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The City Journals

Election Day flashback: When Murray elected a socialist mayor

Nov 04, 2019 12:21PM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Mayor Gottlieb Berger was both a member of the Socialist Party and a High Priest group leader in his LDS ward. (Photo courtesy Murray Museum)

By Shaun Delliskave | [email protected]

In most respects, Murray City’s 2019 Meet-the-Candidates Night on Oct. 3, hosted by the Murray Chamber of Commerce, was a cordial affair, with city council candidates being mindful of their challengers. By contrast, Murray City’s election of 1911 was far more polarizing, with Socialists snatching nearly every office in city hall.

The Socialist Party of America was a relatively new contender in the world of politics over a century ago. At that time, Russia was still ruled by a czar, China had an emperor, and America was transforming through the efforts of organized labor and the Industrial Revolution. As the demand for social and economic reform swirled within the nation, so too did it in Utah, and especially Murray.

Murray’s population at the time was heavily entrenched in the smelting industry. Conditions at the mills were toxically unhealthy, and wages were low. Strikes happened numerous times, and striking workers flocked to State Street to stage parades; and the city marshal often called in extra help, as a precautionary measure should a riot break out.

At the time, organized labor identified closely with the Socialist political party rather than the Democrat or Republican parties, and Socialist candidates appealed more to laborers than did pure socialist doctrine. While Helen Keller and Jack London joined the party, Leon Trotsky deplored American Socialism as a “party of dentists,” which might come closest to describing one Murray candidate for mayor, George Huscher.

Huscher was a pharmacist and owned the Murray City Pharmacy. Born in Canada, Huscher migrated to the United States as a child and eventually settled in Murray. As he made his way up the Murray social ladder, he became well connected through his memberships in the Elks Lodge, Lions Club, and Socialist Party.

As mining, farming, and other groups organized, the enthusiasm behind the Socialist Party also increased, surprising many newspapers during the 1911 primary election. The Salt Lake Herald-Republican reported, “What appeared to be a quiet municipal campaign in Murray has developed in the last days into a warm fight between Socialists and the ticket headed by Phillip Bentz, the present mayor.”

Murray had just switched to a new mayor/city council form of government, and interest in the election was keen. On election day, Huscher and his fellow Socialists won nearly every seat in Murray, securing the mayor’s office, a majority on the city council, and the city auditor’s office.

These newly elected socialists did not exactly fit into the so-called “godless socialist” mold. Gottlieb Berger was an active high priest in the Murray Second Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Peter McMillan, a Socialist city council candidate (whose family owned the land for which McMillan Elementary school was named) was also a Latter-day Saint and married his wife in the Salt Lake Temple.

Business leaders throughout Murray were alarmed by the election results and mobilized to form a group to fight the Socialists’ successes. The Herald-Republican reported, “…about sixty Murray businessmen met in the Murray City Hall last night and organized the Non-Partisan League of Murray. The need for such an organization the members claim arose with the Socialists of Murray drifted into purely political lines…”

Mayor Huscher and the city council pressed their agenda forward and created something that still benefits Murray to this day: city-owned electric power. The struggling Progress Electric Company, while brightening up Murray, was having trouble staying afloat. In one of the most contentious issues faced by the city, Huscher and the council agreed to purchase the company and expand the power company’s supply.

Opponents enlisted a new mayoral candidate to face Huscher in 1913 (mayoral terms were two years then) and invested heavily in the campaign. Labor unions again backed Huscher, and when all the votes were tallied, Socialists Huscher and Berger were re-elected. The Deseret News reported that a two-day celebration erupted, with bonfires and a parade—until the city marshal put an end to it.

As the Socialist Party became more radicalized and associated with communism, the fervor to be part of it declined. When the smelters moved out of Murray, so did the union jobs and Murray residents drifted into mainstream parties. However, Murray did flirt a few more times with socialism, electing Charles Anderson in the 1920s and Gottlieb Berger (twice) as mayor in the 1930s, thus marking an end to Murray’s and Utah’s experiment with the Socialist Party.