By Tom Still

MADISON – For most people in Wisconsin, the physical symbol of Lee Sherman Dreyfus was his omnipresent red vest. For me, it was “the bullpen” in the governor’s office.

I was a 25-year-old reporter when Dreyfus was sworn into office as governor in January 1979 and already accustomed to public officials who would hide behind process, delay releasing records and dodge legitimate questions with a terse “no comment.”

The bullpen in the governor’s office was a tangible sign that the openness of LSD’s quixotic 1978 campaign would live on. Members of the press and other visitors to the Capitol’s East Wing weren’t greeted by an army of palace guards, but walked into a cubicle-free office in which some of the governor’s closest advisers sat snack in the middle of the room. Want to quiz Bill Kraus on the latest budget debacle? He was right there in plain view. Needed to ask Paul Swain about a policy flap with the Legislature? Walk over to his desk. Need an interview with the governor himself? If he wasn’t there, Kris Deininger (now Andrews), Naomi Bodway or Sue Ann Kaestner would try to track him down.

No, it wasn’t quite a Wisconsin Camelot; the unrelenting harshness of the recession that began in 1979 and gripped the state long after the national recovery was underway meant Dreyfus would forego seeking a second term. But there was time enough for Dreyfus, who died this week at 81, to leave a legacy of enduring lessons.

Open government: Dreyfus was a communicator by trade. A speech and broadcast professor at UW-Madison, he had been general manager of WHA-TV and later chancellor of UW-Stevens Point. With only a single-digit showing in the early polls, Dreyfus literally talked his way to the Executive Residence by speaking directly to citizens and staying on point. “We had a four-year class in how to capture a message,” recalled Kaestner, then the governor’s appointments secretary and now a Madison businesswoman.

Civility in government: The art of political disagreement reached a high form during the Dreyfus years, when Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature but could never bring themselves to dislike the quick-witted Republican who often frustrated them. Campaigning was fun for Dreyfus – and governing was (usually) the same. “We had plenty of adversaries, but few enemies,” said Kraus, a longtime Dreyfus friend and adviser.

Political vision and courage: Because he was eloquent and engaging, people sometimes sold Dreyfus short on either his grasp of the issues or his political toughness. When the Legislature passed one of the first non-discrimination laws to protect gay citizens, Dreyfus signed the bill almost as soon as it hit his desk. “He always said, ‘There are some questions government shouldn’t ask,’ ” Kraus said. When some advisers wanted him to oppose opening a School of Veterinary Medicine at the UW-Madison, Dreyfus correctly forecast it wasn’t about producing more pet doctors; it was about advancing basic research and development. If not for the work pioneered at the vet school, Wisconsin would not be the world leader in stem-cell research it is today. The same was true with tax rebates, computerizing state government, guarding natural resources such as the Great Lakes and promoting education. “Ninety-nine percent of people might look at an issue one way, but (Dreyfus) would often be that 1 percent arguing on the other side. And he usually right,” said Andrews, now a UW System administrator.

Keeping big-money politics at bay: As Kraus noted in his book, “Let the People Decide,” Dreyfus started his bid for governor with $39,000 in the bank and running against the endorsed party candidate. He raised only $100,000 in winning the 1978 primary and about $425,000 more in winning the general – and didn’t spend a dime of it on television ads. Much of LSD’s campaign treasury was raised via donations of $10 or less. “It was the last of an era, but I think you can still run a campaign like that,” Kraus said.

The Camelot in me hopes Kraus is right. But it helps when you start with candidates such as Lee Sherman Dreyfus, a great communicator who insisted that good ideas could trump bad politics.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.