A Workhorse in Congress

Painting of Frank James Sensenbrenner, Jr. with gavel beside spotted dog on farmland
Frank James Sensenbrenner, Jr., oil on canvas, by George Pollard and Jim Pollard, 1998, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

At the time of his retirement, Jim Sensenbrenner ’68 was the most senior member of the Wisconsin delegation and the second most senior member in the House.

Sensenbrenner grew up in the Milwaukee suburbs. He completed an undergraduate degree in political science at Stanford University. Afterward, he didn’t apply to many law schools because he knew he “wanted to go back to Wisconsin” and try his luck at electoral politics. He was accepted by both University of Wisconsin Law School and Marquette Law School, ultimately choosing the former.

“I chose Madison largely because it had more of a statewide national reputation than Marquette,” he said, laughing that an additional appeal was that he wouldn’t “have to live at home.”

At UW Law, Sensenbrenner was active in the Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity and attended several College Republican conventions. Most of his time, however, was spent working with Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Jerris Leonard, who served eight years in the Senate and four years in the Assembly, representing northern Milwaukee County from 1957 to 1969.

“I learned about how legislation worked and how to be an effective legislator by making the rules work for you and thinking outside the box,” he said. “That worked out very well in helping me turn legislation I co-sponsored into law.”

The summer Sensenbrenner graduated from Law School, a seat opened up in the Wisconsin State Assembly.

“I spent that summer going door to door campaigning,” he recalled.

Sensenbrenner won the primary “fairly comfortably,” he said, adding he was named “the only freshman committee chairman.” He served in the State Assembly until 1975 and then the State Senate through early 1979.

When Congressman Bob Kasten vacated his seat to run for governor in 1978, Sensenbrenner ran to succeed him in what was then the 9th District, which covered most of Milwaukee’s northern and western suburbs. He defeated Democratic lawyer Matt Flynn ’75 in November 1978 and was reelected 20 more times with no substantive opposition. On Sept. 4, 2019, he announced that he would retire from representing what became the 5th Congressional District in 2003; he was succeeded by Scott Fitzgerald in January 2021.

“Law School taught me to listen to the arguments of the other side. It made me more effective at promoting and arguing my own position.”

Sensenbrenner cited several career highlights, but most notably “passing legislation that made meaningful changes.”

“I worked very, very hard to make valuable changes for my constituents,” he said.

Sensenbrenner noted the USA PATRIOT Act (2001), Voting Rights Act (2006) and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (2006) being those he’s most proud of.

Sensenbrenner attributes some of his success in Congress to his UW Law School education, which he said taught him something that’s “lacking in today’s political discourse.”

“Law School taught me to listen to the arguments of the other side,” he said. “It made me more effective at promoting and arguing my own position.”

Sensenbrenner’s achievements are on display at Alumni Park on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. The park boasts more than 50 museum-quality outdoor exhibits. More than 120 university alumni are honored and celebrated there, representing the breadth and diversity of their achievement and positive influence on Wisconsin, the nation and the world.

“I was highly honored to be included in the Alumni Park display,” he said. “I believe that, in Congress, there are workhorses and show horses. I decided not to be a show horse, but to be a workhorse, which was following the advice I’d gotten from President Ford. That was probably the best advice I got in over 50 years in federal politics.”

By Kassandra Tuten