From his office atop a building opposite the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, Secretary of State Doug La Follette keeps watch on the comings and goings of the political mandarins who see governing as a game rather than the serious work of democracy. Once, decades ago, La Follette was one of the young stars of Wisconsin politics and he too played the games, as a state senator and contender for congressional nominations. But long ago he settled into what has always been the least partisan of state constitutional offices.

Now, however, La Follette finds himself at the center of the political wrangling of a state he has loved and served for four decades. A governor born just three years before La Follette entered Wisconsin politics forced legislators to enact an ill-conceived law designed to radically restructure state government while stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights. The governor’s actions have been so extreme that the senior member of the state legislature characterizes the newly-elected executive as “dictatorial.” La Follette cannot abide by that. As a longtime champion of the system of checks and balances that has served Wisconsin well since 1848, the secretary of state says, “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.”

But, 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—he decided it was wise to slow the process down. So, under his powers as the elected secretary of state, he delayed publication of the new law for ten days.

For several days, it was La Follette, alone, who stood in the way of the governor’s power grab.

Then, a county judge issued a temporary restraining order that allowed La Follette to continue to delay implementation of the measure until the courts sort through the multiple legal challenges to the way in which the anti-labor law was passed — and to the law itself.

All of this has thrust La Follette into the maelstrom. He has been hailed by Democratic legislators, union members and local officials. He has been condemned by Gov. Scott Walker, right-wing talk radio hosts and bloggers. His e-mails run the range from political love letters to implied death threats. Yet the secretary of state remains calm. 

“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 says. “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 is in many senses a throwback to another era. A distant relative of former Gov. Robert M. La Follette, the secretary of state speaks without irony or rhetorical flourishes of how his election each four years binds him in a “public trust” to defend the constitution of the state and to serve its citizens. As he upholds that trust now, he keeps the faith of the founders and points to a future when honest statesmen and stateswomen will renew not just the rule of law but Wisconsin’s promise.

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