Longtime Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner Won't Seek Re-Election

Sep 4, 2019

Updated at 7:17 p.m. CT

Longtime Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner announced his upcoming retirement late Wednesday.

He said when he began his career in public service he "would know when it was time to step back."  The 76-year-old lawmaker says he's determined that after his current term — his 21st in Congress — it will be that time.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Emeritus Professor Mordecai Lee is a former Democratic state legislator who has known Sensenbrenner a long time. Lee says the Republican Congressman is a political institution.

"I think it's an honorable thing for him to say, 'I've reached the stage when I should consider stepping down. I want to do it voluntarily. I want to do it on my own schedule,' " Lee says.

He says one point of pride for Sensenbrenner is holding thousands of town hall meetings over four decades. Sensenbrenner discussed the practice in 2017.

"These are important to me because I'll be able to hear what my constituents have to say, but I will also have to explain to somebody who disagrees with me why I am taking the position I am. And I think having an explanation is a matter of respect," Sensenbrenner said in an interview with NPR.

Sometimes those town halls could be contentious when the audience persisted with questions the lawmaker didn't like or wouldn't agree with his answers. More than once Sensenbrenner threatened to shut down a meeting. Lee says the Congressman deserves credit for continuing to hold the sessions even in recent years. 

"In an era where town hall meetings were minefields, I think Jim Sensenbrenner was one of the last few of either party who would just hold open town hall meetings. Now sometimes in this sort of awful era of the last five or 10 years, he'd have a police officer there. He'd have his staff have signup sheets, so the only people who got to ask questions were truly his constituents,” Lee explains.

As far as accomplishments in Congress, Sensenbrenner's press release says he led the passage of the USA Patriot Act shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He also supported the Voting Rights Act. The release doesn't mention that he was one of the House managers of the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton 20 years ago.

Sensenbrenner currently represents portions of Milwaukee County, and suburban and rural areas to the north and west. Lee says the district appears safely Republican, but there could be an interesting GOP primary next summer.

"If I had to make a guess, I think there's going to be a primary between, I guess what you'd call a Sensenbrenner conservative — an old-fashioned conservative — versus kind of a Trump or Tea Party conservative. And the winner will, in a sense, tell us where the Republican Party is right now,” says Lee.

Sensenbrenner says he'll have more things to say, as he serves out his final term.