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John Nichols: Risser stood on the right side of history

John Nichols: Risser stood on the right side of history

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Sen. Fred Risser during the 2018 State of the State address.

Fred Risser’s departure this week from the Wisconsin Senate is drawing global attention because of his remarkable political longevity. The longest-serving state or federal legislator in the nation’s history, Risser was elected to the Assembly during Dwight Eisenhower’s first term and to the Senate during the presidency of John F. Kennedy — who, of course, Risser knew.

But a 64-year tenure as an elected official is nothing more than a source for statistics and anecdotes. What matters is where the official stood on the great issues of the time. In Risser’s case, he stood on the right side of history.

An ardent champion of civil rights, Risser was in the thick of the struggle to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention — with his longtime political collaborator, U.S. Rep. Robert Kastenmeier, D-Watertown. A World War II veteran, Risser was an early critic of the Vietnam War, working with Kastenmeier and Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson to amplify the activism that made Madison a center of the anti-war movement. A champion of women’s rights and LBBTQ+ rights, he worked with former Secretary of State Vel Phillips, former state Rep. Lloyd Barbee, D-Milwaukee, and former Assembly Speaker pro tempore David Clarenbach, D-Madison, to put Wisconsin in the lead when it came to tackling racism, sexism and all forms of discrimination.

Born into a progressive family, Risser modernized and extended the progressive tradition of former U.S. Sen. Robert M. La Follette — embracing new movements and new causes, while remaining true to its radical vision of democratic governance.

In 2011, when former Gov. Scott Walker attacked worker rights, voting rights and the basic underpinnings of the Wisconsin Idea, Risser pushed back immediately. Though he was already in his mid-80s, the Madison Democrat was an enthusiastic participant in the Wisconsin uprising of that year — joining rallies and demonstrations and heading with fellow state Senate Democrats across the state line to Illinois in an effort to thwart Walker’s agenda.

When Walker sought to shut down demonstrations inside the Capitol, Risser raised the loudest objection. Recalling that his great-grandfather had served in the Legislature in the 1860s as a Unionist, his grandfather as a Republican, and his father as a Progressive, Risser decried Walker’s moves to close the building to protests.

“My only thought,” he said, “is that it is the reaction of a paranoid administration trying to limit the voice of the people.”

Calm and dignified, yet clearly angered by the Republican governor's assault on civil liberties, Risser took the side of student activists and union members who had occupied the Capitol.

"The Wisconsin state Capitol is, and has always been, the people's building. It should not be treated like an armed fortress,” he declared, with the authority of one who had literally grown up in the building. “I continue to commend the thousands of Wisconsin residents who have exercised their right of assembly for the past three weeks for the peaceful manner in which they have spoken.”

Walker was eventually rejected by the voters of Wisconsin, but Risser is leaving on his own terms — as a progressive who has stood, consistently, on that right side of history.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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