When former Gov. Scott Walker’s vengeful assault on Wisconsin workers and their unions seemed to be unstoppable in March of 2011, Secretary of State Doug La Follette pulled the brakes.
An old-school Wisconsin progressive, La Follette had served for decades in what was arguably the most obscure statewide constitutional office. But La Follette, who resigned last week after serving as Wisconsin’s secretary of state for more than four decades, had the power to slow down the implementation of Walker’s scheme. He delayed publication of the legislation during a period of intense legal and political wrangling, and in so doing gave unions and local governments time to regroup.
It was a brief intervention that today is treated as a footnote to the broader story of the Walker’s headline-grabbing attack on unions. But it offers an insight into La Follette, who from the early 1970s into the 2020s served as the steadiest progressive in Wisconsin politics — and at several critical stages was the only Democrat in a position to disrupt the plots of Republican governors and legislators.
When he decided to step down as secretary of state, La Follette was the longest-serving statewide elected official in the United States. He first won the post in 1974, the year that Richard Nixon quit the presidency rather than be impeached for his role in the Watergate scandal. He leaves at a point when the political landscape has been dramatically transformed by the extreme rightward shift of the Republican Party and the caution of his own Democratic Party.
La Follette never approved of that caution, and never bent to it.
A distant cousin of Robert M. La Follette — the former Wisconsin governor and senator who forged the progressive movement that redefined the state’s politics more than a century ago — Doug La Follette kept the faith of the elder La Follette, and of progressive governors and senators such as Phil La Follette, John Blaine, William Proxmire and Gaylord Nelson. He objected to the influence of billionaire campaign donors in politics and ran his campaigns with little or no money. He helped organize the first Earth Day and started talking about the climate crisis when few members of either major party recognized the threat. He championed civil rights and civil liberties from the 1960s to the 2020s. He decried agribusiness monopolies and defended family farmers. And he believed that America needed strong unions — not just to protect the interests of workers but to provide a counterbalance to corporate power.
It was that commitment to the rights of workers — and a belief that those rights must not be casually disregarded by self-serving politicians — that came into focus during the most dramatic period of La Follette’s 44 years as Wisconsin’s secretary of state.
The fight came in March of 2011, after Walker and Republican legislative leaders had rushed their anti-labor Act 10 bill through the state Senate without respect for open meeting laws. That had led to legal challenges that would see implementation of the law halted by Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi — and then renewed by order of the Republican-aligned majority on the state Supreme Court.
During the initial stage of the legal maneuvering, La Follette asserted himself. As a champion of the system of checks and balances that has served Wisconsin well since 1848, La Follette said, “I thought there were too many unanswered questions. I noted confusion and I worried about all the legal challenges and the concerns about possible violations of open meetings rules.”
Most of all, La Follette worried about the thousands of local officials — school board members, city councilors, village trustees, town board members — who suddenly found themselves in the middle of debates about whether to quickly renew or alter existing collective bargaining agreements. As someone who had worked closely with those local officials, many of whom serve part time, La Follette decided it was wise to give them time to resolve outstanding negotiations. So under the powers granted him as the elected secretary of state, he delayed publication of the new law for 10 days.
That thrust La Follette into the maelstrom. He was hailed by Democratic legislators, union members and local officials. He was condemned by Walker, right-wing talk radio hosts and bloggers.
The veteran secretary of state calmly persevered.
“I was elected by the people of Wisconsin and given a responsibility to make determinations about how quickly laws should be published," he said. "That doesn’t mean I can prevent a bill from becoming law, but I can give the citizens of Wisconsin and their elected representatives a few days to address some of the confusion that has arisen. This is a difficult moment for our state, and it just seems that we should give local officials time to sort these issues out. That respects them and respects the system we’ve established in this state. So despite the criticism I’ve taken, I sleep comfortably at night.”
Doug La Follette brought a measure of sanity to an unsettled and unsettling moment in Wisconsin history. He did so because he really was a throwback to another era: an era when state officials believed that their election bound them in a “public trust” to defend the constitution of the state and to serve its citizens.
That put him at odds with the wealthy, the powerful and the politically connected. But, as a true Wisconsin progressive, it was a position he proudly occupied.