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Death penalty advocate to retire from Wisconsin Senate (UPDATE)

By RYAN J. FOLEY
Associated Press Writer

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Sen. Alan Lasee, a cowboy-hat wearing Republican who unsuccessfully fought to bring back capital punishment in Wisconsin, said Monday he was retiring after 36 years in the Wisconsin Legislature.

Lasee, 72, of De Pere, said he decided to retire rather than run for re-election this fall after “a great deal of thought and consideration.”

“It’s a difficult decision, but it’s time,” said Lasee, whose district covers the area south and east of Green Bay and all of Door County. “The fire is gone.”

Lawmakers from both parties said they were not surprised by Lasee’s decision but added his retirement would be a loss for the Senate.

A farmer who raises exotic animals such as camels, miniature donkeys and fainting goats, Lasee was long one of the most colorful lawmakers in Madison. He was quick with zingers for political opponents, calling Democrats “gutless wonders” and Department of Natural Resources bureaucrats “idiots” in a typical interview Monday.

Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, said lawmakers would miss Lasee’s honesty, common sense, and the ever-present black “Clint Eastwood hat” on his head.

“If there was ever a non-politician, it was Alan Lasee,” Ellis said. “He was truly a citizen senator.”

“He’s a good man and did a commendable job as a state senator,” added Senate President Fred Risser, a Madison Democrat. “We had different political philosophies but we grew up in an era when it was less partisan. I found it easy to work with Al.”

The decision gives Democrats, who are hoping to keep their majority in the Senate, a chance to pick up a seat. They are backing Kimberly doctor Montgomery “Monk” Elmer in the race against former Rep. Dave Hutchison, who announced Monday he would run as a Republican. Other candidates might also enter the race.

Lasee was elected to the Assembly in 1974 and joined the Senate three years later after winning a special election. His colleagues made him president of the Senate from 2003 to 2007, which he called the highlight of his career.

Lasee is best known for his decades-long push to bring back the death penalty in Wisconsin, which banned the practice in the 1850s. In 2006, he pushed through the Legislature a referendum asking voters whether lawmakers should restore the death penalty for killers convicted with the help of DNA evidence.

A majority of Wisconsin voters agreed, but the referendum was advisory only. Democrats who took control of the Senate in that election have since blocked Lasee’s attempts to bring the measure up for debate — a tactic that has prompted Lasee to call them “lily-livered” and worse.

Lasee said he was disappointed he wasn’t able to change the law, but vindicated by the public’s support in the referendum. Critics have said the referendum was a waste of time, and the death penalty should be banned because of the potential for wrongful executions.

The second-longest serving senator behind Risser, Lasee said he hopes to ban drivers from sending text messages before he leaves office next year. His bill passed the Senate and is pending in the Assembly.

Lasee also was known as an advocate for farmers and transportation spending in his district, and he said he was proud of helping expand Highway 57 and build a new bridge in Sturgeon Bay. He said he saw helping constituents navigate the state bureaucracy as more important than passing laws.

John Alberts of Brussels recalled Lasee helping him in the 1980s when the Department of Transportation wanted to force him to pay to take out his driveway. Lasee found a compromise, and later helped Alberts during a similar dispute when he was building a new shop for his business, Alberts Plastering.

“He said, ‘I’ll make one call and you’ll never hear from them again’ and frankly, I didn’t,” Alberts said. “He made some headaches go away that the average person would have had a hard time doing without hiring an attorney.”

Lasee could be a fierce critic of the DNR when he believed the agency interfered with private property rights. In 2006, he prodded the Legislature to pass a bill that would have allowed a constituent to build a storage shed on environmentally sensitive land after the DNR objected.

Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed the measure, but Lasee declared victory when the Department of Justice declined to prosecute the man for not having the appropriate DNR permits. “Thank goodness common sense has prevailed,” he said.

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