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Thursday, Jan. 10, 2008

In Memoriam

Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus (1926-2008)

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We were all sad to learn of the death of former Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus. Lee was a personal friend of mine for the past 36 years. Although he became a Republican in 1978 and I am a progressive Democrat, we never let that get in the way. As a matter of fact, it provided for hours of interesting discussion and debate. Dreyfus was a former debate professor and truly loved intellectual sparring.

What I remember most about Lee Dreyfus was that he was one of the most decent human beings I have ever known. He was very confident and comfortable with who he was and what he believed, so he could be gracious to everyone around him. Lee liked virtually everyone. He would tell me, “You just need to be able to sit down across from the person you may dislike or distrust and have an honest discussion. After that, it’s difficult for you to hate the person. You may still disagree with them, but you understand them better and you find the common humanity.” I have tried to follow that advice, but at times, I admit, it is quite difficult. As a politician and governor, Dreyfus was an old-line principled Republican, not a modern right-wing ideologue. He sounded like a Republican when he lowered the top rates on the personal income tax in Wisconsin, but at the same time, he was the first governor in the country to sign into law a Democratic bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“Bipartisan” is probably not the best way to describe Dreyfus; in many ways he was nonpartisan, doing what he thought was right. In 1982, he chose not to run for re-election though it probably would have been an easy victory. Dreyfus was governor when Wisconsin was a little more innocent. The state Legislature was much more civil and special-interest money was much less influential. The last time I talked with Lee, he was bemoaning the fact that the fanatical right wing had “hijacked my political party” and the special interests were out of control. One thing Lee would be proud to be remembered for is trying to bring civility back into the honorable profession of public service.