Bridgeport, Conn., elected a socialist mayor for 24 years. Jasper McLevy was beloved in the city despite his friendship with a notorious radical.
He came of age at a tumultuous time. He went to work the year of the Homestead strike in Pennsylvania, when a battle between strikers and Pinkertons resulted in 10 dead and many more wounded. Two years later the national Pullman strike failed when railroad agents and their thugs murdered 30 workers.
In that heated climate, the Socialist Party attracted immigrants and workers who wanted better pay and working conditions. Businesses denounced them as dangerous radicals. Their message attracted the young man who’d grown up in a harsh working-class environment.
But McLevy, it turned out, wasn’t really a socialist. He was a politician.
Jasper McLevy was born March 27, 1878 in Bridgeport to Scottish immigrants Hugh and Mary Stewart McLevy. His father worked as a slate roofer, as the men in his family had for generations.
The family lived in a working-class neighborhood near Seaside Park. As a boy, Jasper tried to sneak into the circus. None other than P.T. Barnum grabbed him by the seat of the pants and lectured him about honesty.
Hugh McLevy fell off a roof and died when Jasper was only 14. Jasper then quit the eighth grade and went to work to support his mother and eight siblings. He apprenticed to his uncle as a slate roofer and eventually started his own company.
Jasper also took a public speaking class at the YMCA, and in his first debate he argued that socialism was a false philosophy.
Despite his shortened education, McLevy avidly read serious books and studied every book he could find about socialism. A work of fiction, though, changed his life: the bestseller Looking Backward. In it, author Edward Bellamy envisioned a futuristic socialist utopia.
“I finally became convinced that Socialism was the only hope of the people,” he said.
He first ran for a minor city office at the age of 22 and lost. McLevy ran, and lost, in 20 other races for various offices before finally winning the mayor’s race in Bridgeport in 1933. He would serve as Bridgeport’s socialist mayor for 12 consecutive terms.
By the 1930s, both Democrats and Republicans had pillaged the aging, bankrupt city. Then cost overruns and corruption in the construction of the Yellow Mill Bridge scandal came to light. Bridgeport was ready for a change.
McLevy seemed honest and down-to-earth, sincerely interested in reforming city government. He campaigned in a frayed suit and rumpled tie sometimes anchored to his soiled shirt with a safety pin.
In preparing to govern as a socialist mayor, he had studied Bridgeport as closely as he’d studied socialism. From 1900 on, Jasper McLevy attended every Common Council meeting held in Bridgeport and read every city document he could get his hands on.
Once in office, he began reforming city government with a vengeance. He sold the city limousine and sent his chauffeur back to police duties. He saved money by centralizing city purchasing, buying coal direct from the mines and renegotiating insurance contracts.
McLevy cleaned up corruption with an ordinance banning city contracts for public employees – the first city in the United States to do so. Private companies that had looted the city with trash collection contracts found themselves out of luck. City employees collected the garbage.
McLevy also benefited greatly from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, which sent money and jobs to Bridgeport. Many Bridgeport residents viewed him as a friend, and they reelected him again and again.
Penny Pinching Socialist Mayor
McLevy’s favorite phrase was, “Let’s look at the record.” Over time, though, his record began to look less like a socialist’s and more like a businessman’s. He stopped repairing roads and bridges, and he started collecting parking fines – a lot of them. In 1937 the man who bragged of his friendship with convicted socialist Eugene Debs cut wages for city employees. He wouldn’t raise them for teachers for a decade.
During the winter of 1947-48, he didn’t budget enough for snow removal. When residents complained about impassable streets, he replied, “Well, it will go away, anyhow.”
He began to win friends among Bridgeport’s businessmen, like Robert Factor. Factor recalled in a 1999 oral history, “He was a master. Really a man with a limited education but tremendously astute and always told everything exactly as it was. I don’t think the man ever told a lie in his life. He was incapable of it.”
Critics later said he never seemed to work even though he sometimes wore overalls. After all, his roofing company had several employees and he owned a weekend home in Washington, Conn.
But he still got elected, year after year. His secret? He kept property taxes low.
James Blawie, in his 1951 master’s thesis on McLevy, noted that Bridgeport was a city of small homes and factories. Homeowners and businessmen wanted low taxes. To stay in power, McLevy gave it to them.
McLevy still talked the socialist talk, but he didn’t walk the socialist walk. He ran the city like a municipal sweatshop. He fought city workers’ efforts to unionize. Then in 1947, his police superintendent broke up a strike at the Canfield Rubber Company.
Labor parted ways with him. Then, the chamber of commerce opposed him when he fought an 18-cent-an-hour pay hike for city employees.
In 1957, he lost his bid for a 13th term to Samuel Tedesco, a 40-year-old lawyer. When McLevy died five years later, the Bridgeport Herald wrote in his obituary, “a despairing; bankrupt city [that]had called him forth as their savior from political corruption. He responded with the zeal of an avenging knight.”
James Blawie, on the other hand, called his record, ‘rather a dark one.’
It includes strike-breaking, discouraging city employees from organizing, and the constant effort to keep wages as low as possible.
With thanks to James Blawie for his 1951 master’s thesis at Boston University, Jasper McLevy, The Man, The Mayor, and his City, and to Sarajane Cedrone, Jasper McLevy: Bridgeport Votes for a Change, in Connecticut Explored.
Image of Jasper McLevy: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26046319.. This story was updated in 2022.