Lee S. Dreyfus

Former Wisconsin Governor Lee Dreyfus makes a statement to a reporter.

Former Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus was a populist Republican and political maverick whose trademark red vest and straight-talking style made him one of the most memorable public faces of Wisconsin's modern era.

Dreyfus died Wednesday at 81. He served just four years in the governor's office, but the force of his personality extended his influence beyond that.

"He was the least orthodox political figure I ever knew," said Tony Earl, a Democrat who succeeded Dreyfus as governor. "He broke all the rules and did very, very well."

In just one term in office - the only elected position he ever held - Dreyfus signed the nation's first gay-rights law and returned $942 million to taxpayers by working in cooperation with a Legislature controlled by Democrats.

But by January 1983, when he left office, an economic downturn was under way and the state's fiscal situation had worsened. Dreyfus had approved a 1 percentage point increase in the sales tax, and Earl was facing budget shortfalls.

Dreyfus died Wednesday night of respiratory failure while watching television at his Waukesha home, said his son, Lee Dreyfus Jr., a circuit court judge in Waukesha County.

His father's health had been declining since a quintuple bypass surgery and lung surgeries in 2005 left him unable to breathe well, Dreyfus Jr. said.

Gov. Jim Doyle ordered flags flown at half-staff until sunset on the day of the funeral.

 Long-shot campaign

Dreyfus had been chancellor at UW-Stevens Point for a decade when he launched a long-shot campaign for the Republican nomination for governor.

On campus, his party affiliation was unknown, and he referred to himself as a "Republicrat," said Ed Miller, a political science professor who joined the school in 1972 while Dreyfus was in charge. Dreyfus didn't join the Republican Party until December 1977, said campaign chairman Bill Kraus.

The state GOP didn't want Dreyfus to win, and it endorsed then-U.S. Rep. Bob Kasten in the primary. Party backing came with financial support that usually sealed the nomination, but Dreyfus was undeterred.

With only $100,000 for the primary, Dreyfus criss-crossed the state in an unreliable, yellow school bus that featured a student band, gaining free media attention to make up for the television ads he couldn't afford to buy, Kraus said. Dreyfus also wore his trademark red vest, which he had begun wearing in Stevens Point to be more readily identifiable by students.

Dreyfus beat Kasten in the primary and went on to defeat then-Gov. Martin Schreiber, a Democrat, with about 55 percent of the vote. He became the state's 40th governor.

"It was a miracle campaign. He had no business winning that campaign," said Kraus, who later was Dreyfus' chief of staff and wrote a book about the election.

Even Dreyfus didn't expect to win when he declared his candidacy, confiding to Miller that he expected to lose the primary but gain enough notice for a federal appointment by a Republican president, possibly to the Federal Communications Commission.

But Dreyfus, a former communications professor who enjoyed giving speeches, was a natural campaigner who immediately connected with voters.

"He was everybody's grandfather, just so personable," said Dennis Dresang, a UW-Madison political science professor. "There's no way in the world you could get angry with this guy."

Schreiber remembers speaking to a couple dozen people in the La Crosse County Courthouse when the group heard a band playing "On Wisconsin" outside. It was Dreyfus and his campaign entourage.

"It was a significant example of the differences in styles between me and him," Schreiber said. "He brought a lot of pizzazz to the campaign, more pizzazz than I could ever hope for."

 'Beauty of an idea'

Dreyfus had campaigned against saving or spending the state's large surplus and vowed to return the money to the people.

In office, he came up with a simple idea: a temporary stop to the income tax withholding.

"It was dazzling in its simplicity," said Tom Loftus, the Sun Prairie Democrat who was Assembly Majority Leader when Dreyfus was governor. "It was a beauty of an idea."

That tax cut and others totaled $942 million, and they served as a signature accomplishment for Dreyfus within months of taking office. But Dreyfus also tried, and failed, to reduce the size of state government.

Otherwise, Dreyfus wasn't known for major policy initiatives, and his job was made harder when the state's economy soured in the middle of his term.

"I wouldn't put him down as a great governor," Miller said. "He sort of managed the governor's office and I think that was about it."

But Loftus said Dreyfus proposed ideas, letting the Legislature work out the details. Democrats, he said, loved working with Dreyfus because he had no interest in maneuvering for political gain.

"He taught us all how to act as public servants and it is his integrity that will be remembered," Loftus said. "He understood that holding on to power was not the key to his life or his administration."

Kraus said of the Democratic Legislature and the changes that have taken place in politics since Dreyfus's term in office: "We were adversaries but we were never enemies. That's the biggest change in the last 30 years."

 'Fresh air'

For Republicans, Dreyfus was a revitalizing force because Democrats had controlled the Legislature and the governor's office for the previous four years.

"It was completely demoralizing," Supreme Court Justice and former Republican Assemblyman David Prosser said of those four years, which he said Dreyfus ended with "a gust, a rush of fresh air for the Republicans."

Near the end of his term, Dreyfus signed the nation's first gay-rights law. The law banned discrimination against gays and lesbians for jobs and housing as well as in bars and restaurants.

Kraus said Dreyfus signed the gay-rights bill right away, saying, "there are some questions the government has no business asking."

In 2006, Dreyfus joined with former Democratic governors Earl, Schreiber and Patrick Lucey to oppose a referendum to amend the state's constitution to ban gay marriage and civil unions. The measure, however, passed with 59 percent of the vote.

Dreyfus was also known for openness in government. He once estimated he had held nearly 300 news conferences during his tenure, and Kraus said he allowed reporters to walk into the governor's office and talk with any of his aides.

Dreyfus told the State Journal in 1982 that after the abuses of the Nixon Administration in Washington, D.C., he wanted to demonstrate openness in his administration.

"I don't think we've seen anything like that before that time or since that time in terms of him opening government up," said Schreiber.

He also was an early advocate for Wisconsin Public Television and for the new WisconsinEye, Loftus said.

 His background

Dreyfus was born in Milwaukee. His mother served on the Milwaukee School Board and his father was a radio station manager. He graduated from Washington High School in Milwaukee and served as a radio technician in the Navy during World War II.

He earned undergraduate, master's and doctoral degrees at UW-Madison with a specialty in communications. Between 1962 and 1965 Dreyfus was general manager at WHA-TV in Madison, the public television station where in 1964 he arranged a pioneering satellite transmission between students in West Bend and Paris, said James Steinbach, director of television for Wisconsin Public Television.

Dreyfus was chancellor at UW-Stevens Point from 1967 to 1978. He also served on the UW Board of Regents after his term as governor.

Dreyfus Jr. said his father loved being governor but might be remembered more for his years as chancellor of UW-Stevens Point, in which the university more than doubled in size and faced turbulent times with students during and after the Vietnam War. Dreyfus was also an early advocate of the merger of two state university systems into what is now the University of Wisconsin System, his son said.

In addition to his son, Dreyfus is also survived by his widow, Joyce, his daughter,Susan Fosdick of Eagle River, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

 Lee Sherman Dreyfus

Governor of Wisconsin, 1979 to 1983

BORN: June 20, 1926, in Milwaukee

MILITARY: U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1946

EDUCATION: Received bachelor's (1949), master's (1952) and doctoral degrees (1957) from UW-Madison

EMPLOYMENT: Chancellor of UW-Stevens Point, acting secretary of the state Department of Public Instruction, president of Sentry Insurance Co., public speaker

PUBLIC SERVICE: Member of UW Board of Regents, co-chairman of Wisconsin's Sesquicentennial.

Died: Wednesday night at age 81.