Five Questions With the Country’s Longest-Serving State Legislator

By Shawntaye Hopkins, CSG communications associate
As the longest-serving state legislator in Wisconsin and United States history, Wisconsin state Sen. Fred Risser continues to find his legislative work rewarding and stimulating. Risser was first elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1956. He was elected to the state Senate in 1962 and served as Senate president for 25 years. Here, Risser discusses changes in the state Legislature and significant moments in his political career.
1. How have demographic changes in the Wisconsin Legislature benefitted the state and/or the Legislature itself?
When I was first elected to the Wisconsin state Senate in 1962, its membership was composed of 100 percent white men, as it had been since statehood in 1848. Now, the Legislature has a more inclusive membership with women and people of color making up a growing number of the elected body. The current Democratic Caucus in the Senate boasts an equal divide between men and women, with our minority leader being a woman. The demographic changes of our Legislature have resulted in greater diversity of opinion and, consequently, a more reflective view of society as a whole. This is beneficial to both the Legislature and state.
2.  You have been involved with The Council of State Governments for a long time, and you served as chair of the CSG Midwestern Legislative Conference. How has CSG helped you as a state legislator?
I have been active in CSG since first being elected to the Legislature. During this time I have met many legislators and others from different states and have learned a great deal from their ideas and the approaches they have taken to address the needs of their states. CSG meetings have been helpful in providing information on what other states have done to address matters that our state also faces. The ability to contact CSG directly on issues is also important.
3.  How has the way you do your job changed over time?
Advancing technology has revolutionized communication. Information is available at the touch of a button and communicating with voters and one’s constituents has been streamlined. Fortunately, the Wisconsin Legislature has provided its members with the necessary tools and facilities to make use of ever-evolving technology. Modern technology has made it easier for constituents and advocacy groups to connect and share their thoughts. News becomes immediate and widely available.
4.  Can you describe the toughest moment in your career and how you overcame it?
As our state has become more polarized, being in the minority has at times been frustrating and tough to handle. The solution, of course, is to become the majority party. During my years as a state senator, including 25 years when I was Senate president, we have seen party control of the Senate change five different times.
5.  What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I have not missed a legislative roll call or legislative day, with the exception of a unanimous boycott by the Senate Democrats of the governor’s attack on the state, municipal and teachers’ unions. I represent the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the state’s vibrant capitol city and I feel that I have represented my constituents and the state of Wisconsin to the best of my ability. During my tenure, I have authored, co-sponsored, and worked on hundreds of bills, all of which are important to those they affect. Some of my legislative interests include protecting the environment, increasing access to health care, funding public education and bolstering women’s rights. One accomplishment I am most proud of was to finally pass the state’s smoke-free Clean Indoor Air Act, which I worked on for many years before it was successful.