shortly after his term began, Harthill began a determined but humane effort to rid the city of “vice.” Illegal gambling, prostitution, and liquor ventures were shut down, with even the conservative Minneapolis Journal applauding the moves. But if the political climate had favored Van Lear in 1916, it did not take long for the winds to turn against him. The primary cause of this shift was American entry into World War I, which not only turned Democrats away from the Socialist Party but also prompted a schism within the socialist movement itself.

In April 1917, the Socialist Party held a national convention in St. Louis and adopted a firmly anti-war platform. Though Van Lear did not attend the convention and made statements supportive of the war effort, if not its rationale, his opponents succeeded in using the controversy surrounding the St. Louis Platform against him. Refusing to explicitly denounce the platform, Van Lear was targeted by business interests for an alleged lack of patriotism. In 1918, he was defeated by “Loyalist” candidate J. E. Meyers in a race dominated by war politics.

In 1919, Van Lear shifted away from politics to become vice president of Northwest Publishing, a labor-friendly media company which printed the short-lived Minneapolis Daily Star before it sold in 1924. In 1921, Van Lear made one last run for the office of mayor, falling short to Republican Col. George E. Leach. He died on March 4, 1931, from surgical complications surrounding an inflamed appendix, and is interred in Minneapolis.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.