Fred Risser was first elected to represent a Madison district in the Wisconsin Legislature in 1956, the same year Dwight Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson for his second term in the White House and Elvis Presley topped the charts with “Heartbreak Hotel.” Risser served in the Assembly for five years before winning his state Senate seat in 1962.
“I didn’t intend to necessarily be in the Legislature all my adult life but time went by from election to election and I kept being active and now in retrospect, that’s the situation,” said 93-year-old Risser, who’s retiring this year as the longest serving lawmaker in state and national history.
“I just feel like I’ve done my best to represent the people of this community and they’ve been very good to me and I’m honored that they kept returning me to the job.”
Risser’s tenure is an extreme example, but Madison Democrats elected to statehouse seats generally hold them for as long as they’d like. Currently, Republican challengers are few and rarely formidable in one of Wisconsin’s Democratic strongholds. It’s not common to see a single open legislative seat on the ballot in Madison.
But in the Madison area this election cycle, there are four.
In addition to the one being vacated by Risser, another held by fellow longtime Sen. Mark Miller is also available. A third will be left open by Rep. Chris Taylor, one of four Democrats on the Legislature’s powerful budget committee. And the final is available as its current occupant, Rep. Melissa Sargent, runs for Miller’s Senate seat.
The situation has led to almost two dozen Democrats running for state office. Each seat will see a contested Democratic primary on Aug. 11 — an election that will likely decide who represents four solidly blue districts.
Once the winners of those campaigns take office in January, current and former Dane County Democratic legislators say they will have an opportunity to help set the tone on a progressive agenda, support Democratic efforts to increase their numbers and work with a politically active constituency rich with higher education, government, health care and entrepreneurial roles.
“These Madison seats typically are the seats really pushing a progressive agenda. They’ve historically been really important seats to push for real change,” said Taylor, who was first elected to the Assembly representing downtown Madison and the isthmus in an August 2011 special election.
“So that’s really important within the Democratic caucus and the Legislature as a whole in raising issues of social justice, of equity, in a real vocal way,” she added.
That progressive tradition for Madison-area lawmakers is likely to continue under divided state government, in a Legislature that has been controlled by Republicans for a decade.
Save for a brief stint in 2012 following the recall elections that gave Democrats control of the state Senate, the party hasn’t had majorities in either chamber since their midterm defeats in the 2010 cycle.
While Gov. Tony Evers’ election in 2018 brought a Democratic ally to the Capitol’s East Wing, Taylor — an outspoken, strong liberal voice in the Assembly Democratic caucus — stressed that for lawmakers from Madison, part of the job was and continues to be serving as “a real opposition to a very extreme right-wing agenda” while working across the aisle to champion legislation.
“There’s a lot still being proposed by Republicans that are very harmful to this community and to this state, and so you have that and people expect you to fight for them, that’s why you’re there,” she said, adding: “You try to figure out issues that you can work on a bipartisan basis with. But for me, I was never going to compromise my opposition to what was going on.”
Rare chance to run
In Madison, opportunities to vie for an open seat in the state Legislature are few and often far between, as local lawmakers tend to hold onto those districts for several years, often running without a Republican opponent.
Risser has worked in the Legislature for more than six decades and is the longest-serving legislator in state and national history, while Miller has been a lawmaker for over 20 years.
Many political observers expected Taylor would run for Risser’s seat, but her decision to retire after some 10 years in the Legislature came as a surprise this spring. She will resign from the Assembly Aug. 1 to succeed Dane County Judge Jill Karofsky, who’s leaving the bench to become a state Supreme Court justice.
Sargent, meanwhile, was quick to announce her plans to run for Miller’s seat, rolling out a series of endorsements that likely helped limit her opponents to just one: Andrew McKinney, the Monona Grove School Board president.
The three other seats have drawn between four and seven Democrats each.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, who spent 14 years representing Madison in the state Assembly before joining Congress, attributed the level of interest in those seats to the “high profile” kept by the departing lawmakers.
“People had a chance to interact with those elected officials probably more and saw more of what they did in their jobs,” he said. “I think when (the seats) opened up, they made people also want to do that kind of work.”
Still, wide primary fields for these districts aren’t new. Last cycle, when just one open Madison-area seat was on the ballot as former Rep. Therese Berceau left the Assembly after 20 years, the race drew a four-way Democratic contest won by Rep. Sheila Stubbs.
Middleton Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, assistant minority leader in the Assembly Democratic caucus, said she thought it was “normal that we have this much excitement” over the open seats.
Noting Miller’s and Risser’s stature in the Legislature and their role to many as mentors, she said the idea of a new lawmaker becoming that mentor for someone else was likely appealing to candidates.
“It’s important when you’re serving not just to look ahead but to also continually have your hand behind you to bring others up with you and certainly Sen. Miller and Sen. Risser have done that well,” she said.
Madison is a politically active city, with the Capitol Square regularly drawing political rallies and protests — most recently the demonstrations denouncing police brutality and advocating for an overhaul of law enforcement practices.
In a city where turnout for the 2018 midterm election neared 70% and constituents have the option of going straight to the seat of power to voice their concerns, those living in Madison and Dane County have more avenues and often more organizational power to make their voices heard.
With a particularly involved constituency comes expectations that lawmakers from other areas of the state don’t necessarily have to shoulder.
Pocan remembered including a foreign policy platform in his campaign materials during his first run for the state Legislature in 1998 because “your constituents expect that.”
“Because people are very active in our district, our constituency in Dane County just by voting and by activity and interest on issues, you wind up being a very busy legislator when you represent this area as opposed to maybe some other areas where you don’t have to also have the foreign policy and talk about military issues, a bunch of other things that might not normally fall in the realm of a state legislator,” he said. “In Dane County, they do.”
Given residents’ proximity to “the heart of government,” Risser noted that Madison-area lawmakers can find themselves bypassed because residents are often able to take their concerns straight to the bureaucratic agency heads who have state offices in the city.
But on the flip side, the “immediate access” to the executive, the judiciary and the broader government bureaucracy was one of the many “great opportunities” Risser said Dane County lawmakers enjoy.
“Since we have those opportunities, we’re able to assist our constituents, which is one of the major ideas,” he said, “but we’re also able to express our feelings within the bounds of our constituency.”
By virtue of their own proximity to the levers of power in the state, Dane County legislators “are asked to do quite a bit” themselves, Hesselbein said, including serve on more committees than others who have to travel much further.
“It’s one of those things where if you needed somebody to be on a committee or a task force, it certainly makes sense to ask somebody from Dane County,” she said.
Campaigning and fundraising
In addition to their roles as policymakers, members of the Legislature also have obligations to help other members of their party get elected by making fundraising calls, hosting events and helping vulnerable lawmakers win in competitive districts.
Given the safe seats Madison-area lawmakers hold once elected, current and former legislators said they have more opportunities to raise money and help get other progressive candidates elected.
Pocan took a leading role in Democratic campaign efforts during the 2008 cycle, when Assembly Democrats reclaimed the majority for the first time in 14 years.
“When you have a safer district like that, you have the time to put into going around the state and helping people get elected and recruiting candidates and helping raise money,” he said.
Taylor emphasized fundraising is a key part of the job — particularly in Madison, which she said “has not just the wealth, but it has a whole history of political giving.”
“People understand that you’ve got to support the politicians who you like who are pushing your causes,” she said. “So there’s no introductory efforts that are needed in Madison. People expect to be called, unlike some communities where you don’t have this strong tradition of political giving.”
Despite that, some Democratic activists in recent years have criticized the Madison politicians for not harnessing what they see as the area’s full fundraising and constituent engagement potential.
In addition to raising money, legislators can assist their colleagues by knocking on doors in other districts, using their own email lists for fundraising appeals on behalf of the Assembly or Senate Democrats or another member, recruiting candidates to run for office and more.
Those are among the activities a handful of Democratic lawmakers said they participate in to support fellow members, candidates and their respective caucus and its fundraising arm.
The Cap Times sent an electronic survey in March to all Democratic state legislators. It had three questions:
- How do they regularly work to aid each other?
- Which of the activities do they do most frequently in a given campaign cycle?
- What do they feel that they’re expected to do to assist the caucus and have they met those expectations?
After a week, just six of the Democratic legislators responded — five state representatives and one senator.
The respondents split evenly over their top activities, with two saying they most frequently donate money from their campaign account to another legislative candidate’s committee; another two saying they most frequently knock on doors in another lawmaker’s district; and the remaining two saying they most frequently host or participate in fundraisers for another legislative candidate or lawmaker.
There were some differences over what exactly they’re expected to do to support their colleagues — though they mostly centered around financial resources — and to what extent they were explicitly shared with lawmakers.
“The only real expectation is to pay dues,” wrote one respondent, referencing paying a regular fee to the Democratic Assembly and Senate’s fundraising arms, while another emphasized supporting “caucus members financially,” and a third highlighted making donations to the caucus fundraising committee and candidates.
Across both the state Assembly and Senate, Republican legislators — who currently hold a combined 81 seats to Democrats’ 49 — and their fundraising committees outraised their Democratic rivals by more than double, per a review of their latest campaign finance reports filed in January.
Republican lawmakers have consistently raked in more money than their Democratic counterparts over the last few years, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which routinely tracks candidate and caucus fundraising efforts.
Madison-area Democrats who join the Legislature following election wins this year will almost certainly be involved in a divided government where both chambers are controlled by Republicans.
Regardless, a key job for Democrats this cycle is clear, as outlined by Hesselbein: “One of the biggest roles we have in the minority is to get out of the minority.”
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