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Backstory: The iron man of state politics

By Frank BuresCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 2007



MADISON, WIS.

Fred Risser is showing off his canes at his new apartment in downtown Madison, Wis. He's got canes from all over the world, in all lengths and sizes. There is a camel-bone cane from Morocco. A cane with a knife in it. A cane carved in the shape of his favorite flower, the Lady Slipper. Mr. Risser has collected them, hundreds of them. But he doesn't use them. At 79, he doesn't need anything to support his 6 ft., 2 inch frame.

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In fact, the man who is the longest serving state legislator in the United States is something of a dynamo. He walks a lot. He dances. He bikes 25 miles on his lunch break on trails around Madison. He takes no elevators. Instead, he lopes up the marble stairs to his capitol office, where he's sat in one legislative house or the other since 1957 – the year Dwight Eisenhower was president and Elvis Presley debuted "Jailhouse Rock."

But even though the stairs are the same, the place is different than when he made his first ascent half a century ago.

"Things have changed tremendously," says the soft-spoken president of the Wisconsin state Senate. "Legislators didn't have any offices or secretaries or stationery. Our office was our desk. There was only one woman in the legislature, out of 133. They didn't even have a women's washroom on the same floor as the chambers."

Things have changed, indeed. Back then, the cold war was just beginning to intensify as the Soviets launched Sputnik. Joseph McCarthy represented the state in the US Senate. The Brooklyn Dodgers were just moving to Los Angeles. The word "Beatnik" entered the vernacular in 1957, though Madison itself was still a decade away from its antiwar and counterculture upheaval.

All this has given Risser an institutional memory and sense of history that differentiates him from many who work under the capitol dome here. "[Risser] is able to take the long view in a way that a lot of people aren't," says Bill Lueders, news editor at Madison's Isthmus paper. He sees power in the legislature "in geologic terms."

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Risser is a tall man with thinning gray hair and a tight-cropped beard that give him the look of a genial grandfather, which he is, several times over. When he's not wearing his lycra cycling gear (he logged 100 miles on his 79th birthday – he wanted to bike his age but just kept going), he dresses in conservative suits and bright ties. During his tenure, he has served as Senate president four times, including again this year, as the parties have shifted power.

Risser, a Democrat, has been an unflagging liberal, reflecting the views of his district in Madison. He is not a firebrand, but is considered tenacious in fighting for causes he believes in. These include protecting abortion rights, regulating smoking, and securing funding for the state university system.

He sponsored one of the first gay rights bills in the country in 1982. A passionate champion of building preservation, he likes to point out – with notable irony – that the state is now demolishing buildings that he once voted to erect.

"One thing about Fred, he's been very consistent, even when the tides shifted right," says Jeff Mayers, president of WisPolitics.com, a newsletter. "Because he represents a very liberal constituency, he's been able to maintain his principles, from the environment to education. He hasn't wavered."

More than anything, Risser has been a master of legislative rules. He decided to immerse himself in the minutiae of parliamentary procedure shortly after first being elected to the Senate in 1962 as a way to move up.

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