Senator Risser: A Lifetime of Service to Wisconsin

It has been 64 years since Fred Risser (D-Madison) was first elected as a Wisconsin legislator. In 1956 he was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly, and then to the State Senate in 1962 where he has served since, making him the longest-serving state or national legislator in U.S. history.

Earlier this year, Senator Risser announced he would not seek reelection this fall and will be retiring after a lifetime dedicated to public service. Risser has been a longtime friend of the WBA so we took some time to talk to the Senator about his lengthy career and celebrate his accomplishments.

Quite a deal has changed since the beginning of Risser’s legislative career, the individuals who serve in the legislature have become more diverse, politics and partisanship have changed, and even the day-to-day operations of the legislature have evolved. “We now have better tools to operate. No legislature can claim they can’t operate,” he explained. “We have phone calls and computers. When I started, we had to ask the Sergeant of Arms for permission to use his phone” 

The job has changed as well. When Risser was first elected, being a legislator was a part-time job. “We met 6 months out of 24. We’d meet, sign the budget, and sine die. You didn’t have to spend a fortune to become a legislator and you maintained your job as a farmer or business owner, or what have you.” 

The switch to Wisconsin having full-time legislators has been positive, Risser says. “With full-time legislators, the public has a better chance of contacting their legislators. We’re available around the clock all year round now.”

The connection to the public and his constituents has been one of Risser’s favorite parts of serving. “The best thing is meeting people. With the legislative office here in Madison, I have my office hours and people can come up and discuss issues with me,” he said. “The legislators have become more involved with the public than they used to be.”
With such a long legislative career, Risser has a lot to be proud of. “In 64 years I don’t think I’ve missed a single roll-call vote. I’ve been extremely active,” he noted. “In the Senate in the past 58 years I haven’t missed a single vote. Everyone knows where I stand because I’ve voted. We have roughly 2,000 bills per session, and we vote anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 times, so I’ve voted somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 times.”

This dedication to the work of being a legislator is reflected in Risser’s various leadership roles including Senate Minority Leader and 25 years as Senate President. Risser’s dedication is also displayed in how long he’s been willing to work to enact change. His signature bill, the Clean Indoor Air Act, took nearly 40 years to pass. “When I started, you could smoke at any age just about anywhere,” Risser said. “I introduced a bill to outlaw smoking under age 16, but it was defeated in committee. It took many years and many bills to accomplish.”

Risser truly was in it for the long haul. “I was in leadership during the Capitol Master Plan for restoration the capitol building,” he said. “That took a lot of time and several different governors. We had to reeducate every new legislature. It was a long activity.”

Sixty-four years of public service is not something that can simply be summed up in a single interview or a press release. Risser has been a fixture in Wisconsin politics since before many of us were even born. We at the WBA would like to thank Senator Risser for his decades of service to the people of Wisconsin and for being a great ally and friend to the banking industry.

When asked if he had any final thoughts, Risser concluded: “I’m honored that the people of this district allowed me to represent them, and I did my best. I gave my full energies to the effort. I’ve enjoyed the process.”

By, Ally Bates