By David Lewellen
On May 5, state Sen. Fred Risser turned 90. Three weeks later, he took a 90-mile bike ride to celebrate—no cameras, no riding companions, just him going at his own pace.
Riding one mile for every year has become a tradition for him. “It takes a little longer every year,” he said.
Serving in the Wisconsin Legislature has been an even longer ride. Risser was reelected in November, without opposition, to his 14th four-year Senate term. Add in the six years in the Assembly and he has continuously served in the Legislature for 60 years—an all-time record for any state legislature or the U.S. Congress.
“Retirement is not a word in my vocabulary. I’ve never been interested in it,” he said in his office at the state Capitol. He lives a four-minute walk away and keeps a law office in Madison. “In politics, dealing with people, you learn something new every day.”
Risser, a Democrat, joined the Assembly in 1957, when Republicans had an even bigger majority than now. Over six decades, he has switched back and forth from the majority to the minority. Recent years have been frustrating, but his work “keeps the adrenaline going,” he said.
He prides himself on the ability to negotiate with the other side: “Some people are not going to change, and you have to realize that. But I wouldn’t be effective as a legislator if I couldn’t deal with my adversaries.”
Alan Lasee, a Republican who served in the state Senate from 1977 to 2011, said he valued his relationship with Risser.
“I’m a Republican, he’s a Democrat, but we would go out to dinner sometimes,” said Lasee, 80, who represented De Pere. “My view of government is a lot different than his. But he’s a friend, and I respect that.”
‘Age is not a barrier’
Risser served as president of the Senate for 25 years, but when Republicans were in the majority in 2003, Lasee took that position. “Fred’s a lawyer and I’m a farmer,” he said. When Lasee made parliamentary rulings, “Fred would say, ‘Where did you come up with that?’ and I would say, ‘Senator, I had a good teacher. It was you.’ ”
Helen Marks Dicks, AARP Wisconsin associate director for state advocacy, described Risser as “the living embodiment of the idea that age is not a barrier to being respected in your community. You see him at the farmers market, at community activities. Everyone knows Fred. He’s an approachable institution.”
“Age shouldn’t make a difference if a person is in good health,” Risser said. “It used to be that you were required to retire at 65. We should pay more attention to individual capabilities.”
Risser’s legislative achievements are numerous. He was a prime mover in passing the bill that banned smoking in all Wisconsin public buildings—after a 25-year effort. In the 1970s he was able to win the repeal of a law banning the open sale of birth control. He has worked for years to expand access to health care.
Risser enjoys biking and gardening with his wife, Nancy. His three children, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild all live nearby. He said he hasn’t thought about whether to run again in 2020.
He’s critical of recent state leaders but takes the long view. More than a century ago, “this state used to be run by lumber barons and railroad barons. Bribery was legal at one time. But the state will come through again, and I’m here to keep the light burning,” he said.
“If I weren’t an optimist, I wouldn’t be in this job. There are only two choices: Give up or keep fighting.”
David Lewellen is a writer living in Glendale, Wis.