Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

How La Follette Helped Save Democracy

But his sudden retirement as Secretary of State has been blasted by Republicans.

By - Mar 20th, 2023 03:23 pm
Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette addressing the DPW convention (CC BY 2.0)

Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette addressing the DPW convention (CC BY 2.0)

Longtime Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette, who retired last week, didn’t exactly hide the fact that he probably never intended to serve a full term if reelected in November 2022. “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,” he announced.

Actually it’s more like three and three-quarters years left in his term and given that La Follette had served for 44 years no one knew better than he that the office had long been lacking in resources and duties, as the Legislature, going back decades, had stripped the office of funding and staff.

The reality is that La Follette never intended to serve a full term. The veteran Democrat admitted he initially planned to retire but decided to run after Republican lawmakers and candidates for governor began supporting proposals to overhaul how elections are run in Wisconsin, with some suggesting the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) be replaced by the partisan office of Secretary of State.

And so his resignation, coupled with Gov. Tony Evers’ announcement that he would appoint former state treasurer and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Sarah Godlewski to replace La Follette and serve the remainder of his term, generated heated criticism from Republicans.

Former Republican Assembly representative Amy Loudenbeck, who lost to La Follette, by 7,442 votes, or about 0.29 of a percentage point, accused Evers of conspiring with La Follete and Godlewski. “The 1.26 million people who voted for me… should be outraged at the news that Secretary of State Doug La Follette has stepped down just three months after being sworn-in,” she told reporter Molly Beck.

“This suggests a pre-meditated action to award the power of incumbency to a partisan ally, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu declared. “It is an insult to voters of Wisconsin and our democratic process.”

Britt Cudaback, spokesperson for Gov. Evers, flatly denied any such collusion. “Their accusations are false and baseless,” he told Urban Milwaukee.

La Follette’s fears that Loudenbeck and Republicans sought to grab power over elections administration were certainly justified. When she first announced her run for the state office, Loudenbeck said this on her campaign website, as the AP reported: “A majority of states in the US have Secretaries of State who administer elections… Wisconsin should look at ways to utilize this constitutional office that is directly accountable to the voters of Wisconsin to ensure election integrity at all levels.”

Her statement, moreover, came at a time when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos had called for WEC administrator Meagan Wolfe to resign and LeMahieu heaped criticism on her as well.

Vos also hired former Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman to lead a probe of the 2020 election that recommended decertifying the 2020 election and disbanding the WEC.

All this came at a time when Republicans across the country were trying to seize control of how elections were run. Meanwhile, the Republican candidate for governor in Wisconsin, Tim Michelsdeclared that he would consider overturning the 2020 election results and called for disbanding the WEC.

It’s worth noting that the Republicans created the elections commission, which has three Republican and three Democratic appointees. “It was Republicans only who voted to dismantle the much more effective and non-partisan Government Accountability Board in 2015 and replace it with the WEC, which the same Republicans now seem to despise and attack so much,” notes Jay Heck, executive director of the pro-democracy group Wisconsin Common Cause. “They apparently won’t be satisfied until they have decisive partisan control of election administration in Wisconsin.”

In the nearly five months since the election, it is easy to forget how perilously close we came to that scenario. Michels was running a close race with Evers, and the prospect of a Republican governor and Legislature disbanding the elections commission and replacing it with a partisan operative seemed very real.

Had Loudenbeck been running against someone other than La Follette, an incumbent with strong name recognition, she might have won. Indeed, in the race for State Treasurer, where there was no incumbent, Republican John Leiber won a squeaker election over Democrat Aaron Richardson.

“I’m not crazy about people resigning shortly after reelection,” says Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “But La Follette is hardly the first person to do so. Former State Rep. John Nygren did so less than a month after he won reelection, for instance.”

“And La Follette may have felt a strong obligation to foil any effort by Republicans, had they won the governor’s race or gotten a veto-proof majority, to destroy the Wisconsin Elections Commission and put a partisan in control of our elections, which was a clear danger to our democracy.”

For that effort to help safeguard Wisconsin we owe Doug La Follette a vote of thanks.

Update 12:45 p.m. March 21: Elections Commission board member Ann Jacobs, one of its three Democratic appointees, emailed Urban Milwaukee to note that La Follette’s additional and “most important contribution to democracy was applying the great seal to the governor’s certificate of ascertainment in 2020 so that Wisconsin’s electoral votes would be counted.”

“I am not confident a Republican secretary of state would have done the same,” she added.

4 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: How La Follette Helped Save Democracy”

  1. Jeff Konkel says:

    I agree. Thank your Mr. La Follette!

  2. gwpinetree says:

    Mr. LeMahieu, if we’re going to discuss “an insult to voters of Wisconsin and our democratic process” let’s start with extreme partisan gerrymandering by the state GOP.

    We could then go on to legislation being written by the out-of-state group American Legislating Exchange Council (ALEC).

    Until then, don’t pretend to be interested in democracy in Wisconsin.

  3. frank a schneiger says:

    Sometimes a little, even a silly, event gives us a window into something much bigger. An example is the fake David Koch phone call to the newly installed Scott Walker more than a decade ago. That call was a sign of what Wisconsin, maybe alone among the states, was becoming. And what it would have undeniably become if Tim Michels had become governor, giving Republicans control of all branches of state government and its Congressional delegation. Walker was, and Michels would have been, a tool of a small group of the wealthiest people. And Wisconsin would have become – and is still becoming – a plutocracy, a state and its government controlled exclusively by the wealthiest people.

    This small group is well-known, Hendricks, Menard, Uihleins, along with the network of powerful and heavily funded far-right entities like the Bradley Foundation and its affiliates and grantees. These individuals and groups have deep roots in Milwaukee’s and Wisconsin’s industrial past, including, for example ,Walter Harnischfeger, who believed that the Nuremburg war crimes trials were worse than Auschwitz.

    If they succeed in creating a Wisconsin plutocracy, existing trends will simply become irreversible, most notably: no taxation of the rich and corporations; no oversight or regulation of business, including environmental protections; hostility to public services for the non-wealthy, especially in Milwaukee; and conversion of the university system into a corporate training center. All done with shiny-object diversions based on racial animus and policies that won’t make anyone’s life better, but will certainly make the lives of “the others” worse. Plutocracy.

  4. mkwagner says:

    Republicans are crying alligator tears because Democrats used the Republican strategy book against them. Do not go crying to the people of Wisconsin after all the shenanigans Republicans have pulled since Evers was elected governor.

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