12:02am

Wed February 27, 2013
Working Late: Older Americans On The Job

At 85, 'Old-School' Politician Shows No Signs Of Quitting

Originally published on Wed February 27, 2013 5:16 pm

Increasingly, people are continuing to work past 65. Almost a third of Americans between the ages of 65 and 70 are working, and among those older than 75, about 7 percent are still on the job. In Working Late, a series for Morning Edition, NPR profiles older adults who are still in the workforce.

Politics is one field that has long been associated with people working into their later years — sometimes even into their 80s or 90s. And at 85, state Sen. Fred Risser of Wisconsin, the longest-serving state lawmaker in the country, shows no signs of slowing down.

Risser has been representing the city of Madison in the Wisconsin Legislature since 1956. He loves showing off his hometown, and there's no better place to get a look at it than from the top of the Capitol dome. Never mind that it's a steep, sweaty, vertiginous climb up 252 shaky metal steps. Visitors may be panting; Risser takes it all in stride.

The view from the top is worth it. From this vantage point, Risser points out Madison's highlights, but after 56 years in office, he could probably identify every block, building and tree.

Another sight Risser points out to visitors is downstairs on his office wall. It's a picture showing the four generations of his family who have served in the Wisconsin Legislature. Before Risser, there was his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather, who served in the Legislature after the Civil War.

"Let me be honest with you," Risser says. "I was born with a political spoon in my mouth. When I was born I think my dad was district attorney. He was state senator for 12 years. As a kid, I used to help him campaign. I had great love for my dad. I knew I was going to follow in his footsteps."

Risser was first elected in 1956. He says he remembers when the Legislature was made up entirely of white men.

"There were no females, there were no minorities or diversity. In fact, they didn't even have a woman's john on the legislative floor," he says. "Now it's much more diversified, which is good."

Other changes, he finds, are not so good.

"The Legislature is more polarized than I've ever seen it. There are more straight party-line votes than there have ever been. I can remember when the rurals would fight the urbans or the eastern part of the state would fight the western part or the north would fight south. But now it isn't that way," he says. "Now it's Democrats versus Republicans."

Nevertheless, he has no inclination to call it quits. "It's the most frustrating job in the world, but it keeps the adrenalin going and it gets you up in the morning. You learn something new every day," he says. "You see different people every day."

And that seems to keep him feeling younger than 85 — whatever 85 means. Risser says it's just a number, that there are many different kinds of ages: your mental age, your physical age — though most 85-year-olds are not riding 2,000 miles a year on their bikes as he does. And he's kept the confidence of his fellow Senate Democrats to the point that they've elected him Senate president when they've had the majority.

But Risser acknowledges there is one respect in which he's an old-timer.

"I don't have Facebook pages, I don't tweet, I don't know how to text. I'm learning to use my iPhone a little bit, but I don't feel confident even to use email," he says. "I'm from the old school, and I still write things down."

Apparently you can get a lot done that way. Over the years, Risser has helped pass laws to curb smoking, promote women's rights, clean up the rivers and increase mass transit. He also helped pass a bill to allow public employees to unionize.

"The bill that the governor gutted was one I had helped put through 50 years ago," he says.

In 2011, Republican Gov. Scott Walker pushed through a bill rescinding most collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin state employees. It led to weeks of demonstrations in and around the Capitol. Union supporters still gather in the Capitol rotunda every day at noon and sing labor songs.

Risser was one of 14 Wisconsin senators who left the state for three weeks to prevent a vote on the bill. In his district it made him a hero, and he's instantly recognized as he stands on a balcony overlooking the singers.

They look up and shout, "Thank you, thank you!" Risser smiles and waves.

"Fred has become an icon," says former Wisconsin Gov. Tony Earl, who still runs into Risser at political events. "He has outlived being just a politician."

"That inspires me because he still cares about who gets elected to state Senate, who gets elected as our U.S. senator. He continues to show the flag," he says.

"Fred is an institution within an institution," says Jeff Mayers, who heads WisPolitics.com and has covered Risser's career for 20 years.

"He is still doing the work," he says. "If he wasn't doing the work, somebody would be after him."

Those waiting for Risser to retire shouldn't hold their breath, he says. "I think anybody who's thinking of that is going to be waiting a long time."

Risser himself has a very simple explanation for his political longevity: "I have an intelligent constituency. They keep re-electing me."

They just did that again last November. It was easy, since Risser was running unopposed.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We return now to our series, Working Late. It's about older workers and why many are postponing retirement. Over the past few decades, the percentage of Americans working past the age of 65 has doubled. And with more Baby Boomers reaching 65, those numbers will grow. One field has long been associated with people working into their later years - that's politics.

Chances are, you can name at least a couple of U.S. senators who've worked into their 80s or 90s. Today's installment of Working Late is our business bottom line, a look at the career of a state senator showing no signs of slowing down at the age of 85. Wisconsin's Fred Risser is the longest-serving state lawmaker in the country. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Fred Risser has been representing the city of Madison in the Wisconsin State Legislature since 1956. He loves this city, and he wants visitors to appreciate it in all of its beauty. And what better way to do that than to see it from the top of the State Capitol dome. And you're not even breathing hard, right?

SENATOR FRED RISSER: (Unintelligible) sure.

JAFFE: Risser was leading the way up 252 narrow metal stairs. The top flight rattled and swayed. Okay. I really hate that. We finally reached our reward.

RISSER: We're at the top now and as you look out here, you can see Lake Mendota on one side, Lake Menona on the other side.

JAFFE: After 56 years in office, Risser can probably identify every block, building and tree from up here. But it's not just his long service that has woven him into the fabric of this place. It's his family. The evidence is downstairs in his office.

RISSER: I'm very proud of that picture on the wall. It's the four generations of my family that have served this area in the Wisconsin State Legislature.

JAFFE: Before Risser, there was his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather, who served in the legislature following the Civil War.

RISSER: Well, let me be honest with you. I was born with a political spoon in my mouth. When I was born, I think my dad was district attorney. He was state senator for 12 years. As a kid, I used to help him campaign. I knew - I had great love for my dad. I knew I was going to follow in his footsteps.

JAFFE: Here's what it was like when Risser was first elected in 1956.

RISSER: I can remember when the legislature composed 100 percent of white males. There were no females, there were no minorities or diversity. In fact, they didn't even have a woman's john on the legislative floor, where it's now much more diversified, which is good.

JAFFE: Other changes, he finds, are not so good.

RISSER: The legislature is more polarized than I've ever seen it. There are more straight party-line votes than there have ever been. You know, I can remember when we would - the rurals would fight the urbans or the eastern part of the state would fight the western part, or the North would fight South. But now it isn't that way. Now it's Democrats versus Republicans.

JAFFE: Nevertheless, Risser has no inclination to call it quits.

RISSER: It's the most frustrating job in the world, but it keeps the adrenalin going and it gets you up in the morning. You learn something new every day. You see different people every day.

JAFFE: And all that seems to keep him feeling younger than 85, whatever 85 means. Risser says it's just a number, that there are many different kinds of ages: your mental age, your physical age, though most 85-year-olds are not riding 2,000 miles a year on their bikes, as he does. And he's kept the confidence of his fellow Senate Democrats to the point that they've elected him Senate president when they've had the majority.

But Risser acknowledges there is one respect in which he's an old-timer.

RISSER: I don't have Facebook pages, I don't tweet, I don't know how to text. I'm learning to use my iPhone a little bit, but I don't feel confident to use email. I'm from the old school, and I still write things down.

JAFFE: Apparently you can get a lot done that way. Over the years Risser has helped pass laws to curb smoking, promote women's rights, clean up the rivers and increase mass transit. He also helped pass a bill to allow public employees to unionize.

RISSER: And the bill that the governor gutted was one I had helped put through 50 years ago.

JAFFE: In 2011, Republican Governor Scott Walker pushed through a bill rescinding most collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin state employees. It led to weeks of demonstrations in and around the Capitol. In fact, union supporters still gather in the Capitol rotunda every day at noon and sing labor songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

JAFFE: Risser was one of 14 Wisconsin senators who left the state for three weeks to prevent a vote on the Walker bill. In this district it made him a hero, and he's instantly recognized as he stands on a balcony overlooking the singers. They shout thank you. Risser smiles and waves.

TONY EARL: Fred has become an icon. He has outlived being just a politician.

JAFFE: Former Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl still runs into Risser at political events around the state.

EARL: That inspires me because he still cares about who gets elected to State Senate, who gets elected as our U.S. senator. And he continues to show the flag.

JEFF MAYERS: Well, Fred is an institution within the institution.

JAFFE: Reporter Jeff Mayers heads the website WisPolitics. He's covered Fred Risser's career for 20 years.

MAYERS: He's still doing the work. If he wasn't doing the work, I think somebody would be after him.

JAFFE: Are there people who are just breathing down his neck who would just love for him to retire?

MAYERS: Fred's outlasted them all. I mean there's been many a state representative who's been in waiting, so to speak. They're all ready to go. Fred's still there. So I think anybody who's thinking of that is going to be waiting a long time.

JAFFE: Risser himself has a very simple explanation for his political longevity.

RISSER: I have an intelligent constituency. They keep re-electing me.

JAFFE: They just did that again in November. It was easy, since Fred Risser was running unopposed. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can see Senator Risser at work and at play, enjoying a beer, in a slideshow at NPR.org. While you're there, you can find more from our Working Late series. We'll pick it up again next week when we meet a nurse midwife from Fort Collins, Colorado. She is still up all night delivering babies at the age of 71.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So when you're on call, you just can't really plan for anything. You just need to be available both physically and your heart and soul available to do midwifery work. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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