Youngest And Oldest Wisconsin Legislators Talk Age, Issues, And Bridging Partisan Divide

Aug 29, 2019

A 72-year age gap separates the youngest and oldest Wisconsin legislators. So, we caught up with them in the state Capitol to get a little wisdom about seeing the world as a legislator on either end of the age spectrum. 

At 92, state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, is one of the oldest legislators — and is the longest-serving state legislator — in the United States.

Elected at 19, state Rep. Kalan Haywood, D-Milwaukee, is one of the youngest state legislators in the country. He's now 20.

Getting to work

Risser is the longest-running state legislator in U.S. history, having served 63 years. He used to ride a bike to work, until a wayward driver hit him on a bike this past year. As for getting around the state Capitol building? He always takes the stairs.

“I’ve been here for over 60 years, and I’ve never ridden the elevator in this Capitol,” he says.

And this inspired Haywood, who's younger than Risser’s grandchildren, to take a play out of Risser’s book.

“I heard that [Risser] doesn’t take the elevator ever! So, I’ve decided since yesterday, I’m going to attempt to not take the elevator," Haywood says.

Now, if only taking the stairs could get Haywood a 63-year stint in the state Legislature.

“That would be dope. That would be dope, yeah,” says the Generation Z politician.

Does age really matter?

So, what would the legislators say to those who might claim they’re too old or too young to serve in the Legislature?

Risser’s take: experience counts.

"There’s no one that’s got the experience I have," he says. "No one that’s got the background I have. I have for 50 years not missed a roll call. I’ve been here at all times. I will say this: We need young people in the Legislature. We need older people in the Legislature. We need all races. We need all sexes."

"We need young people in the Legislature. We need older people in the Legislature. We need all races. We need all sexes." - State Sen. Fred Risser, 92 years old

As a fairly recent high school graduate and current Cardinal Stritch University student, Haywood can’t legally drink or go to the casino. But that's fine. He says he should probably avoid those activities as a legislator anyway.

"I can vote. I can be engaged. I can have a different perspective," says Haywood. "So, I think anyone who says I probably shouldn’t be here because I can’t do certain things, I think they need to get used to it. It’s 2019, we’re breaking tradition, we’re opening up doors."

Bridging the partisan divide

Risser says his experience gives him wisdom about the partisan political climate in Madison these days. 

“I remember the days when Joe McCarthy was scaring people," he says. "He was calling people communist, and people were scared out of their wits. Now we have other problems.”

In all the years Risser's been in office, he’s seen the ebb and flow of partisanship.

Haywood says hearing that gives him hope — and supplements the way he likes to work with legislators across the aisle.

"I have noticed that when it comes to human decency issues, like human trafficking or education or public safety, those things we all agree on. We never disagree about the issues, we disagree about the how we take care of the issues." - State Rep. Kalan Haywood, 20 years old

"I honestly believe that when it comes to party issues, whether it’s health care or abortion or things like that, that’s where we have the divide," he opines. "But I have noticed that when it comes to human decency issues, like human trafficking or education or public safety, those things we all agree on. We never disagree about the issues, we disagree about the how we take care of the issues."

If Haywood sounds beyond his years, he recognizes it.

"Yeah, I’m 20, I’m in office doing legislation. There are some 20 year olds at home right now playing Xbox," notes Haywood. "That role they’re playing is just as important as mine. People are allowed the time to find out what they want to do, what role they want to play. I tell students all the time: some people are going to be engineers and janitors at schools but be the best janitor you can be. If you want to be a politician, be the best politician you can be."

How they got into politics  

Haywood's political involvement includes a combination of a combination of youth council, political internships, and volunteering. He first got into politics when he was about 13. 

"It’s a long time ago, you know, way back in the day," Haywood laughs, adding more seriously. "I used to walk to the Boys and Girls club every day, and there was this brochure at the Boys and Girls Club for the Milwaukee Youth Council."

On the other hand, Risser comes from a long legacy of political representatives. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the Wisconsin Legislature. 

A plaque in Sen. Fred Risser's office in the Wisconsin state Capitol depicts four generations of legislators in Risser's family.
Credit Maayan Silver

Risser's dad was in the state Senate for 12 years as a progressive. His mother's father served in the state Assembly as a La Follette Republican, and he was the author of the Civil Service Act in Wisconsin. His great-grandfather lost an arm in the Civil War, came back to Wisconsin, and was elected as a Unionist. He served time in both the Senate and the Assembly. 

Risser says his ancestors all had the same general outlook, valuing education and balancing the budget.

Final words of wisdom

Risser shares his advice for being the best politician you can be:  "I have office hours whenever I’m in town. I will talk to anyone who wants to talk to me whether I agree with them or not. I enjoy this job and I try to do my best.

Haywood chimes in: “And take the stairs — it gets you 60 years!"