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Fred Risser: Forever Fred
After four decades in the Legislature, has state Sen. Risser outlasted his usefulness?

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This article originally appeared in Isthmus on Aug. 30, 1996.

"Look kids, it's Sen. Fred Risser, himself, in person," exclaims one woman as she answers the door in her Westmoreland neighborhood, where Risser is campaigning door to door. "We know who you are," says a smiling elderly man at another door as Risser begins to introduce himself. "We've been voting for you for years."

After 40 years in the state Legislature, Fred Risser is well-known in Madison. The state senator from Dist. 26 has hit most of these doors before -- many in recent years, because he's had a Democratic primary opponent in three of the last four election cycles. Now, in a race that has no Republican contender, he's facing challenger Stuart Levitan in the Sept. 10 primary election.

Risser sees the primary contests as the mark of a healthy democracy and as a chance to talk about what he's accomplished. But Levitan, who has worked in city and county government for 18 years (including a three-term stint as county supervisor), says there's a reason that Risser has had so many challengers from within his own party: He isn't doing enough for urban areas, especially Madison. That's the same reason cited by Mayor Paul Soglin and a bevy of city and county officials who are backing Levitan. And many of Risser's constituents are taking notice.

"I've always voted for you in the past," a woman in her mid-30s tells Risser when he knocks on her door. "But this time I'm waiting to hear and read more of the debate before I make up my mind."

Such ambivalence must be distressing to Risser. Since it's a primary election without much else on the ballot, turnout will likely be low, and anything can happen.

Still, given Risser's high name recognition and his legacy of respect, Levitan must provide voters with a compelling reason not to vote for Risser again. Realizing this, Levitan has recently been upping the ante in a series of joint appearances, hitting the theme that Risser hasn't been doing enough and is running out of new ideas necessary to lead Dist. 26 until the year 2001.

"Seniority is not leadership," asserts Levitan. "Leadership is having a vision of what you need to do. Fred has a philosophy. It's a good philosophy, but a philosophy is not a program or an agenda. After 40 years in office the name Risser should be the second word out of your mouth after the name Bob La Follette. He should be a figure of towering influence. He's been in office since Dwight Eisenhower was president." Levitan's slogan for the race is: It's time to pass the torch.

Risser's Democratic colleagues in the Senate, who reappointed him Senate president when they retook the majority in June, have all gone on record supporting his reelection. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala says it's hard to make a case for dumping Risser when there's no big issue Levitan can point to where Risser has voted "wrong."

"Fred Risser has been a great progressive senator," says Chvala. "If it's not broke, don't fix it. There's got to be a compelling reason to make a change."

Is there? Or does Fred Risser deserve another four years?

Born to run

Growing up in Madison as the son of a district attorney who went on to the Legislature, Risser did many of the same things as a kid that he does today at age 69. In those days he and his dad, also named Fred Risser, would hit the church meetings, chicken dinners, fairs and raffles and stick up posters on trees.

In fact, Risser's political lineage goes back four generations. His great-grandfather, after losing an arm in the Civil War, served in both the Assembly and Senate. His grandfather, Ernest Warner, the namesake of Warner Park, was a La Follette Republican, and his father was the last official elected from the Progressive Party before it disbanded in 1944.

"Around the family supper table, we talked about politics and issues of the day," recalls Risser. "I don't ever remember talking about a TV or radio show. Some people are raised with a silver spoon in their mouths; I was raised with a political spoon in my mouth."

Still, Risser has done a few things outside politics. Before joining his father's law practice, he served in the Navy, worked in a logging camp and was a carny with West Coast Shows, doing everything from running the duck wheel to guessing people's weight. He used to spend his free time hitchhiking around the country. In the *40s, Reader's Digest published an article he wrote about a hitchhiking adventure.

After marrying a second time (his first wife died after 21 years together), Risser has moved back to his family's homestead near Indian Hills on the far west side. (It's on Risser Road, named after his grandfather.) He has three adopted children, all living nearby, and three grandchildren. His wife of 11 years, Nancy Risser, teaches Spanish at West High, where Fred Risser attended high school.

Risser still loves traveling, especially if it involves bike trips or hiking. Nancy Risser tells a story of when they biked 33 miles together on the Elroy-Sparta trail on a hot July day. She, 14 years his junior, got there ready to collapse and have a leisurely lunch. After a few minutes he said, "Get back on your bike. We've got to turn around and go back now or your muscles will freeze up." That, she says, is "quintessential Fred."

Given Risser's energy, it would be hard to make age an issue in this campaign, and Levitan, 43, isn't doing so. Going door-to-door, Risser sets a lively pace; nearly every day at lunch, he bikes around Lake Monona.

"I've been blessed with good genes and tremendous health," says Risser.

But at 69 why not enjoy some free time? Why keep running?

"Some people say, 'Why don't you retire? After all, you could travel all the time.' But I love what I'm doing," says Risser, gesturing with enthusiasm. "I thrive on frustrations -- and the legislative process is full of them. It keeps the adrenaline going and keeps me young and active. In mental and physical years I'm younger than many of my colleagues."

The record backs Risser's claim that he is still an active senator. In the last session, his name was first or second on 54 bills, compared to 35 for Sen. Joe Wineke and 25 for Chvala, according to the Senate's Bulletin of Proceedings. In the *93-94 session, his tally was 63. These numbers are similar to what Risser had in the late *60s and early *70s.

"In the major debates of this last session on juvenile justice, welfare, guns and the death penalty, he's there," says Wineke. "Sometimes I'd even argue he talks too long. And he's always introducing amendments." Chvala agrees, labeling Risser "the Energizer Bunny."

But Risser's greatest asset, say his backers, is that he's a solid progressive in a solidly progressive district. Recently, he was one of just five senators to vote against W-2 welfare reform, while many Democrats sided with Republicans to demolish the state's safety net.

Currently, Risser says he's drafting bills to reverse such "terrible" Republican actions as dismantling the public intervenor's office, politicizing the Department of Natural Resources and imposing a 24-hour waiting period on abortions.

His philosophy has earned him widespread support. Early on in the campaign he published a full-page newspaper ad listing 2,700 supporters. He had to take a few off the list that had died, but he's now up to 5,000 and may run another ad.

What's more, with Risser, what you vote for is what you get. "I'm not running for governor or Congress," he says. "Some people are in the business for economic reasons. That's not my reason. Quite honestly I have had an active law practice in my career. I'm only in it to be a representative of this community."

Risser is also a landlord, managing eight buildings himself. His six Madison properties, including his home, are worth more than $1 million. And his Statement of Economic Interests filed with the state Ethics Board lists 50 stocks, securities and bonds, 14 of them worth "more than $50,000."

Despite his personal wealth, Risser says he remains true to his progressive roots: "I believe that those of us who are fortunate must be willing to help those who aren't. I may have been born with good genes and good health, but I have empathy for those who weren't. Like all the politicians in my family, I consider myself to have a strong social conscience. I'm in politics because I believe I have an obligation to help out."

Freddy come lately?

Stuart Levitan stresses that this is a race about vision, not political philosophy. In fact, he compliments Risser's voting record and says he would cast almost identical votes. But Levitan faults Risser for jumping on bandwagons that are already rolling, rather than leading the pack.

For instance, Levitan has laid out a "new urban agenda" focusing on land use, housing and transportation policies that strengthen traditional neighborhoods and mass transit. He cites his experience as vice chair of the Madison Plan Commission, chair of the Madison Development Corporation and chair of the Starter Home Task Force. He sees the Senate seat as the culmination of his work on these urban issues.

Past Risser brochures don't mention land use, and he didn't bring it up in his announcement. But Risser does mention land use in his current brochure, prompting Levitan to claim that he, not Risser, is setting the campaign agenda. Risser says he's championed related issues throughout his career. For example, he created the state van-pool program, urged the state to take over abandoned rail lines for bike trails, and authored a resolution to keep state office buildings downtown.

"I think there's no one in the Senate that has paid more attention to land use than I have," says Risser, who will be overseeing a Legislative Council study to review the state land-use report authored by Revenue Secretary Mark Bugher. Risser says he didn't act sooner because the issue is just now heating up. And he's participated in such current efforts as the county's Vision 2020 planning effort.

"I've put my dots on the maps just like everyone else," says Risser. "This is something that has just come into being in the last few years. Land use is just now ripe. I don't think I'm a Johnny-come-lately at all."

Levitan also cites Risser's 1993 vote, sans any public hearings or debate, to move the statue of Ms. Forward inside. It didn't happen, but a later action to move it from its former perch on the Square to make way for a police memorial stirred citizen protests. Then Risser led a charge to have her recast and put in a new location outside, saying in a newsletter that he was outraged by the lack of public input.

But the sharpest attacks on Risser are over the issue of what he has or hasn't done lately to help the city of Madison. Asserts veteran Ald. Sue Bauman, a Levitan supporter, "Fred has been unresponsive to the city."

Bauman recalls a meeting she and another alderperson had with Risser in 1990 about the possibility of placing a bus hub on the Hill Farm State Office Building lot. "At the time, he was president of the Senate and on the Building Commission and he said he'd call and let me know what could be done," says Bauman. "He still hasn't gotten back to me."

The bus hub plan has since been dropped, but Bauman sees the incident as typical Risser. "He gets involved at the last hour when things have gone awry," she says. "Where is he on being proactive or doing things to avoid situations? Why isn't he there from the get-go?"

Another example cited by city officials is funding for Madison Metro in the last state transportation budget. Bauman says Risser waited until the last minute to help restore a funding cut that would have "decimated" the city's bus service -- and by then Metro had been forced to postpone plans for a new transfer point system until 1997.

However, when Risser is asked about his greatest accomplishment last session, he cites the very same issue.

"Because of my position in the Senate, I was able to get myself on the conference committee, and we argued that out," he says. "The end result was that I was able to have the committee add $900,000 to Madison Metro's budget. That's something I did and can take full credit for."

But Levitan counters that Madison came out worse than other cities: "As a result, we're raising fares and cutting service. Not exactly a prescription for healthy mass transit."

Mr. Madison

Levitan says Risser has also been asleep at the switch while Madison's share of state funding has plummeted. He says that from 1983 to 1993, while Risser was Senate president, Madison's share fell by 45%.

Risser responds that Madison gains from other programs like Payments for Municipal Services, something he instigated to reimburse the city for providing services to state buildings, which are tax-exempt.

"We get $7 million a year because of a program that I initiated," says Risser. "Every session, the legislators try and cut back on that program because they know Madison gets the largest share of it."

Levitan says that doesn't make up for other losses: "When you put it all together, cities around the state get an average of $700 [in state aide] on a per-capita basis. We barely get $200."

Mayor Soglin likewise faults Risser on this score: "For about five years now, he's refused to take up an issue which is of vital concern to the city -- the shared-revenue formula. It is fundamentally flawed, and Fred Risser has made it clear that he has no intention of working to change it."

In general, says Soglin, Risser's efforts on behalf of the city have diminished. "Fred Risser did marvelous things in the *70s with annexation policy by helping us to get rid of town islands," he says. "He doesn't do that any more."

But Risser, calling himself Mr. Madison, says he's done plenty to help the city in recent years: "The Capitol renovations -- $65 million -- would never have happened if I hadn't pushed it. Monona Terrace would never have happened if it hadn't been for my budget amendment which found $15 million in the budget for the parking component. There was a drive to disperse state office buildings; I helped keep them in Madison. There is an anti-Madison bias in the Legislature because others are envious of Madison because we've got so much."

Indeed, during the current campaign, Risser has repeatedly mentioned Madison's recent ranking as the most livable city in the U.S. "We're number one in Money magazine and I take a good deal of credit for making Madison number one," he says.

"Did he really say that?" responds Soglin, incredulous. He says that if Risser deserves any credit, it must be for improving the weather: "I knew our climate had been hurting us in the rankings for years. Now I know who got that one fixed."

Style, not substance

Both Risser and Levitan are pro-choice, pro-environment and self-described progressives. For the most part, debates have been civil, with the second speaker often agreeing with the first.

There are a few areas of disagreement. For example, Risser calls himself "the most outspoken opponent of gambling in the Legislature" and backs a constitutional amendment to ban gambling in all its forms, including compacts with the Indian nations. "I firmly believe that the social ills caused by gambling far outweigh any perceived tax gain," he says.

Levitan feels there should be preventative programs to deal with gambling problems. But he wouldn't close Indian casinos because they have generated jobs for Native Americans.

Sparks have also flown over the issue of campaign finance reform. Risser boasts that of the $33,267 he's raised this year, 93% came from in-district and 87% of his contributors gave $35 or less.

Levitan, who has raised $20,042, calls sweeping campaign-finance reform his number-one legislative priority. He's called for a $100 cap on all contributions (including those from political action committees), incentives for voluntary spending caps, ending carry-over war chests, limiting out-of-district contributions to 35%, legalizing multiparty endorsements known as "fusion," and putting campaign records online.

"Our electoral system is broken and must be fixed," says Levitan. "These are the immediate steps the state should take to end the disgrace of the current electoral and campaign finance system."

Levitan asked Risser to agree to a $60,000 spending cap. Risser, in response, suggested that both candidates return every individual contribution over $100. Under this agreement, Risser would have only had to return $535, while Levitan would have had to return $5,610. Levitan retorted angrily during a debate that if PAC donations were included, Risser would need to return more than $5,000, including $1,000 each from the Realtors and the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin.

But if there's not much in the way of policy differences, the two candidates differ sharply in style.

Campaigning at the doors, Levitan argues with people. It's his nature to debate and challenge, and he can alternately appear knowledgeable and confident, or self-centered and arrogant. When Risser goes to the doors, he doesn't argue. In fact, he doesn't even discuss issues. He plays a game keeping track of how many contacts he can make per hour. The point, he admits, is merely to be seen.

Likewise, Risser has mastered the art of getting along in the Senate. "He's a real stabilizing influence in the caucus," says Chvala. "In legislative bodies, you have a lot of strong personalities; he's able to build consensus."

A Capitol observer of the Democratic caucus, speaking on condition of anonymity, agrees. He describes Risser as smart and savvy, but says "he's not a huge power in the caucus." Nor is he one to burn the midnight oil or spend free time hanging out with other pols. "He prefers the parliamentary role to a huge insider power role." He guesses that's why Risser didn't run for majority leader or chair of Joint Finance -- something for which Levitan has criticized him. In fact, Levitan says he wouldn't have run if Risser had taken either of those posts.

"What is at issue here is the length of service and the degree of accomplishment in that period," says Levitan. "This community is an active, passionate, intelligent community, and we expect more than a parliamentarian who votes right. I would bring a vision of what needs to be done, a focus, an understanding, a passion and an energy. I would get what needed to be done done, or I would make way for someone who could do a better job."

But Risser believes he'll win handily on his reputation and accomplishments. "I'm an incumbent running on my record, and no one has attacked my record," he says. "This community knows me. I'm a Madison original, and in my position of leadership there's a lot more that I can do for Madison. I'm rarin' to go."

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