The death of Lee Dreyfus provides a chance to look back on a much simpler--and more innocent--time in Wisconsin politics.
Dreyfus was a true underdog when he ran for office in 1978. He had absolutely no political experience before making his run. He was just the chancellor at UW Stevens Point. He didn't raise a lot of money for his campaign--worrying that it would make him beholden to someone other than the voters. He toured the state in a dilapitated old school bus painted his signature red. His campaign fundraising theme was "keep gas in the bus". He also had an impromptu high school band accompany him on many of his stops.
Dreyfus was not the choice of the Republican party leaders. He didn't march to the party beat--he didn't "pay his dues" by serving in the Legislature and building favors from others in the party. He didn't want to raise big money for the party--didn't even want to run TV ads. Yet somehow he won the primary and eventually the general election over Patrick Lucey.
So how did Dreyfus win? Simple--he connected with the people. Lee had a very populist platform--and he made people feel good about themselves. If you think back to the late 70's, things flat out stunk. Inflation, gas lines, the hangover from Vietnam, layoffs, disco--there was a lot dragging us down. But Lee had a positive message about life in Wisconsin and how things could turn around. Oh yeah, he wsa going to cut taxes as well. In a way, it was a small scale precursor to the same success Ronald Reagan would have running for President in 1980. Less taxes, more good feelings about ourselves.
While most will remember Dreyfus for the red vest and returning the surplus to the taxpayers--and eventually putting the state in a hole--which keeps getting bigger to this day--I'll also remember him for the greatest summary of Wisconsin politics anyone has ever coined. "Madison is 30 square miles surrounded by reality".