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Risser’s law: Longtime senator, lawyer lives by the rules of his father

Sen. Fred Risser looks over documents at his desk at the state Capitol. Risser joined the Legislature in the 1950s, an era when most lawmakers maintained full-time careers outside the Capitol. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

Fred A. Risser introduces himself by handing out two business cards and a brief explanation for why his life no longer fits on one.

The first reason is practical. Risser, a Madison Democrat, has been a Wisconsin lawmaker since he won a state Assembly seat in 1956. He uses one card to identify his role as a state senator, which he has been since 1962.

The other business card provides information for his law firm, the Risser Law Offices, which is a modest two-person operation across the street from the state Capitol.

When Risser joined the Legislature in the 1950s, an era when most lawmakers maintained full-time careers outside the Capitol, it was considered appropriate to include professional information on business cards bought with tax money.

“Then,” Risser said, “it became unethical because you’re advertising your personal property on the Legislature.”

So Risser switched to a two-card system. But he continued to include his middle initial on both to separate himself from his father, Fred E. Risser, who also was a lawyer and state legislator.

Risser also earned his law degree from the University of Oregon because, “I didn’t want to be my father’s son. I wanted to be myself. So I went as far away as I could get and still be in the United States to get my law degree.”

Risser loved his father and intended to follow a similar career path, he said, but he wanted to start his career in a place where he could build his own reputation.

“When you’re introduced in a crowd, you like to be introduced as Fred Risser,” he said. “You don’t like to be introduced as, ‘This is Fred Risser’s son.’”

After graduating in 1952, Risser took the Wisconsin bar exam at the urging of his father. Once he passed, Risser resisted the urge to return to Oregon and stayed in Madison, joining the law firm that became Risser & Risser.

He took to heart a piece of advice from his father that still keeps the 84-year-old senator active in the law.

“He said, ‘To be an effective politician, don’t rely 100 percent on a political income,’” Risser said. “And he very strongly advised me to maintain my law associations. He says, ‘The trouble with if you get into politics and rely entirely on political income, you get to the point where maybe you can’t afford to lose.’”

One of the most successful politicians in Wisconsin’s history, Risser could have decided decades ago those words no longer applied to him. But, because of the advice from his father, who died in 1971, Risser continues running the family law firm as a general practitioner and still serves many of his father’s former clients.

A lawyer’s life

Risser, who is bald on top of his head with a swatch of gray hair in the back, wears a well-cropped goatee and has large blue eyes that become animated when he happens upon a thought that pleases or interests him.

He is a colorful dresser, mixing in bright pinks and purples, perhaps a byproduct of his jovial mood. He could be anyone’s favorite grandfather.

That persona, though, can be deceptively disarming. Whether Risser is advocating for a policy he wants signed into law or for a client in the courtroom, he expects to defeat whoever stands in his way.

“You wouldn’t go into politics if you didn’t have some kind of ego,” he said, “because you have to think you’re better than the next guy or you’re not going to get elected.

“In law, too, you’ve got to have an ego. You’ve got to think — you’ve got to know — that you know what you’re doing. You have to know you have a plan, that you know an answer.”

Risser takes pride in doing things others don’t, like taking stairs instead of the elevator and staying fit with bike rides of up to 60 miles.

“If he does have an ego,” said Brian Rude, a former Republican state senator, “he deserves it.”

Not that Risser has many formidable opponents. Even Stuart Levitan, a Madison historian and the last Democrat to oppose Risser in an election, said he’s “really glad I lost” to the senator in 1996.

“If I had known how active and productive Sen. Risser would be over these ensuing years,” Levitan said, “I wouldn’t have run against him.”

People tend to be most familiar with Risser’s legislative work. Risser, the senator, is a Wisconsin legend and became a national celebrity in February when he joined 13 Democratic colleagues in Illinois to delay passage of Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to strip collective bargaining rights from public workers. He appeared on national television, on T-shirts and on protest signs outside the Capitol.

But the life of Risser, the lawyer, is less glamorous. There are no cameras following him, for instance, when he goes to St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison to tend to a client who is fading mentally.

“I’m helping a person who gave me the power of attorney, and he’s becoming senile,” Risser said. “Sometimes he’s competent and sometimes not competent. I don’t want to do anything he wouldn’t do, so I go down there and talk to him.

“Sometimes it’s a waste of time and sometimes not. But it’s dealing with people, and I enjoy that kind of activity.”

Nancy Risser, the senator’s wife of 26 years, noticed on a recent Thursday that her husband was late, even for him, in getting home. Fred, it turned out, was wheelchair shopping for a client.

“This is not billable hours,” she said. “This is just Fred seeing the need and seeing, oftentimes, he is the only person a family might have. There are no close relatives, and that’s happened a number of times, so Fred’s just taken over the role of eldest son.”

When lawmakers cast their votes on a bill or policy, the people affected can seem abstract. When Risser leaves the Capitol, though, he works directly with those who are facing property transactions, divorce or even their own mortality. Risser has shepherded hundreds of people — his client list is admittedly small — through such challenges for the majority of their adult lives.

Risser counseled Eugenia May, 70, when she was a 19-year-old runaway from Virginia. She stopped in Madison en route to California but stayed put after meeting Risser.

“I wanted to make sure my parents didn’t track me down and drag me back to Virginia,” May said. “Fred advised me at the time that if I was 18 and not a ward of the state and not getting into trouble, he would write my parents a letter telling them I was an adult in the eyes of the law in Wisconsin, and he did that.”

When May mended fences back home, she said, Risser became — and remains — the family attorney.

Risser talks with his longtime legal assistant, Kara Sailing, at the Risser Law Offices in Madison.

‘A great deal’

The name Risser Law Offices assumes the plural form loosely. Risser’s suite includes an office for his longtime secretary, Kara Sailing, an unfurnished office down the hall and Risser’s “inner sanctum” in the back, where he works but doesn’t like to hold meetings because of the clutter.

Risser credits the ongoing success of his practice to Sailing, who often tends to matters by herself when the Legislature is in session. She also manages Risser’s Senate campaigns.

“I have a good secretary,” he said. “And I tell you, that is key as far as I’m concerned, because she can handle a lot of things for me that I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”

Sailing has been so dependable for so long that Risser, sitting in his conference room, struggles to remember when and how the two first connected.

“I found her somewhere,” he said. “I don’t know.”

To get a more definitive answer, Risser turns his head and yells out: “Hey, Kara, how did I happen to find you?”

Sailing has a firmer grasp on the details. She began working for Risser 22 years ago when his previous secretary left and Sailing was ready to leave a larger law firm. Like many others who know Risser, she has trouble naming a single fault he might have.

“I love working with him,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve ever fought — ever. There are bad days when he’s a little cranky. It’s not that often.”

Colleagues marvel at the sharpness of Risser’s mind on important matters, but he can lose track of peripheral details, such as how Sailing came to be his secretary.

Gov. Scott Walker in August approached Risser at a state committee meeting, putting an arm around the senator and chatting as though they were longtime friends. The governor’s gesture might have left a lasting impression on many people, but Risser insists the exchange was unremarkable.

“I don’t even remember what we talked about,” Risser said. “I think he was just being friendly.”

Walker is hardly the only person whose interactions with Risser slip his mind. Rude, who, along with Risser, is among four people to serve as president of the Wisconsin Senate, said it can take Risser a long time to learn the names of junior lawmakers.

“I think he called me Byron for a couple of years,” Rude said.

In this way, Risser said, his personality might differ from a typical politician.

“Some people,” he said, “are gregarious to the point of oozing. But I’m not that type. I’m more withdrawn, and I admit that.”

Besides, Risser knows if there’s a piece of information that neither he nor Sailing nor his Capitol staff can retrieve, it probably isn’t important. After shouting out another request to Sailing, this time for information on an old case, Risser turned and beamed. She found what he was looking for, as he knew she would.

“See what I mean?” he said. “That’s a great deal.”

His father’s son

If Madison sought to erect its own Mount Rushmore, the city would have several options to choose from in the Risser family tree. Risser’s great-grandfather, Clement Warner, a Civil War colonel who lost an arm at the Battle of Cold Harbor, served in both the state Assembly and Senate.

Clement’s son, Ernest Warner, a Madison lawyer and parks advocate, also served in the Legislature.

Madison named its Warner Park after Ernest.

Risser’s father, Fred E. Risser, was a town clerk, district attorney and state senator.

In the absence of a large rock formation, though, the Legislature 10 years ago named a state building after Risser and his family. The Risser Justice Center in Madison houses the state Department of Justice.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, was among the top proponents of the honor.

“There were a couple Department of Justice employees who were kind of thinking, ‘What the hell? Why Fred?’” Erpenbach said. “My thought back was, ‘What the hell? Why not?’

“It was one of those things where, agree or disagree with Fred’s politics, you can’t take away from the fact that the Risser name in the Legislature is legendary.”

For now, Risser said, there are no future generations of Rissers heading toward legal careers. That means the law firm once managed by Ernest Warner will close in the not-so-distant future, a day Nancy Risser, a retired Spanish teacher, said she dreads despite her desire to spend more time with her husband.

“I say to him, ‘Where’s the kind of lawyer going to be that you are for your elderly clients?’” Nancy said. “He’s totally a full-service lawyer. He’s like a social worker.”

Nancy insists she’s “not ready to put a halo” on Risser, yet she describes his work on behalf of clients as almost angelic.

“I have really never seen him do anything other than the most honorable thing,” she said. “When it comes down to it, I just so admire him and I think that he makes me want to be better than I am because he’s that way.”

Nancy, briefly overcome with emotion, pauses and apologizes for becoming “soggy.”

Fred knows Nancy wants him to retire with her, but said he comes from a line of family members who didn’t retire. Risser’s father “worked until a couple weeks before he died,” he said, and Nancy acknowledged Fred could very well do the same.

Risser, who once traveled cross country to avoid being characterized as Fred Risser’s son, worries now that his life might not closely enough mirror that of Fred E. Risser.

“In many respects,” he said, “I wonder if I ever did as much in as short of time as he did.”

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