The longest-serving state lawmaker in American history entered a room, like most in Madison, where everybody knew his name.
State Sen. Fred Risser was among friends at the South Central Federation of Labor’s Bean Feed fundraiser.
Wednesday was the 58th time the annual fundraiser was held. Risser, D-Madison, is certain he has attended every one.
“Hey Fred!” yelled one man, clapping Risser’s back.
“Here’s the birthday boy,” shouted another.
A woman, clutching a beer cup, serenaded him with an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Risser, stooped but sprightly, smiled and extended a handshake.
Risser turned 90 this month. Another milestone came in the past year: his 60-year mark in the state Legislature, to which he first was elected to the state Assembly in 1957. That makes him the longest-serving state lawmaker on record, according to the Council of State Governments.
Elected to the state Senate in 1962, Risser has represented much of Madison in that chamber since. His current district includes much of the city’s western half.
Risser has won 18 elections and counting — the past three unchallenged, including his re-election last fall.
Described by WisPolitics president Jeff Mayers as “the institution inside the institution,” Risser is the iron man of Wisconsin’s statehouse, the Lou Gehrig of lawmaking.
As remarkable as his longevity is the scope of history that occurred under his watch.
“He’s been in office since before The Beatles,” said Michael Basford, chairman of the Dane County Democrats.
Born in 1927, Risser post-dates the century-old state Capitol building by only a decade.
A U.S. Navy veteran who served in the final days of World War II, Risser is among the few veterans of that era — who dominated U.S. public life for decades — still in office.
In 1959, he helped enact Wisconsin’s landmark collective bargaining law for public workers, much of which Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers rolled back with the 2011 passage of Act 10.
Still, Risser’s career has been a morale booster for fellow Democrats distraught by current conditions in the state Capitol, where Republicans hold historic majorities in the Legislature as well as the governor’s office.
Risser can say he knows what it was like to be more marginalized. The most recent time Republicans held larger majorities was his first Assembly term, from 1957-58.
The account illustrates how Risser frames many issues: not just a point in time, but in a historical cycle in which, in his words, “the pendulum swings back and forth.”
The passage of time — and how events unfold, often as a sequence of actions and reactions — are things Risser said he understands like few of his colleagues can or will.
“I have something nobody else has: I have a historical perspective,” Risser said.
Yet Risser admitted it’s hard to fathom how much time elapsed since he took office as a 29-year-old state representative.
“Time goes by awful fast,” Risser said, “when you’re having fun.”
Taking a global view
Born into local political royalty, Risser said there was little doubt, since childhood, that he would enter politics. He’s the fourth generation in his family to serve in the Legislature, dating back to his maternal great-grandfather, Civil War veteran Clement Warner.
Risser’s father, Fred E. Risser, a former Dane County district attorney and state lawmaker, told him “politicians don’t travel.” The idea being they’re too tied to a place or district to venture far from home.
Risser flouted that advice from the start. His naval service took him to Panama. Parts of his college years saw him hitchhike coast to coast, especially on the West Coast, where he graduated from law school at the University of Oregon. There he also spent time as a carnival worker and logger.
He has visited all seven continents, including Antarctica in December 2015. Another memorable trip came in the mid-1970s when Risser, as part of a group of state lawmakers, was among the first wave of Westerners to visit China after the U.S. rekindled relations with the country.
The travels have made Risser, in his words, a “strong internationalist.”
“People that say that we can isolate ourselves from the rest of the world are not being realistic,” Risser said.
Travel has become a shared pastime for Risser and his wife, Nancy, 75. The two wed in 1985, nine years after the death of Risser’s first wife, Betty.
Nancy Risser said her husband has been curious and adventurous since she has known him. The traits sustained their marriage and his career, she said.
“A lot of people, especially when they get older, they get more set in their ways,” she said. “Fred’s just open. He’s certainly not a closed mind at all, and that’s part of the joy of being with him.”
‘I’m an optimist’
Risser credits good fortune, in part, for his longevity. He acknowledges being the beneficiary of good genes, as many of his relatives lived into their 90s. And he says Nancy’s support has been invaluable.
His physical fitness regimen also helps. Risser’s hobbies include cycling and hiking, and he takes the stairs each day to his second-floor Capitol office.
Risser’s worldview may be another factor.
“I’m an optimist,” Risser said. “If I wasn’t an optimist, I couldn’t be in this job.”
Risser has been a staunch advocate for environmental causes, public education and public workers, who account for much of his Madison constituency.
Risser has said his top accomplishments include successful pushes to remove contraceptives from a state list of “indecent articles” in 1976 and to restrict smoking among young people and in public spaces. He also served for many years as Senate president, its procedural overseer.
Those days are past; Risser’s party has not controlled the Senate since 2010.
So has he thought about retiring? Risser says no, seeming perplexed by the question.
“I’m really honored to get this opportunity. I’ve devoted the better part of my life to this job,” Risser said. “I consider it the principal activity of my life.”
A few Democrats have privately groused that Risser should step aside and allow a younger lawmaker to represent one of Wisconsin’s most liberal-leaning districts.
Basford said he hears little cry for Risser’s departure. His longevity, he said, attests “to someone whose values have remained in touch with his constituents over a remarkable length of time.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anyone who had that kind of impact over such a long period,” Basford said. “I don’t think we ever will again.”
Ninety miles for his 90th
Before attending the Bean Feed Wednesday, Risser talked to a UW-Madison student who aspires to some day run for office.
Risser’s advice: “Get to know as many people as you can.”
“There’s nothing more interesting than dealing with people,” Risser said.
But Risser’s cycling and hiking pursuits often are solitary. Nancy Risser said that may be when Fred Risser is at his happiest.
His cycling passion gave rise to a birthday tradition. Each year around the time of his birthday, Risser bikes one mile for each year of his life.
He has been working up to this year’s 90-mile ride with 50-mile increments to get in shape.
Risser said he’s waiting for the right day and the right weather to make the journey. He doesn’t know exactly when, only that the right day will come soon.
In his view, there’s always something else to check off the to-do list.
“I haven’t done the 90 miles yet,” Risser said. “But I will.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anyone who had that kind of impact over such a long period. I don’t think we ever will again.” Michael Basford, chairman of the Dane County Democrats said of Fred Risser, D-Madison