Longtime Madison lawmaker looks to redefine life outside the state Capitol

Terese Berceau will not seek re-election
Longtime Madison lawmaker looks to redefine life outside the state Capitol
Photo by Kaia Calhoun

If you’ve watched a full day of a legislative session in the state Assembly in the last 17 years, you’ve likely heard an earful from Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison. The passionate progressive has used her voice on the floor to advocate for reproductive rights for women, background checks for gun purchases and protections for domestic abuse victims. But because her party was in the minority for 15 of her 17 years in the state Capitol, not many of her priorities became law. After announcing she will not seek re-election, Berceau says she’s looking beyond politics to the future. This is our edited conversation.

Why did you decide not to run for re-election?

I didn’t really think of it much in advance other than to ask friends of mine, who had already retired or moved on from what was their main career throughout their life, how did they know [when to quit]. Everybody said, “Well, you just know.” And it is funny because I did just know. I just woke up and decided I don’t want to do this anymore. I’ve been doing this a long time. We’re not just talking about the Legislature for 17 years. I was on the Dane County Board for almost 10 years. Before that I was on city committees for almost 10 years. So ever since I was in my late 20s I have been officially a part of either local government or state government.

What does it mean to be in public service for that long?

It really became who I am versus a separate part of me. I got involved in a typical way in that I lived downtown and there was something going on in my neighborhood. I wanted to figure out what I could do about it. And that led to the neighborhood association, then eventually appointments to committees in the mayor’s office to running for the county board. And then suddenly it occurred to me that maybe this wasn’t just a hobby.

Over the tenure of your career, what are you most proud of?

When I first got [elected to the Assembly], a woman contacted me who had split up from her husband, a domestic abuser. I was working with her, and suddenly all sorts of domestic violence victims heard about me. I swear we saw 300 of them at least. I started working on a bill that said if there was evidence of domestic violence [in a relationship], judges could not automatically do a 50/50 split [for custody of children]. I would say that particular legislation is the thing that I’m most proud of because I had to work so hard on it.

What would your advice be to women considering public office?

The job is a natural for women because we tend to be nurturers. It is easy for us to step in and fulfill that role on a wider scale. Sometimes it’s “I don’t know where to begin to do this,” [but] you know how to connect people. Many times things will happen in the Legislature or within our Democratic caucus and I will say or [other women in the caucus] will say, “Well, who decided that?” It would often be a small group of men. And it’s not like they excluded us. It’s just they didn’t think of us. And that’s changing somewhat because we are mouthier; we’re getting louder.

What’s next for you?

I think that I want to do nothing for a while, other than the things that I want to do. I want to see what I’m like when [politics] isn’t who I am every day. When I go anywhere now, I am a state representative. Can I get away from politics being who I am and when everything I see has a political bent to it? I just want to see what happens when I’m not part of that. I have been part of it since I was in my late 20s, so I don’t know who that person is yet.

Jessica Arp is assistant news director and chief political reporter for WISC-TV.