Longtime Wisconsin lawmaker Olsen announces retirement

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Longtime Republican state lawmaker Luther Olsen, one of a shrinking number of moderates in the Republican majority who survived a 2011 recall attempt and served as head of the Senate’s Education Committee, announced Monday that he will not seek re-election.

Olsen, who turns 69 on Wednesday, will step down after serving 16 years in the Senate representing a south-central Wisconsin district that includes all or portions of nine counties, from Dane in the south to Waupaca in the north.

Moments after he announced his decision, Republican Rep. Joan Ballweg, of Markesan, said that she would run to replace him. She has been in the state Assembly since 2005, the same year Olsen joined the Senate after serving 10 years in the Assembly. There are two other Republican Assembly members in Olsen’s Senate district — Kevin Peterson, of Waupaca, and Jon Plumer, of Lodi.

President Donald Trump carried Olsen’s state Senate district with more than 58% of the vote in 2016.

“There’s a season for everything,” Olsen said in an interview explaining his decision to step down. “I’m realizing you just get to a time in life where there’s things I want to do and who knows how long you’re going to have to do it.”

Republicans hold a 19-14 majority in the Senate. Olsen is the first Republican to announce his retirement, joining Democrats Mark Miller, of Monona, and Dave Hansen, of Green Bay, who previously said they would not seek another term.

Democratic Sen. Chris Larson is running for Milwaukee County executive and Sen. Lena Taylor is running for Milwaukee mayor in the April 7 election. State law would require Larson to step down if elected and Taylor would almost certainly have to step aside if she defeats incumbent Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Two other Republicans, Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Tiffany, are running for Congress in heavily Republican districts and will not return if they win as expected.

That means at least three senators, and maybe as many as seven, will not be returning next year.

Olsen was an advocate for public schools during his time in the Legislature, including pushing for more funding while being less enthusiastic for the taxpayer-funded private school voucher program. Olsen argued it should be focused on students in poverty and was critical of expanding it.

“One of the biggest roadblocks to school reform and accountability in the legislature is finally gone,” tweeted Republican Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, of New Berlin.

Olsen voted in 2011 for the anti-union law known as Act 10, which all but eliminated collective bargaining for teachers and other public employees. Democrats targeted him for a recall vote in 2011, which he won with just over 52% of the vote. Olsen won re-election in his conservative district two times since then with more than 57% of the vote each time.

Olsen, of Ripon, has served both as a member of the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee and chairman of the Education Committee. He oversaw implementation of the state’s first school report card and was lead sponsor on the law creating the graduated driver’s license, which changed the way teenagers get their driver’s license.

In 2014, Olsen blocked a bill that could have led to the repeal of the Common Core academic standards. Republicans in the 6th Congressional District where Olsen lives drafted a no-confidence resolution against him at the state party convention that summer over that issue.

Fitzgerald praised Olsen as a “fighter.”

“He played an important role in our conservative reforms during the last decade,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

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This story has been corrected to show that Olsen turns 69 on Wednesday, not 70.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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