Doug La Follette, Wisconsin’s longtime secretary of state who has held the job for more than 44 years, announced Friday he is retiring just months into his latest term. Former Wisconsin Treasurer Sarah Godlewski has been appointed by Gov. Tony Evers to replace him.
La Follette, 82, was first elected in 1974, left for four years following a failed bid for lieutenant governor in 1978, then won again in 1982. He’s held the office ever since.
La Follette ran for reelection last year because he said it was important to keep his office in Democratic hands at a time when Republicans around the country were giving secretaries of state more power to run elections. He defeated Republican challenger Amy Loudenbeck by the narrowest of margins — just 7,442 votes out of more than 2.6 million votes cast.
Stay informed on the latest news
Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.
Godlewski, 41, won her first race for treasurer in 2018. She ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate last year, dropping out of the race shortly before the August primary.
La Follette saw firsthand as the office of secretary of state lost duties over the years. During an interview last summer, he said he started with about 48 employees in the 1970s, handling a variety of documents for businesses, like trademarks and uniform commercial codes.
Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker made further cuts, and today the secretary of state has just one employee, focusing mainly on authentication documents called apostilles.
La Follette alluded to the years of cutbacks in an undated letter to the governor released by Evers’ office Friday.
“It is with a heavy heart that I submit my resignation as Secretary of State of Wisconsin, effective March 17, 2023,” La Follette wrote. “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.”
Evers thanked La Follette in a written statement and said there was no on more uniquely qualified or better suited to take over the job than Godlewski.
“The people of Wisconsin placed their trust and faith in Sarah’s experience and values to serve as our state treasurer, and she’ll bring those same qualities to her new role as Wisconsin’s Secretary of State,” Evers said.
Godlewski, whose star was rising in Democratic politics before her loss in last year’s U.S. Senate primary, said she was humbled by the appointment.
“To become just the third woman in our state’s history to hold this office is the honor of a lifetime,” Godlewski said. “I know how important this role is and my responsibilities are, and I’m looking forward to getting to work.”
Like the secretary of state’s office, the treasurer’s office has had its responsibilities stripped away over the years. Both offices are now located in the state Capitol’s basement.
But both political parties still covet the office. Just as La Follette ran to keep it in Democratic hands, Republicans regularly fielded candidates to try to defeat him. Loudenbeck came the closest.
In a written statement issued after La Follette’s announcement, Loudenbeck said the 1.26 million people who voted for her should be “outraged.”
“In fact, the people who voted for LaFollette thinking he would fulfill his promised obligation should also be upset that the new Secretary of State has been appointed by Governor Evers and not chosen by the voters unless that was the idea all along,” Loudenbeck said. “By law, a Governor can fill a cabinet position that becomes vacant but 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.”
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, went a step further, issuing a statement telling Evers to call a special election for the secretary of state, an option he said state law allows. He said unilaterally filling the position subverted the democratic process.
“This suggests a pre-meditated action to award the power of incumbency to a partisan ally,” LeMahieu said. “It is an insult to voters of Wisconsin and our democratic process.”
According to the governor’s office, Godlewski will officially begin as Wisconsin’s new secretary of state on Saturday.
The abrupt resignation of La Follette follows a lengthy political career that began even for he was elected secretary of state.
La Follette ran for Congress in 1970, coming up just 20 votes short to Les Aspin in a Democratic primary for Wisconsin’s First Congressional District. Aspin won the general election in a landslide and went on to serve 22 years in Congress, eventually leaving to become former President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary.
La Follette was elected to the state Senate in 1972 before winning his first campaign for secretary of state in 1974. He left to make an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 1978.
During La Follette’s absence, Democrat Vel Phillips, the first African American woman to win statewide office in Wisconsin, was elected secretary of state. Four years later, La Follette defeated Phillips in a Democratic primary, winning back the office of secretary of state for decades to come.
While the later years of his tenure were low-key, La Follette made national news in 2011 when he used the power of his office to temporarily block former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s landmark collective bargaining legislation from becoming law. A year later, La Follette ran for governor, coming in fourth in a Democratic primary ahead of Walker’s successful recall election.
Trustworthy news, world-class music and Wisconsin stories … made possible by people like you.
Wisconsin Public Radio, © Copyright 2024, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.