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Lee S. Dreyfus : biography

June 20, 1926 - January 2, 2008

Lee Sherman Dreyfus (pronounced DRAY-fuss) (June 20, 1926 – January 2, 2008) was an American politician and member of the Republican Party who served as the 40th Governor of Wisconsin from January 4, 1979 to January 3, 1983.

Prior to his election, he was the Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point.After his term as Governor, Dreyfus also served as a member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.


Academic career

Dreyfus went on to Wayne State University in Detroit, where he became general manager of the radio station and helped develop Wayne State's mass communications department. In 1962, he returned to Madison as manager of WHA-TV, and a professor of speech and broadcasting.

In 1967, Dreyfus became the president of what was known as Wisconsin State University-Stevens Point. In 1972, he became chancellor of the university, which was merged into the University of Wisconsin system and renamed University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. Dreyfus made a point of being accessible to students, often stopping at local bars to chat with them. It was during that era that he adopted the trademark red vest as university chancellor in order to be recognizable and accessible to students on campus.

He was not always popular with students, particularly during the Vietnam War. Many students viewed the existence of an ROTC unit on campus as an endorsement of the U.S. military action. But Dreyfus argued that ROTC should be viewed as the presence of the university in the military instead of the presence of the military in the university.

Political career

Dreyfus was not a member of either major party until December 1977, when he joined the Republican Party as a first step in what would become his candidacy for the governorship in 1978. He regarded this as a rescue mission, because he felt the Republicans were on the verge of becoming a permanent minority party in what had once been a predominantly Republican state.

The following year, he launched an unconventional, populist campaign for governor, and traveled the state in a painted school bus (affectionately dubbed "The Red Vest Whistle Stop Special"). Dreyfus caught the attention of the Wisconsin media and began connecting with voters throughout the state. The state GOP didn't want Dreyfus to win the nomination, and it endorsed then-U.S. Rep. Bob Kasten in the primary. Party backing came with financial support that usually sealed the nomination, but Dreyfus was undeterred.

An effective public speaker during the campaign, Dreyfus's most memorable quip was that states should be sovereign in most areas of law-making and that the federal government's role should be limited to only three things: "defending our shores, delivering our mail and staying the hell out of our lives." Another memorable line was: "Madison, Wisconsin is 30 square miles surrounded by reality."

With only $100,000 to spend in the primary contest, Dreyfus criss-crossed the state in his unreliable red school bus, which featured a student band, gaining free media attention to make up for the TV ads he couldn't afford to buy. Dreyfus continued to wear his trademark red vest during the campaign. This campaign was later chronicled in a book Let The People Decide written by William Kraus, who was the chairman of this campaign where, as he said, "We did everything wrong, and everything worked."

Dreyfus beat Kasten in the September GOP primary, and went on to defeat then-incumbent Acting Governor Martin Schreiber, a Democrat, with about 55 percent of the vote. He became the state's 40th governor.

Accomplishments in office

Dreyfus' style was often referred to as "Republicrat". Fiscally, Dreyfus was conservative and focused on the benefits of tax cuts and reduced size of government (echoing the Reagan conservative movement at the time). He capitalized on voters' dissatisfaction with the state's higher-than-average income tax rates, as well as general unhappiness with high inflation, high interest rates, and increasing unemployment during the Carter administration. However, Dreyfus was a social moderate who, in 1982, signed the nation's first civil rights legislation barring discrimination against gays and lesbians in jobs and housing. Dreyfus signed the gay-rights bill, saying "there are some questions the government has no business asking."

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