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Fred Risser, America’s Longest-Serving Legislator, Retires

The Wisconsin state senator has set a record of service that is unlikely to be broken. The 93-year-old lawmaker started his career when Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House and Alaska and Hawaii were still territories.

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Wisconsin Senate President Fred Risser's district includes portions of Madison, the state capital. Here, he looks out over the city from the top of the Capitol dome.
Wisconsin state Sen. Fred Risser is America’s longest-serving legislator. When his current term ends at 2 p.m. on Jan. 4, 2021, it will mark the end of a 64-year career at the Capitol in Madison. Retiring at the age of 93, Risser was first elected to the Assembly in 1956 when he was 29. He is the fourth generation in his family to serve in the state Legislature, following in the footsteps of his great grandfather, grandfather and father. Even in retirement, the Capitol will never be far from Risser’s mind. He lives directly across the street. In recognition of Sen. Risser’s milestone of public service, we are rerunning a day-in-the-life photo essay, first published in 2012.

 

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Risser's great grandfather, grandfather and father all served as Wisconsin legislators. Fred, at right, was first elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1956.


 

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Risser confers with members of his staff. As political fortunes change with each election, Risser moves into and out of his current office reserved for the president of the Senate.


 
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President Harry Truman flanked by Fred and his first wife Betty, who died after 21 years of marriage. "I have been blessed with having the opportunity of being married to two very wonderful women."

 


 

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There are 57 steps to the senator's second-floor office. Risser makes a point of never using the elevator.


 

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Last year's public-employee protests over Gov. Scott Walker's plan to end collective bargaining have mostly faded away. But every day at noon, a few protesters still gather in the Capitol to sing songs like "There Is Power in a Union," "Bring Back Wisconsin to Me," and "I Don't Want Your Millions, Mister."


 
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Risser was among the 14 Senate Democrats who left the state in order to prevent a vote on the controversial "Budget Repair Bill," which limits collective bargaining by public employees. An admirer pays tribute.


 

 
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Risser has a quiet lunch alone every day with The New York Times.


 

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A popular figure around the capital, Risser is always recognized by well-wishers. He has never been defeated in an election.



 
 
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An enthusiastic supporter of his state, Risser embraces all things Wisconsin, including, of course, cheese.

 
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Risser maintains a one-man law office near the Capitol. Here he points to a flyer from his first campaign.

 
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Recently, the local paper advised newcomers to Madison to (a) get a bike and ride it, (b) drink local beer and (c) invest in warm clothing. That's advice Sen. Risser takes to heart.

 
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Risser confers with Republican Rep. Al Ott.

 
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Risser looks down from the top of the Capitol dome. The building underwent a $160 million restoration over a 12-year period.


 
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As one of the few continuous legislative leaders during the years of restoration work, Risser helped keep the project moving and educated the revolving personalities involved.


 
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Avid gardeners, Risser and his wife Nancy have created a beautiful green space from a former urban parking lot.


 
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A few years ago, Risser and his wife sold their house and moved to a fifth-floor condo across the street from his office, "high enough where I can see what's going on, but too high to get hit by tomatoes." Risser has never lived beyond walking distance to the Capitol.


 

David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at dkidd@governing.com.
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