Among Wisconsin's statewide constitutional officers, Secretary of State Doug La Follette is not merely the dean. He is the living link to the politics of another time, when Wisconsin officials were proud of their independence and respectful of their duty to serve the public interest rather than predictable partisan demands.
First elected secretary of state in 1974, after narrowly losing a 1970 Democratic congressional primary to Les Aspin and then serving two years in the state Senate, La Follette has since been re-elected eight times.
Even in the most Republican of years, when his fellow Democrats have been defeated, La Follette has kept the majority of voters with him. For instance, since the Republican wave year of 2010, La Follette has been the only Democrat occupying a statewide constitutional post. As La Follette joked after Republicans swept every other state contest that year, "I surfed the wave."
La Follette's surfing skills have something to do with the fact that he has always been an exceptionally independent Democrat. An old-school progressive — he's a distant cousin of former Sen. Robert M. La Follette, former Gov. Phil La Follette, former Sen. Robert M. La Follette Jr. and former Attorney General Bronson La Follette — he benefits from not just a familiar name but from a familiar set of ideals in a state that still values the Wisconsin Idea of the original La Follettes.
Yet there is more than nostalgia to Doug La Follette's appeal. He maintains a very up-to-date interest in environmental protection and land use issues, as a former chemistry professor who worked with Sen. Gaylord Nelson to promote the first Earth Day rallies and as a longtime member of the state Board of Commissioners of Public Lands — most recently as its chairman.
La Follette's also an ardent defender of the separation of powers and the decentralization of authority. And he regularly puts principle ahead of partisanship, criticizing and even opposing Democrats who abandon ideals. He bluntly objects to the compromises that he says led him to worry that his party has "lost its soul" in an era of big-money politics.
On paper, all of this should make La Follette a good bet for re-election this year. But he's vulnerable. There are three reasons for this:
* Wisconsin's ticket-splitting tradition is in peril. La Follette was the only statewide candidate to survive the “wave” election, and since then the state has only grown more rigidly divided along partisan and ideological lines. If Democrats do well this year, La Follette will probably lead the ticket; but if they do poorly, La Follette could have a harder time surfing the wave than in the past.
* La Follette refuses to raise the kind of money that is now spent even on low-profile statewide races, so he is uniquely vulnerable to attack ads and negative campaigning. And media disinterest in down-ballot races offers little hope for corrections and clarifications.
* La Follette has made some powerful enemies over the past four years. In particular, he angered Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislative leaders during the Act 10 debate in 2011.
As Walker's legislative minions were rushing to implement an ill-conceived law designed to radically restructure state government while stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights, La Follette slowed them down. 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 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 has worked closely with those local officials — many of whom serve part time — La Follette decided it was wise to give them time to adjust to the new law. 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. 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,” he said. “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 is 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.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising