Builder of Wisconsin’s Democrat(ic) party,
Fred watched it forget its heart and lose its soul.
Just a kind word about a good man, Fred Risser. At age 92, he is stepping aside after a record 64 years in the Wisconsin state legislature. No one has served longer in any statehouse in the nation. That’s something to write about!
Was startled to read in this morning’s excellent account that in all those years the man has never once used the Capitol elevator, always taking the stairs. One does not get to be 92 without doing something right. He’s also an avid bicyclist. (But aren’t they all!)
Some cite Sen. Risser as Exhibit A for term limits. Blaska Policy Werkes has never bought into that nostrum. Term limits are anti-democratic. No one was forced to vote for Fred Risser. The people of Madison elected Mr. Risser knowing full well that a fair-trade, coffee shop-full of liberal aspirants thirsted for the four-year term of a state senator. Nor can one say that Madison voters are political illiterates. Goofy, sure. But they knew for whom they were voting.
How many legislators has Fred mentored, argued with, and seen come and go. He is the Queen Elizabeth II of Wisconsin politics. Thirteen governors and that includes my mentor Tommy G. Thompson, whom (I know) respected Fred Risser. (And trusted.)
Fred Risser is a “Jr.” believe it or not; his father was the last of the La Follette Progressive Republicans after the party disbanded in 1944. Fred Jr. was a key player of the resurgence of the Democrat(ic) party, having been elected to the state Assembly in 1956 to a class comprised of 67 Republicans to only 33 Democrats. (The Assembly today has 99 members.)
One year later in a 1957 special election, Bill Proxmire would be elected (after losing three tries for governor) to fill the unexpired U.S. Senate term of the newly expired Joe McCarthy. In 1958, Gaylord Nelson would claim the governorship for Democrats — the first of that party in 26 years as Democrats took a majority in “the lower house” for the first time since the FDR landslide year of 1932.
Grace notes and stair steps
Somehow, the kindly citizens of southwest Madison elected your irascible bloggeur to the Dane County Board of Supervisors a total of six times. Each time, he received a note of congratulations from State Sen. Fred Risser. We’re under no illusion — Fred did that for every local officeholder. O.K., it’s good politics but it’s also a small grace note — like George Bush Sr.’s bread and butter notes of thanks, as my dear mother used to call them. Who does those any more?
He did so knowing that Blaska was a retrograde Republican who had somehow strayed from the good Democrat(ic) stock of his father Jerome, with whom he served in the legislature.
A Reagan/Tommy Democrat
I remember father. Jerome campaigned with the entire family. He dragged the eight of us to every church-basement chicken-and-ham parish fundraising dinner in eastern Dane County. After the dinners, he worked the taverns. Where his voters lived: silage and sweet corn truckers, porcelain factory workers, main street merchants, and farmers like himself. Brother Mike and I stapled his campaign signs on weathered tobacco barns, so many of them right on the town roads.
Democrats were blue collar then. But that was already changing. Working out from the campus, the tenured profs at the University — ever more removed from the dairy short course days — were flexing their political muscle and indoctrinating their students, hopeful of good grades. The Capital Times served as their bullhorn. The reaction was settling in. Uncle Cy Blaska chaired WI Democrats for Nixon in 1968. Four years later, Democrats would nominate George McGovern and Thomas Eagleton.
Jerome enthusiastically supported Tommy Thompson, as did most of his children. Tommy won over the Eastern Dane Farmers Union and our farm neighbors at a turf-and-surf dinner in the Sun Prairie VFW hall in his first campaign for governor in 1986. Tommy’s eyes widened as those farmers awarded him a standing ovation. This bloggeur was present at the creation.
Jerome Blaska, like Fred Risser a WW2 veteran, died a Reagan Democrat 20 years ago this Spring. “I never left the party, it left me,” dad would say. My last Christmas gift to father, 1999, was a membership in the Dane County Republican party. His thank-you was sincere.
Blaska’s Bottom Line — Perhaps, if Fred Risser had spoken out against some of the overly “woke,” redistributionist, identity-politics excesses of his party, it might today remain Wisconsin’s majority party. Trump might not have carried Wisconsin and thus, the presidency. For all that, Fred Risser has been a force for good. But a profile in courage?