One of the fathers of Wisconsin's law allowing state employees to join a union isn't ready to budge on a tactic that blocks the Republican-led legislature from voting on the governor's plan to roll back those collective bargaining rights.
"We're not going to stay out forever, but I don't see exiting right now," said Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, the longest-serving state legislator in the country.
Risser was 31 in 1959 when he helped enact the legislation to allow teachers and other public employees to unionize, the first such legislation in the nation. Today, at 83, he is drawing international headlines for being part of a group of 14 Democratic state senators who decamped to Illinois to prevent action on the budget bill, which would also give the Republican governor unilateral power to change the state's Medicaid rules.
The 14 Democrats met at 8 a.m. Feb. 17, and were out of town by 10 a.m., Risser said. They are staying in different Illinois hotels but meet daily, he said, adding that his wife brought him clean clothes and other provisions.
"I'm on my cellphone all day talking to constituents," Risser said.
Risser's office has been swamped with 10,000 calls and e-mails, he said, adding that he believes most of his constituents support what he has done.
While the spotlight has been on Walker's attempt to eliminate the collective bargaining rights of public employees, much more is at stake.
"He is taking over the whole Medicaid program," Risser said. "What he's proposed is dangerous, very dangerous. It would give the governor almost dictatorial control over Medicaid funds."
Walker's proposal allows his administration to make changes to the program with neither public input nor approval of the legislature.
"Current law requires public comment and public input before any changes are made," said Terry Tuschen, Risser's legislative aide. "It's an emergency rule that would supersede state law and have no end date."
D'Anna Bowman, AARP Wisconsin state director, agreed that the Medicaid issue is critical.
"AARP Wisconsin is concerned that decisions could be made behind closed doors to increase costs and change existing benefits and services to Medicaid participants," Bowman said.
While the flight of the Democrats has outraged supporters of the bill, some of whom have suggested recalling the renegade legislators, Risser is not in much political danger. His district includes the Capitol and the University of Wisconsin campus. He faced no Republican opposition in his last four reelection campaigns. In 1992, in his most recent contested race, Risser won with 67 percent of the vote. "If Fred wanted another term and the election was tomorrow, he'd win easily," said Madison Mayor David Cieslewicz. "He's widely viewed as a hero in his district."
Marie Rohde is a freelance writer in Glendale, Wis.