Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Risser reflects on longtime career

Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, is the state’s longest-serving legislator. He also recently announced he would again seek reelection. Risser said he does regret leaving the state to delay a collective bargaining vote.[/media-credit]

Last Saturday, as thousands of students turned out for the Mifflin Street Block Party, Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, celebrated his 85th birthday.

The longest-serving state legislator in the nation, Risser recently announced he will again seek re-election. He sat down with The Badger Herald to reflect on the past session and the more than half-century he has spent in the Legislature.

The Badger Herald: Why have you remained in the Senate and why have you decided to run again?


Fred Risser: There was a time when I thought about moving up the ladder. … That period is passed. That’s fine when you’re younger. You don’t go to Congress when you’re 80; you have to build up seniority. You don’t run for statewide at that age either. But you can stay in the Legislature as long as you’re healthy and motivated.

And you know, there are lots of age categories, not only chronological age, but the age of maturity, the physical age. You’ve got the mental age, you’ve got the age of interest. And I am still motivated; I know what I’m doing, I enjoy it and I feel like I can make a difference.

BH: How do you view the voter ID law? Do you think challenges should be dealt with in the courts, or should the Legislature step in?

FR: The Legislature ought to take care of it, obviously. But if the Legislature won’t do it, we can try to let the courts do it. If it gets up to the Supreme Court we’re going to lose because the Supreme Court currently is divided four to three against the public, in my opinion.

This is a Republican idea to try to reduce the voters of those who might not vote their way. Looking at the last election, more students voted for [President Barack] Obama than they did for Republicans. So this is just a device to try and win elections through voter suppression.

It’s outrageous. … It’s really our responsibility, and we ought to change it. And it’s the public who changes representatives in the Legislature, if they want to change what the Legislature is doing.

BH: What was it like at the Capitol during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War?

FR: I remember the fair housing issues. It was a very, very hot issue in the state. And we had some rough legislative battles. … I can remember the debates, the people saying, “I have a piece of rental property, and I have a right to rent to whom I want to rent to. If I don’t want to rent to a black person, I won’t rent to a black person.” 

The other side said, “Now wait a minute. Anyone who can meet certain qualifications should have an opportunity to rent.” If they keep up the apartment or pay the rent, it shouldn’t make a difference what their sexual orientation was, what their color was.

It was a tough, tight vote. Finally we came out with a fair housing bill, but I can remember some of my Democratic colleagues from Milwaukee viciously opposing that. It was not a party idea. We had Democrats and Republicans supporting it and Democrats and Republicans opposing it.

[During the] Vietnam War, the students circled the Capitol and set up tents out on the Capitol grounds. They had the National Guard in here, protecting the Capitol. … Some of [the legislators] had to be ushered through the crowds to get into the Capitol. 

Both of those episodes, quite frankly, were maybe more emotional than the current episode, which is the most emotional right now, the pro/anti-[Gov. Scott] Walker, the pro/anti-collective bargaining. Right now, we feel this is the big issue, but Vietnam was a hot issue, and the emotions ran much harder. I think they were higher. I mean the emotions are high now, but they ran awful high then. 

And fair housing was a very personal thing to a lot of people. But, we go through these stages. And right now the big issue is the reactionary activity of the current Legislature and the current governor, as far as I’m concerned. 

BH: You’ve played a role in establishing collective bargaining rights for public employees. Do you see leaving the state to prevent a vote on the collective bargaining bill as necessary? Would you do it again?

FR: Absolutely it’s necessary and, absolutely, I would do it again. In 1959, I was the co-chair for the Assembly chairman on the Joint Committee on Finance, which was very important because the collective bargaining bill which was put together when then-governor [Gaylord] Nelson came to our committee. 

And our committee was split – the Senate members were Republican; the Assembly members which I represented were Democrats. And it was necessary that the bill get through our committee because it had fiscal effects, before it was presented to the Legislature. 

We were able to, on a bipartisan basis, get the collective bargaining bill through the finance committee and into the Legislature. It was approved in both houses on a bipartisan basis.

In the 50 years we had it, we never had a partisan vote on a contract which the Legislature has to approve. … Never once was there a partisan vote; I mean, never once did all one party go one way and one party the other way. 

We were the first state to legislatively support collective bargaining for state employees. Absolutely I would do it again. And I think it’s going to be returned. I think when we change state government we’re going to get back to it again because it worked out well.

BH: Looking at your past, when you were younger, you did a variety of things, including working in a carnival?

FR: I went to college in Oregon and part of the reason was I wanted to get as far away from home as possible because I wanted to be myself. I didn’t want to be my father’s son. I wanted to see if I can do it on my own. So I went to college at the University of Oregon before I came back here to practice law.

During the summertime, I worked for a carnie in a place called West Coast Shows. We were in Oregon and California and Washington, and I did different things: guessed weights, the duck wheel, sell ice cream – anything to make money. It was an experience.

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