Twelve years past that expectancy, at an astonishing 91, Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, is still going strong. After 62 years of representing constituents in the Madison area, he shows no interest in retirement. In the age of Twitter politicians and Facebook organizing, the idea of a World War II veteran holding office may raise eyebrows.
Today, youth are taking center stage in politics. The stars of Democratic politics today, both at the party’s center and in its budding democratic socialist wing, are no longer Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., but instead young firebrands like Beto O’Rourke and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York City.
Irrespective of what side of the gun control debate one occupies, there’s no denying that the national conversation around weapon restrictions has been controlled for nearly a year now, not by the entrenched interests of venerable lobbying groups such as the National Rifle Association, but by the young survivors of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman-Douglas High School advocating for themselves.
With organizations like Run For Something helping sweep a record number of young liberals into office, and right-wing social media fronts like Turning Point USA and Campus Reform wading into the muddy trenches of the internet to try and establish a conservative base among a new and increasingly progressive generation, Berkeley activist Jack Weinberg’s old turn of phrase, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” feels like something that easily could be said today.
That said, there is without a doubt a place for people like Risser in a modern, progressive movement. Age bias cuts two ways, and as someone who has written in fervent support of up-and-coming young leaders in politics, it would be hypocritical to demand people look at the youth on their own merits and dismiss the elderly out of hand.
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Indeed, research has shown that the popularly held stereotype of elderly people as incapable and infirm is largely unsupported by fact. Risser shows that every time he refuses to take the capitol elevator — something he’s always done, climbing the stairs even when on crutches.
In their many years of service, our elder civil servants are reservoirs of living memory, experience, and for all the continuity they represent, a testament to the human ability to change with the times. It would be absurd to think that the needs of Risser’s constituency haven’t changed since his first election to the legislature in the sixties, or that he could hold office for such a lengthy period of time if he were out-of-step with those he represents.
Even if his age is no strike against him, however, there are reasons to raise eyebrows at Risser’s extended service. Jeff Mayers of WisPolitics has called Risser “the institution inside the institution,” and he’s served for long enough that it’s hard to deny. The smallest margin he’s ever beaten a challenger to his incumbency by is 11 percent, and as the years wound on, the sense that any serious opposition was rising against him has unraveled.
Since 2004, he has faced no challengers in either the primary or the general, and he was all but guaranteed reelection long before that. For all his service, the character of American democracy is not a ballot with one name on it. This problem is not unique to Risser, but rather systemic — if any individual concentrates enough influence to be effectively unbeatable in their election, then something is wrong with the elections themselves.
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While term limits might on the surface seem like a solution to the problem of concentrating power, it would also extract a bitter price in terms of lost experience and wisdom. Death aside, the ultimate term limit is the fact that in a democratic nation, the voters should be able to bar from representing them someone they don’t want.
Likewise here in Madison, “mayor for life” Paul Soglin has been defeated once, and now faces a genuine challenge from candidate Satya Rhodes-Conway in the wake of his abortive gubernatorial campaign and a primary where the sum of votes for his various opponents well outweighed the votes he took in. No term limit is needed to get rid of Soglin — when he no longer represents the city, the people do all the heavy lifting needed.
Too often, discussions on these matters center around the forced retirement of long-serving lawmakers, rather than addressing the core issue that in these same districts and under these same conditions, the problem becomes not youth or length of service, but whether the system is sufficiently open to challenge.
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Risser certainly doesn’t deserve unanimity, but he deserves to make his case to his voters. Running for office, especially in broader areas such as those that a state senator might represent, demands an investment of time and money that few can make, especially when said investment would be contesting the resources of one of politics’ most entrenched incumbents.
Public funding of campaigns that marshal sufficient support, and a welfare system that ensures the investment of time that a campaign demands would not be out of the question for those in difficult financial situations could all open the doors to more challengers at less cost.
As the Gov. Tony Evers era begins and the wheels of politics turn as they always did, Risser will be staying on as a public servant and will continue an illustrious career of advocacy for progressive causes. For all he has done, and for what he continues to do with verve and strength that match and outmatch those far younger than him, he deserves respect and consideration.
He deserves to be looked at as a candidate judged on his own merits, rather than simply the bundle of assumptions that come with a climbing number of years. The only thing one can say with confidence that he does not deserve, however, is 100 percent of the vote.
Ethan Carpenter ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science.