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Lee Sherman Dreyfus, 1926 - 2008

Wisconsin governor signed first statewide gay rights law

January 04, 2008|From the Associated Press

Former Wisconsin Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, who signed the nation's first statewide gay rights law in 1982, has died. He was 81.

Dreyfus died Wednesday at his home in Waukesha, Wis., while watching television, his son Lee S. Dreyfus Jr. said Thursday. He had suffered from heart and breathing problems, according to a family spokesman.

A Republican, Dreyfus was a speech and communications professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and chancellor at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point before resigning to run for governor. He was elected in 1978, defeating acting Gov. Martin Schreiber in the general election.

But Dreyfus surprised party leaders by deciding not to seek a second term four years later, saying that he wanted to return to private life.

During his term, he earned respect for his businesslike approach to politics -- and for his gifts as a communicator. He famously coined the phrase about Wisconsin's liberal capital: "Madison is 30 square miles surrounded by reality."

"He wasn't interested in the political maneuvering," said Tom Loftus, who was the Democratic majority leader in the Assembly during Dreyfus' term. "He would propose something, and whatever the Legislature came up with, he would work with that."

Dreyfus said the Legislature controlled by the rival party "forces you to think in terms of compromise. You don't have an option. Your only power is to stop things with the veto."

The gay rights measure signed in 1982 made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment and public accommodations.

A state representative from Madison had persuaded the Legislature to approve his bill. But Steve Starkey, a local gay rights activist, said Thursday that nobody was sure whether Dreyfus would sign the bill until the end.

He did, though, saying: "It is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party that government ought not intrude in the private lives of individuals where no state purpose is served, and there is nothing more private or intimate than who you live with and who you love."

Dreyfus was born in Milwaukee in 1926 and earned his undergraduate, master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He served in the Navy during World War II.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Joyce; his daughter, Susan Fosdick; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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