President Dwight D. Eisenhower took the oath of office. IBM sold the first computer hard disk. New York Yankees legend Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series. And Fred Risser was first elected to the Wisconsin Assembly. The year was 1956.
Sixty-five years later, the Democrat, who during his career represented the district surrounding the Capitol in Madison in both the Assembly and the Senate, retired at the end of last year at age 92 as the nation’s longest-serving state lawmaker. It was time he tried “something different,” he said. Before his retirement, we sat down (virtually) to talk with the senator about his career, his insights as a World War II veteran and the legislative changes he’s observed.
What drew you to run for office?
I’m the fourth generation of my family—and the fourth political party—to serve in the legislature. I’m the only Democrat. My dad, Fred Risser, served as a progressive. My grandfather, Ernest Warner, served as a progressive Republican, and my great-grandfather, who came back from the Civil War minus one arm, was elected as a unionist. I remember as a young boy campaigning with my dad when he was running for district attorney. I remember going to church dinners and knocking on doors, putting signs up on Christmas trees and handing out literature. It’s something that I did from the very beginning of my life and something I knew I was going to do the rest of my life.
How have you remained in office for so long?
I’m in tune with my district’s interests and values. If I weren’t, they would boot me out pretty fast. But I have another advantage: Unlike most legislators, I don’t have to leave my district when the legislature is in session. This is my district. I live right across the street from the state Capitol, and that means that I’m available every day and night.
I’m the fourth generation of my family—and the fourth political party—to serve in the legislature. I’m the only Democrat. My dad, Fred Risser, served as a progressive. My grandfather, Ernest Warner, served as a progressive Republican, and my great-grandfather, who came back from the Civil War minus one arm, was elected as a unionist.
How has the legislature changed?
The legislature has, over the years, become more professional and gotten more tools, too. There were no phones, no stationary, no staff when I started. In fact, if we wanted to phone, we’d have to go down to the sergeant’s office and ask permission to use his phone. Now we have staff, we have telephones, we have everything we need so that a legislator who wants to really develop something has that opportunity.
Of course, diversity is another thing. In 1962, I was just another white man in the state Senate; now over a third of the senators are women.
When I started out, you’d have one or two ideas and work on those. But now, with the staff, we’re able to participate in a lot of different things and keep our constituents updated. We turn out newsletters. We turn out the press releases. We answer all our mail. We answer telephone calls, and I think we’re doing a better service for the public. Legislators are much better legislators with competent staff.
You’ve served in dynamic times, including during the civil rights movement. Now we have a pandemic, civil unrest and hyper-partisanship. Is our current situation unique and how should legislatures respond?
I would say that in the ’60s, it was even rougher than it is now. When I started out, the big movements were fair housing and the Vietnam War. The current issues are not unique, but they are important. Why do people protest? They protest because they’re concerned about something. That person isn’t going to give up time and energy and join large protests unless they feel strongly about it. That’s democracy. Sometimes the legislature is a little bit behind what the public wants. But in the end, we have the tools of the legislative process that will make the public’s views heard and hopefully correct the inequities that exist. There will never be a time when we have everything solved, but we keep working at it.
How did your perspective as a WWII veteran shape your work as a legislator?
I joined the Navy near the end of the war, and then I went through school on the GI Bill. That was one of the most marvelous things the country has ever done. When I got out of school, I was debt free. The current cost of education has bothered me, and as a WWII veteran, I keep talking to people about the GI Bill, what a wonderful thing that was. I think I got more out of the government than they got out of me. They got a couple of years of my Navy career, but I got more than that with an education.
What has NCSL’s role been in your work?
I’ve been active in NCSL since its creation. I’ve been pleased to go to your conventions and meet people so I could talk to them about their state, their activities and how they handled certain questions. We’re facing an extremely partisan situation in Congress and the states. But NCSL has been able to maintain bipartisanship. Hopefully, it will be the star for helping change both the state and federal governments—NCSL has the machinery and ability to do it.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. Amanda Zoch is an NCSL policy specialist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow. Megan McClure is a research analyst II in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program.