La Follette Leaves Question Marks

Doug La Follette left public office in the same way he held it: strangely. 

La Follette resigned last week without warning, after just being reelected to yet another four-year term as Wisconsin’s secretary of state last November. He offered no real explanation and Gov. Tony Evers responded by immediately appointing former State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski to serve out his term. That would indicate that La Follette gave Evers a heads-up that he was leaving. 

La Follette’s only explanation in his resignation letter to Evers was that, “After many years of frustration, I’ve decided I don’t want to spend the next three and a half years trying to run an office without adequate resources and staffing levels. After decades of public service, I must now focus on my personal needs.”

That’s fine, but he couldn’t have decided that before he ran for another four-year term? 

La Follette is 82 and so it’s natural to speculate that his decision was health-related. If so, we certainly wish him the best, but we also have to wonder why he just didn’t come out and say so. He certainly wouldn’t have to share details if he didn’t want to, but he could have simply said that his decision was related to a health issue. 

So, for now, let’s assume that there was some other reason. What could that be?

It’s hard to imagine that he wants to be rid of the burdens of high office, as the secretary of state has virtually no responsibilities. In fact, the office should be abolished. 

And it can’t be that he wants to travel more. Last summer, in the middle of a contested primary race, La Follette took off for a few weeks in Africa. He didn’t seem too concerned about leaving the state and even the country while serving. 

The most plausible explanation is that La Follette never wanted to run again, but Democrats wanted to retain his office because for once it mattered. Republicans were making noises about assigning election oversight duties to the office. Had Republican Any Loudenbeck won, legislative Republicans might have tried to give her that power. (A case currently before the Supreme Court, Moore v. Harper, could give legislatures the power to make these kinds of decisions without the consent of a governor.) And with control of elections in the hands of a 2020 election denier, who knows what might have happened in 2024. 

Doug La Follette

La Follette has won every four years since 1982 when he defeated Vel Phillips in a Democratic primary. He won in good years for Democrats and in elections where his party was routed, almost entirely because his name is La Follette (though it’s a tangential family relationship to Fighting Bob at best — he’s Bob La Follette’s first cousin twice removed).

For her part, after his resignation, Loudenbeck said something ridiculous. Quoted in a Wisconsin State Journal story, Loudenbeck said, “This move coming so soon after the election raises questions once again about the tactics used by those in power who will do anything to keep that power.”

This from the member of a party that has twice used extreme partisan gerrymandering to hold onto their own power. This from a member of a party that stripped Evers and then-newly elected Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul of some of the powers of their offices before they were sworn in 2019. This from a woman who seemed to stand ready to fix an election had she won her own race for secretary of state. One thing about these Republicans, they don’t lack for chutzpah. 

The only thing that does trouble me just a little about this is Evers’ quick appointment of Godlewski. She’s fine and her appointment makes some sense since she also once held a statewide office with no real powers. But it does feel like there should have been some process where there was an opportunity for others to apply. Job description: remain breathing. 

Still, Senate Majority Leader Devin LaMehieu’s charge that Godlewski was promised the appointment in exchange for dropping out of the Democratic U.S. Senate primary last summer doesn’t hold water. Godlewski was in the single digits when she left the Senate race. It didn’t much matter if she stayed in or dropped out, so there was no reason to promise her anything.

But none of this matters a whole lot because the job doesn’t matter much, though it might have if a Republican had beaten La Follette. As it turned out, the greatest contribution of his career may have been to simply win the office one more time and keep it out of the hands of the likes of Amy Loudenbeck. 

A version of this essay originally appeared in Isthmus.

If you vote in Madison please consider Badri Lankella for school board. He’s a sensible alternative to the current board majority.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

One thought on “La Follette Leaves Question Marks

  1. It is a good thing that the Democrats held this office – more evidence that they can win state wide and if they win the State Supreme Court and Appeals Court races, even more. That said, perhaps his best contribution was more evidence that the radical gerrymandering of the legislature should be shifted to a more centrist perspective. Let the conservatives win on their merits rather than block by block gerrymandered districts that in many formerly red communities are swinging centrist even with the gerrymandering.

    He was a kook. He did retain the seat and what Evers chooses to do with it is his decision as he was elected

    We will learn much after the spring election if the Democrats still have momentum.


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