Born: Bridgeport; 1878
Entry by Herbert F. Janick
Jasper McLevy was the Socialist party in Connecticut. For twenty-four years, from 1933 to 1957, the party under McLevy as mayor controlled Bridgeport, one of a handful of American cities that has been governed by Socialists. During his twelve terms in office McLevy implemented a program of progressive reform far removed from the tenets of doctrinaire Marxism. The popularity of his brand of “sewer socialism,” keyed to the honest and efficient delivery of municipal services, was a testament to the essential weakness of socialism in the state rather than a monument to its strength.
Born in Bridgeport in 1878, McLevy identified with the working class and organized labor as well as socialism. Forced to begin work at the age of fourteen, he ultimately owned his own roofing business. He was also a vice president of the Connecticut Federation of Labor, the organizer of the Bridgeport Central Labor Union, and the head of the Bridgeport Building Trades Council. Simultaneous with his involvement in the labor movement and impressed by a reading of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwards, McLevy became active in the Socialist party. Starting in 1911 he ran for mayor of Bridgeport on the Socialist ticket in every election until 1957. From 1932 on he regularly was the Socialist candidate for governor, expanding his vote to a high of 166,253 in 1938, a decisive factor in the defeat of Wilbur Cross.
Despite his personal popularity, McLevy would probably not have gained control of the Bridgeport government if it had not been for the Depression which hit Bridgeport particularly hard. Unemployment in 1932 reached twenty-five percent, and relief demands paralyzed City Hall and private charities. By the end of the year, the Democratic administration of Mayor Edward Buckingham was one million dollars in debt, unable to meet the city payroll and had asked municipal employees to take a twenty percent pay cut. In this desperate atmosphere, forty-nine percent of the voters turned to McLevy and his party in the election of 1933. Two years later McLevy was reelected with fifty-six percent of the vote while the Socialists swept all City Council seats. For two decades McLevy and the Socialists remained in charge of city government.
Jasper McLevy's brand of Socialism was not radical. He reduced the city's debt, improved its credit rating, eliminated waste in municipal services, and spent city funds with scrupulous integrity. His fiscal responsibility won the applause not only of the ethnic working class who had survived the Depression but of businessmen as well. "He is a good, honest, Scotsman, who has handled our money carefully," testified the president of the Bridgeport Brass Company in 1949. Ironically, McLevy's ouster from office in the late 1950s was a consequence of this conservatism. Younger corporate executives and new black and Hispanic minorities who had moved into Bridgeport were dissatisfied with the elderly mayor's unwillingness to establish a program of urban renewal.
Connecticut's Heritage Gateway. Jasper Mclevy.