Russ Decker is a Wisconsin State Senator. He was a 1971 graduate of Athens High School as well as a 1980 graduate of the North Central Technical College's Bricklayer Apprenticeship program.
Would you like to start with telling us your background?
Sure. I am a pretty typical
person. I grew up on my folkís
farm; my parents had a dairy farm west of Athens. After I graduated high school, I went to work in a cheese
factory, and then I went to work in a construction area.
I took my apprenticeship at the technical college in 1977 and graduated
in 1980. I got married, and we had
two sons that went to D.C. Everest. They
are 26 and 24 years old. I moved to
Weston in November of 1985. So I have been there ever since, and my political
career actually started with the bricklayers union.
I was elected business manager, which runs all the affairs of the local
union all the way from Adams County to Michigan. I took care of the
apprenticeship program and the health and wealthfare pension programs as well
as referring members, bricklayers, and cement finishers, to
construction jobs. I got into
politics in 1990 when I was asked to run for state senate and was elected. I
took office in 1991. I have been in
the state senate ever since then. I
am in my thirteenth year right now. So,
that was kind of the readerís digest version.
So could you tell us what businesses were in Weston before and how you saw Weston become a more technological and industrial area?
When I came to Weston, Highway 29 actually went down where Schofield
Avenue is right now. The bypass
wasnít in place. All the main
traffic went through that way. Also,
it was a town then; it wasnít a village.
That changed in 1996. I helped quite a bit with the village to get that
into place. I had to go through the state government and through the department
of administration. It was a lot of
retailing. There was some commercial manufacturing, but the expansions have
really taken place since then, such as 29 Super Market being built, along with
Target and all of those types of things. A
lot of the other smaller businesses have sprung up around the area and now, just
recently, with the business park on the eastern side up by the new school.
How many positions did you actually occupy in your whole career?
Do you mean the type of jobs I first got?
Yeah. What kind of committees were you on?
I have served on quite a few committees since I have been down there.
One was the finance committee that takes care of overseas and the
government spending, the labor committee, agricultural committee, economic
development, military and veteranís affairs and corrections. I have been on
corrections for quite a while, so I have been on a number of different
committees, pretty much all of them, except I have never been on the education
or university committees, but on the finance committee we deal with all of the
Would you mind telling us some of the more difficult experiences you had and maybe touch on a failure that you might have had throughout your political career?
I think one of the most difficult issues is trying to control the cost
of health care. There have always
been a number of us in the legislature that want to do it, but there is also an equal amount of people that I think are lacking the courage to take on the
health care industry and to contain the cost.
So I think that has been a little disappointing, that is a failure on
that end of it. On the success side though, we have done some remarkable
things, one is that the state took over two-thirds the cost of education. We
started a dental center in Ladysmith that serves all of northwestern Wisconsin
for kids that canít get access to dentists. We have done some major things in
changing property taxes. We have given two-thirds of funding to schools for
property taxes; we have done a number of great things in a lot of areas.
What issues got you elected as Senator?
Well, the one issue that got me elected was when the lottery money was
going all over the place and I wanted to target it just to the Wisconsin
homeowners and farmers. The other things were that I didnít think that the
working people were getting represented in Madison as well as they should be,
that their issues were not put to the forefront and the cost of health care was
incredible. I just thought that the person who was in before me voted the wrong
way on most of the issues.
You had a couple of issues that got you elected, and now since you have been elected have you found a solution to most of these?
Yeah, I wrote the Constitution, a memo on the lottery that the people
ratified back in 1999. That
targeted all of the lottery money to homeowners and farmers. So, that was a big
win, which steered it from going to out of state. That was one thing. The
other was health care. We have made some improvements. You know we have the
dental clinic in Ladysmith, I talked about that. We also helped open a bridge
community clinic here in Wausau for low-income people to get access to
healthcare. We did Badger Care;
Badger Care is a state program for low income working people that donít have
insurance at work. So we have made
some big gains, but we still canít crack the nut to try and contain costs.
Could you elaborate on one of your success stories other than solving the issues that got you elected?
Well, one of the success stories was putting the 2001 state budget
together. I negotiated probably 85 percent of that over a three-week period with
the republicans down in Madison. So
that contained quite a few initiatives, and we started senior care, which is
prescription drug coverage for people that are over 65 years old. So that was a
major victory, I will give you that one. We also reduced the class sizes through the SAGE program,
which stands for Student Achievement Guaranteed in Education, to reduce class
sizes to 15 students per teacher. That
was a pilot program and then in 2001 we made it state wide. So that was a big
win for us. We also did a major
economics stimulus package using the University of Wisconsin, so I believe we
had some major victories in that area. At
the same time, we were able to reduce some of the income tax rates.
Talking about healthcare again, you have heard about St. Claireís hospital being built, what do you think about that?
Well, I think that any hospital that is built in the state should go
through a review process. Just like
what Weston power plant is going to be built on, and thereís a big elaborate
scrutinization of that to see if it is wanted and needed, and what the cost
impact is going to be. I think that
hospital constructions should run the same review.
Independent agency set up that is not tied in any way to one side that is
for it or against it, but you have to look at it in an analytical way to see if
it is necessary and if there is a need for it.
What are you most proud of in your career?
What am I most proud of in my career? I think the amount of people that
weíre able to help. I think most
people look at us as just passing and making the laws, that is about half of
what we do. The other half that we do is helping people with their individual
problems, whether it would be an unemployment check that is not coming through
to what they need or workmenís comp, and different types of businesses that
went against expansion help. I think those things add up to about half of what
we do and actually the number one thing that we have done is finding dental care
We talked to Sarah Kamke just recently and throughout her interview she gave us so many stories about how she became an alderman, do you have a story that you could tell us about?
In the private sector, I was elected business manager of the Bricknerís
Union for six years before I got elected. So that is how I got my start into
politics. I went right from that into the state senate, so I didnít have the
local experience that many other people have.
What year were you elected into the senate?
How many terms would that be?
I am in my third term. Actually, I am just starting my forth term
Do you think that you would have done anything differently if you would have had a chance to start over?
I think I would have been a little bit sterner in my opposition to the
Milwaukee voucher program where public dollars go into private schools in
Milwaukee. I think there was an opportunity, and I was one of the few people
leading the charge against it. I think I should have held out even longer to try
and keep the funding down because I donít think it is good policy to have
public dollars going to private schools, especially when there is zero
accountability down there. We just
found a school in the Milwaukee voucher program that is being run by a convicted
rapist and that is because there are no background checks and no accountability.
We donít know what those schools are doing.
Some of those schools, I suspect, would be very good because there are
some very good private schools out there, but we have a few clinkers like
Alexís Academy of Excellence. He is the convicted rapist that is running the
Are they going to stop that or did they already?
No, there isnít any way to stop it because the law is so weak.
We have had proposals to do background checks and all of those accounting
measures, and we have always been able to get it through the senate, but the
republicans in the assembly refuse to go along with it.
Do the parents know about it?
I donít know if parents know now or not.
They should if they read the Milwaukee paper. They would be aware of it,
but you know if you come to a public school in Milwaukee that isnít to be the
likely choice as a parent to send your child to Alexís Academy of Excellence
when the roof was leaking and there were virtually no computers and books.
Parents still saw that as an alternative to the public schools, which tells me
that they were not involved in their kidís education.
Even the public schools are now on these Milwaukee voucher schools.
Do you feel that you have made an impact in Wisconsin?
Well, definitely because we did some major improvements on
transportation and budget. Highway 29 is now a four-lane project. All across the
state, Highway 51 is being expanded, all the way north. We are going to have a
six-lane project out here by Lake Wausau and Rib Mountain; it will be our first
six-lane project. We have made some
major impacts. The one that I am
most proud of is reducing class sizes and also opening up the dental center in
Wausau and in Ladysmith.
What drove you to consider public office in the first place?
I think of it as a challenge. A lot of people talk about doing it, but there are very few
that have the courage or the commitment to go out and do it.
You see the TV ads and hear the ads on the radio and see our newspaper
ads, but that is just a small portion of what it takes to get elected.
It is a lot of hard work to go everyday knocking on peoples doors and
saying hi to folks and introducing yourself and then answering the questions
they have, so the opportunity was there, and when the window is there you better
take it because the window doesnít open very often, if that is what you want
What was the community like when you first came to office?
I donít think that Weston has changed that much. It has grown a little
bit. Wausau has been changing quite a bit for the better with the amount of
downtown development. I think the
problem in Wausau is that the school district has a declining student
development, which is putting a financial pinch on it. But, on the flip side, DC
Everest is going up, so they are in pretty good financial health right now.
Weston is now a village, which was incorporated a number of years ago.
Kronenwetter is now a village, which is a major change.
Coalfield is still the same. Wausau is annexing areas.
There has been quite a bit of change, and we have done pretty well. Our
economy is holding up better than most of the state, in most cases better than
the rest of the nation, right in here in central Wisconsin.
What is the most interesting experience that you have had in public office?
I think meeting President Clinton was pretty cool. And Hilary too. You
always see them on TV. And I met Al Gore when he was running for president and
vice president. I got to meet Teddy
Kennedy. So you get to meet quite a
few people that you see on TV. That has a big impact.
I got interested in politics when I was working on Dave Obeyís
campaigns, and I was just a volunteer. A
number of years ago, Brad Zweck used to be a state representative from this area
in the 80ís. So I think that those are the neatest things. We just made
some major changes in education; the Tech system is stronger.
The Technical College is stronger than it has ever been.
Have you ever had any fights or problems with other senators?
We have our major points of disagreement, but I think we have a tendency
only to focus on them. We all have a tendency to overlook things that we agree
with people on. Take, for example,
if there are a hundred guys on a job and two of them are jerks, those are the
two that you have a tendency to remember, and you overlook all the other good
people who show up for work, do what they are told, and are good people. I think
it is the same way in politics. There
are always a few lightning rods, the type of people that get under your skin,
that stick out, but you will find that there is a lot of agreement between the
republicans and the democrats. Ninety-five
percent of them are good honest people, and they are pretty much reflective of
what is in the state, whether they are farmers, teachers, bricklayers, tavern
owners, or lawyers. They come from all walks of life just like what we have in
Weston and Wausau. So I canít
think of too many that I am glad to see go, but there are a few that I would
like to see go. I think that some
of them run for public office just to be in legislature, and there are a number
of us, I would like to include myself, who ran for the legislature to make
Do you have a specific memorable moment?
Meeting the President and Hillary Clinton was pretty memorable.
I had met them on election night in 1990; we had won. I think that was
the coolest of all. In 1994 we were
up for reelection. We were targeted as the number one democratic senator to
knock off in the Ď94 campaign, but the Ď90 election was pretty good because
it went until 2 oíclock in the morning before we knew we had
won. Greg Hubred won, Brad Zweck
had won, Dave obey had won, and Tommy Thompson had won. Everybody knew that was
going to happen early in the evening. So that was the neatest thing. We were
tired, and it was pretty neat. I think that was the biggest one.
Was your family really supportive?
Oh yeah. Our kids were
eleven and thirteen when I ran the first time. My wife was really cool about it; she still is.
The first go-around we had a lot of involvement, and we were outspent two
to one, but we still won.
If someone were considering public office, what advice would you give him or her?
If anyone was considering public office, a lot depends on what they want
to do. But if you want to get into public office, get involved with people.
I think that is one of the best ways to do it.
Get involved in campaigns, and go down to headquarters and meet the
candidates, and go out and do some volunteer work.
The other thing about public office is that you have to have some thick
skin. If you have thin skin, then
some of these things, I have seen these things eat people up because they have
such an anxiety over an issue and I worry about things too, but I have learned
to take your lumps as well as your lumps of sugar, which are victories.
What kind of things that happened in your childhood gave you the character traits to be a politician?
I donít know if anything really happened in my childhood because I
never thought about running for elective office on a state level at all, much
less a town level. Growing up in my
parentís farm, we didnít have a lot of money like most farmers out there,
and I think it is worse now than what it was in the sixties. That kind of set
the foundation that government can be an asset to work with people in small
businesses, but it can also be a hindrance in poor policies that are out there.
So I think that is one of the things that have always gotten me going. I worked
driving a tractor and planting crops and milking cows and bailing hay and all
those things. Everyone else did things that way and that was our way of life.
Then I got my first job out of high school. I was working a minimum wage
a cheese factory. That was an
eye-opener too. Once you get away from your parents, things get tight very
quickly because of financial problems that are there, unless you went onto
school and got a pretty good education, where you can land a solid job. That
was kind of ingrained it into me, and I think it was in the sixties when a major
cultural Revolution, civil rights, the Vietnam War, and womenís rights were
coming up. There was a whole
turmoil, and I think it really rocked the status quo.
The people that came up with Ozzy and Harriet and that type thing, the
Brady Bunch type of situation. It
was totally against that you know. You had so many protests out there, burning
draft cards and that type of stuff, and the African-Americans were fighting for
the right to vote and equal treatment. It
really was something, and the Vietnam War was not supported that strongly back
home. I think that added something to it, so those were interesting times.
Is there anything else you want to tell us before we rap it up?
The only thing I would say is that things have changed even since I ran thirteen years ago, and there are so many different media markets right now with talk radio and cable news networks. I think it is a little harder to focus because when I was growing up we had three TV stations (two in Wausau and one in Eau Claire). So now you have satellite TV, and I think people were more focused back then on fewer issues. Now everything is coming at people from all different angles, and everything that happens in Iraq can be lies, and when Vietnam was going on we saw it the next day at the earliest, maybe two or three days later.