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Former Wis. governor Dreyfus dead at 81

Email|Print| Text size + By Scott Bauer
Associated Press Writer / January 3, 2008

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

Dreyfus, who was governor from 1979 to 1983, died Wednesday at his Waukesha home, his son Lee S. Dreyfus Jr. said Thursday. He had suffered from heart and breathing problems.

Dreyfus was chancellor at UW-Stevens Point before running for governor in 1978. A Republican, he upset Rep. Bob Kasten in the primary and defeated acting Gov. Martin Schreiber in the general election.

But he surprised party leaders by deciding not to seek a second term four years later, saying 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 himself 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."

He may also be remembered for his tax cuts, which he instituted in response to a more than $3 billion budget surplus, said Ken Lindner, who was Dreyfus' Department of Administration secretary.

The cuts included a two-month state tax moratorium in 1979. But he was criticized for the move after a recession hit in the early 1980s, forcing him to cut the next budget by 4.4 percent.

Dreyfus was born in Milwaukee and served in the Navy during World War II. He earned his undergraduate, master's and doctoral degrees at UW-Madison and taught speech and mass communications there and at Wayne State University.

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

(This version corrects that Dreyfus left office in 1983, not 1982.)

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