The longest-serving state legislator in American history and the last veteran of World War II to hold office will retire next week after more than six decades.
Wisconsin state Sen. Fred Risser (D), 93, has represented his Madison-area district since 1956, when President Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. He served under 13 governors, and he never missed a roll call vote.
Risser served as both Senate minority leader and as president of the state Senate, through five different eras of Democratic control. He authored Wisconsin’s version of the Clean Indoor Act, drafted a master plan that restored the state Capitol and expanded access to the University of Wisconsin for senior citizens.
“I’ve passed hundreds of bills,” Risser told The Hill in an interview Tuesday. “I consider myself someone who is supportive of the needs of the general public.”
Risser is the fourth member of his family to serve in Wisconsin’s legislature — but the first Democrat. His great grandfather Clement Warner served in both chambers of the legislature as a Unionist. His grandfather served in the state Assembly as a Progressive Republican. And his father Fred Risser was the last Progressive member of the state Senate.
“I knew from the day I was born that I was going to get into politics,” Risser told The Hill. “The purpose of a state legislator, or any legislator, is to help those people in need and to maintain our democratic way of life. I was raised in a family where public service was considered a noble and respectable goal.”
Even at 93, Risser said he considered running for another term this year.
“The truth is, it was a difficult decision for me,” Risser told the Wisconsin State Journal earlier his year. “I came to the conclusion, after thinking of all the changes and options, that it was time. I don’t know what else to say other than that.”
Risser signed up for the U.S. Navy just before his 18th birthday, days before Germany surrendered in 1945. He finished boot camp just before Japan surrendered, ending the war.
“I tell people the Germans and the Japanese saw me coming,” he told State Legislatures Magazine in 2013.
After serving as a Navy medic in Rhode Island and Panama, Risser used the GI Bill to earn undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Oregon. He retired to Wisconsin, where he won his seat in the state Assembly. Six years later, he moved to the state Senate.
Over the years, Risser has watched his part-time job become a full-time profession, as the legislature added staff and as the cost of campaigns ballooned. When he joined the legislature, the body consisted entirely of white men.
“The diversification is tremendous. When I started out in the state Senate, there had never been a woman or a person of color,” he said.
Risser is troubled by the growing partisanship that has infected the legislature in recent years. He attributes the acrimony to ideological homogeny between the two parties.
“You used to have liberals and conservatives in each party. Now, the conservatives have gone mostly into the Republican Party and the progressives have mostly gone into the Democratic Party, so it’s become much more partisan,” he said. “I blame it on the federal government. The partisanship at the federal level has been trickling down to the states.”
Risser said special interests have consolidated power at a time when campaigns have become more expensive.
“When I first ran for office, a couple hundred dollars was enough to get your name around,” Risser said. “Now, some of our Senate seats cost over a million dollars in campaign contributions. I don’t like that idea.”
Risser’s 64 years in office stands as a record unlikely to be broken any time soon. The next-longest serving member of a state legislature is Tom Craddick, a Republican who has served in the Texas state House since 1969. Craddick would have to serve until 2033 to eclipse Risser.
—Updated at 1:52 p.m.