There were more than a few gasps in March when Secretary of State Doug La Follette announced his run at the Democratic nomination for governor.

The reaction was never meant as an insult. La Follette has proven himself a capable campaigner and a political survivor.

It's just that the 71-year-old former chemistry professor has shown no interest in being anything other than secretary of state since he last ran for the U.S. House of Representatives 16 years ago.

"The announcement caught us all by surprise and frankly, it bordered on the bizarre," said Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political science professor and former Democratic state lawmaker. "Generally politicians who want to move up take a higher profile, speaking out on issues. La Follette simply hasn't done that."

But La Follette said the state's transformation under Gov. Scott Walker so profoundly disturbed him that he felt compelled to enter the fight.

And frankly, he was a little surprised that his decision seemed odd to some.

"I have survived the Republican landslide," he said. "I have a history of winning elections and getting independent voters. I thought at the time, and still do, that I have the best chance to win a general election."

A native of Iowa, La Follette started out professionally as a professor at UW-Parkside. A passion for the environment led him to help Gaylord Nelson organize the first Earth Day in 1970. Later, La Follette co-founded Wisconsin's Environmental Decade, now known as Clean Wisconsin.

It was his love of the environment that led La Follette to enter politics. In 1970, the bookish professor made his first run for the House, losing in the Democratic primary to Les Aspin.

Two years later he was elected to the state Senate. He left that post in 1974, when he was first elected secretary of state.

In 1978, La Follette ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor on Gov. Martin Schreiber's ticket. In 1982, La Follette was again elected secretary of state, a post he has held ever since. He did make two runs at federal office during that time, losing the 1988 Democratic primary for Senate to Herb Kohl and the 1996 Democratic primary for a House seat to Lydia Spottswood.

Over the years the secretary of state office has been scaled back dramatically, and some have argued it should be eliminated altogether. The office now has custodial care for the state seal, issues notary public commissions and files deeds for state lands and buildings, among other record-keeping duties.

La Follette said he decided to make one last run at another office after being urged by supporters to challenge Kathleen Falk and Tom Barrett for the Democratic nomination. He said he can bring civility back to the Capitol.

"We have to stop yelling at one another and start working together," he said. "I am a problem solver and a good listener. For me, it comes down to this: Do you want the candidates of big money and political endorsements or do you want someone who won't take sides and will work for everyone?"

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