Two years ago, Scott Walker was the most powerful political figure in Wisconsin, and Sarah Godlewski was a 37-year-old political unknown who had never held public office and who had spent most of her adult life crunching numbers as an expert in finance. Walker, as the state’s two-term governor, wanted to concentrate more power in his office, so he proposed to eliminate the elected office of state treasurer.
Sarah Godlewski thought that was a terrible idea, and so she took on Walker and his Republican cronies at a time when most Democrats couldn’t be bothered to step up. Godlewski launched a grassroots campaign that highlighted the importance of maintaining an independent watchdog on the state’s finances and who also recognized the enormous potential of the treasurer’s position.
In the spring of 2018, the people of Wisconsin signaled that they were in agreement with Godlewski. A proposed constitutional amendment that would have eliminated the treasurer’s office lost by an overwhelming margin. Sixty-two percent of the voters in the April election signaled that they wanted to keep the position.
That fall, Godlewski ran for the office she had saved on an ambitious platform that proposed to make the treasurer a robust watchdog over financial transactions involving taxpayer dollars with an eye toward providing accountability and transparency. She proposed to use state trust fund money “to help address the student loan crisis, by paying off debts and refinancing them at a lower rate that still provides an attractive return for the state.” Godlewski told voters, “The treasurer should be your champion in the fight against financial exploitation. Seniors, veterans, and vulnerable communities across our state have been taken advantage of for too long.”
The voters agreed. On the same day that they voted Walker out as governor, they voted Godlewski in as treasurer. The winner is our guest this week on Next Left.
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The States That Elected Trump Have Turned Against Him, The Nation, John Nichols
Wisconsin treasurer candidates want to make the office effective again. But how? Wisconsin Rapids Tribune, Melissa Siegler
How Wisconsin’s treasurer is rebuilding an office her predecessor campaigned to eliminate, Wisconsin State Journal, Kelly Meyerhoffer
Today’s episode is supported by Ovid TV, the streaming service for documentaries, art-house films, and notable works of international cinema. The OVID.tv catalog features films you won’t find on Netflix, which address urgent political and social issues such as climate change, reproductive rights, immigration, and economic justice. Head over to www.ovid.tv for your free seven-day trial and start streaming on all your favorite devices, including Apple TV and Roku.
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John Nichols: Welcome to Next Left, this is John Nichols of The Nation magazine, and we’ve got a remarkable story for you this week. We usually tell the stories of progressive candidates who run and win campaigns against extraordinary odds, but check out these odds. What if the governor, the legislature, major media outlets, and pretty much everyone who held sway in your state decided to eliminate a statewide elected position? What if you were a young woman who had never held elected office and you decided you were going to take them all on and defend the post? What if your grassroots campaign beat everyone in power and saved the office from extinction? And what if the voters then elected you to fill it? That’s what happened to Sarah Godlewski. She’s now the state treasurer of my home state of Wisconsin, and she’s our guest this week on Next Left.
We’re in the basement of the state capitol in a closet with the state treasurer of Wisconsin. State treasurer is one of the top statewide elected positions, voters choose it. Sarah Godlewksi is the state treasurer and she’s a Democrat who won the office in November of 2018. And your story is amazing, because you didn’t plan to go into politics. That’s not where you came from. When you were coming out of college and stuff, what was your career trajectory?
Sarah Godlewski: Probably to do something more in the business sector, John. I mean, after college, I worked for a consulting firm, I was even at the Pentagon for a while. You hit the nail on the head, it was not my dream to run for state treasurer.
John Nichols: Not that many kids think, “Firefighter? No. Army? President? No, I’m going to be state treasurer.”
Sarah Godlewski: Right, I wasn’t carrying around a safety deposit box as a kid, asking people to donate money to it or anything like that. But in Wisconsin, we had this very unique constitutional amendment, where, literally, we were going to remove the office from the Constitution.
John Nichols: Now you’d come, you’d worked at the Pentagon, you came back to Wisconsin.
Sarah Godlewski: I did.
John Nichols: And you spent a lot of time around your hometown of Eau Claire, northwestern Wisconsin. As you point out, this office of state treasurer is in the Constitution. It existed before the state, so this office has always been around, always associated, ideally with money.
Sarah Godlewski: With money, checks and balances.
John Nichols: All the things that you would want. But it had been dramatically diminished and reduced in power. Power was taken away from it, as governors and legislators sort of wanted to keep tightening power up into…
Sarah Godlewski: Or giving power to themselves.
John Nichols: Yeah, that’s exactly it. Taking it away from this. And so that’s where we pick up your story, because you’re back here in Wisconsin, and they’re finally just going to put it in the coffin and bury it.
Sarah Godlewski: Right. And I think kind of how this happened in a very unique way is, so I was running a socially responsible investment firm, and we were investing in businesses that were making a difference in the community. And access to capital is a challenge here in Wisconsin, so I think, “Oh, I’ll work with the state treasurer to see how we can get access to small businesses across the state,” and [I] find out that the state treasurer doesn’t go to work, isn’t really doing their job, but further that they’re trying to remove our financial officer from the Constitution, which I thought was crazy. I mean, we would literally have been the first state to remove our only financial officer from the Constitution.
John Nichols: And this was a proposal by the state legislature, which was Republican-controlled at the time, and by the Republican Governor Scott Walker. And Scott Walker did a lot of things during his eight years as governor to bring power into the governor’s office. And in many senses, this was an extension of it. And the governor, who had tons of money, all sorts of national connections, he had recently run for president, not so successfully, but he had certainly had a lot of support and he made a big deal about how much he wanted to get rid of this office. And, pretty much nobody objected… and then you came along.
Sarah Godlewski: Well, I think it goes back to, What’s the purpose of the state treasurer? And really it comes down to a couple things. I mean, one is, the treasurer is supposed to be a financial check and balance on the executive and on the legislature. So if you think about it, the governor and the legislature, they tax you. They then tell you how you’re going to spend your money. Then they spend your money, and then they also say, “Oh, by the way, we spent it the way we told you that you did.” We would never do that in business. I mean, that’s crazy to think that they’re the ones that are, it’s kind of like the fox-watching-the-hen-house kind of thing. There’s a reason why our founders in Wisconsin wrote the treasurer into the office, is because they’re supposed to be that financial check and balance. And then on top of it, we invest over $1.2 billion for public schools. And so we are responsible to providing 92 percent of all funding for books, technology, media. I mean, that’s really important stuff here in Wisconsin.
John Nichols: And they were going to get rid of that power, they were just going to take it away. And you also have a lot of environmental oversight in the position, which would have defaulted to the governor’s office or the lieutenant governor under this plan.
Sarah Godlewski: Yeah. So we are responsible, we are the chair of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. And so we oversee almost 80,000 acres of public land. And so that would have then been able to be given to the governor who could have unilaterally just sold all that land off.
John Nichols: Well, this sounds like it is just an atrocious assault on democracy. So I have to imagine that it was like front-page news, everybody talking about it. When you, when you came out, it must have been the biggest story in the state.
Sarah Godlewski: Well, surprisingly, John, I originally thought so. But I started talking to… whether it was legislators or environmental groups or financial groups saying, “What are we doing to save this office?” And they were like, “What?” They either didn’t know what was happening, or they already said it was a done deal. That the legislature had already passed this twice and that we were going to remove the office, and there was nothing that we were going to be able to do about it.
John Nichols: This is a very typical thing in politics, right? Especially, you know, because politics has become so much about big money, so much about looking at everything from 30,000 feet. Who’s got power? Who’s doing all the big stuff? That these offices, which historically have had great influence, which have potential to do great things, often are never covered, and a lot of the political class itself isn’t very excited about them. Previous races for state treasurer, nobody could even identify the candidates. And so you decided that you wanted to save the office; that put you up against, the governor, the legislature, pretty much the political elites, even some of the media, who said, “Oh, it’s inefficient to have all this democracy.”
Sarah Godlewski: Or “Good idea, Sarah, trying to save something that’s already a done deal.”
John Nichols: Yeah, Good Idea Sarah, and you’ve been that for a long time.
Sarah Godlewski: Right, right. And I think, to your point, the political establishment was saying, “What a waste of time.” And when we started organizing and talking to Wisconsinites, it was quite clear that once they knew about this, they were really worried. I mean, they all had worked with a treasurer, whether it’s a treasurer of their club or any sort of organization, and they understand the important role that this should be playing. And so the fact that we wanted to remove this from the fabric of our democracy, people were suspicious. Why do we want to do that? Why do you not want somebody to provide transparency and accountability? So we formed a bipartisan coalition and we won the ballot amendment with 62 percent of the vote.
John Nichols: Two-thirds of the vote?
Sarah Godlewski: 62 percent, a supermajority.
John Nichols: And that’s in Wisconsin, a deeply divided state yet where presidential races come down to 22,000 votes. You’re up against the governor and the legislature quite a bit of the media, and you won 62 percent of the vote to keep the office.
Sarah Godlewski: Yes.
John Nichols: What did that tell you?
Sarah Godlewski: For me, that was just a clear reflection on how the legislature, and at the time also the governor, were just disconnected from what Wisconsinites cared about. I mean, they really cared about this. There were places in which people only voted to keep this office. They would not fill out the rest of their ballot. They would only fill out, “Yes, I want to keep the state treasurer.” And then they would leave. And the fact that the legislature at the time was so ardent about removing this office just shows me that they were completely disconnected with what their constituents care about.
John Nichols: And isn’t there perhaps a broader lesson beyond Wisconsin, even nationally, that we have a lot of political elites who presume that voters, that ordinary citizens, whatever that term means, don’t care about this stuff? What you did with a tiny budget, pretty much on your own and a few allies, was proof, not only that they care, but they’re actually quite passionate about it.
Sarah Godlewski: Yeah. Right. We traveled the state and we were talking to people about [how] state treasurers in other states are doing really impressive work and Wisconsin was lagging behind in these financial conversations, and Wisconsinites care about their financial future. So why would they not want a financial advocate in the executive fighting for them?
John Nichols: And you’re a progressive, there’s a lot of progressive things that we’re all starting to realize can be done with public resources. And so once you had saved the office, you decided to run for it. And that’s not illogical, you actually thought about it a little bit.
Sarah Godlewski: I was becoming quite familiar with the role.
John Nichols: And so you went out there, and the weird part about it is that you had actually gotten people excited by it. So now a whole bunch of people were running for the office. You weren’t the only one running.
Sarah Godlewski: Right, just as many people that basically voted for the governor also voted for state treasurer. Usually, you have a significant drop-off on these down ballot races. And our race did not have that kind of drop-off at all.
John Nichols: So you created this excitement factor, a number candidates ran, you won your Democratic primary, and then you went into that November election. And I watched you during that campaign and it was really interesting, because you spent a lot of time talking about the office, you always explained it, but then you also talked about what it could be. And I think this is a very exciting thing in our politics. This notion that you seek an office not merely for what it’s been defined as, its limits, you seek it for what it could be. And so tell folks a little bit about what you talked about as a candidate.
Sarah Godlewski: Yeah. So we really talked about three things then. One is clearly to be the fiscal watchdog and what that means, so providing transparency and accountability. But the other piece that we talked a lot about was, How can this work with economic empowerment? So an example of that is with the student loan crisis. So in Wisconsin, literally we have a $24 billion student loan crisis. And what’s crazy about the student loan crisis is you can’t refinance like you can a home or a car, and interest rates alone, John, we’re up to 15 percent last year, which is crazy. And so we were talking about actually refinancing student loan debt and what that could look like. Or retirement, literally 50 percent of Wisconsinites do not have money saved for retirement, but yet we’re one of the fastest aging states in the country and we can’t live off of Social Security alone. So what are we doing to provide saving opportunities for people in the state of Wisconsin? So it was just thinking about what actually government could do to help people get ahead.
John Nichols: You also talked about what some folks might describe as bigger issues, bigger-picture issues. You talked about climate change. Now, how did you find an intersection between climate change and the state treasurer’s office?
Sarah Godlewski: So that became a very interesting conversation I think in two ways. One is, my predecessor had put a climate change ban on my office. So you could not talk about climate change but…
John Nichols: So they didn’t actually ban climate change, they banned the conversation.
Sarah Godlewski: Banned the conversation, banned research. I mean, and it was really weird, because when you deal with 80,000 acres of public land and you do investments that have to do with what the world looks like today, and maybe are there floods overseas? Or are there hurricanes that are happening? We need to be able to look at climate change and its impact on whether it’s investments or our public lands. And literally my staff at the time couldn’t even talk about that or even review it, which to me is reckless behavior when you are financially responsible for tax dollars in this way.
Part of this ban was we couldn’t even invest in renewable energy. I mean, renewable energy is the future, whether it’s the cost savings that you can have with renewable energy, to even the positive impact it can have on our environment. But the fact that we couldn’t even look at renewable energy just seemed to be ridiculous. And this is part of the larger financial conversation. So how are we looking at these kind of investment projects in the state of Wisconsin? And how are we encouraging that kind of economic development?
John Nichols: And so you got yourself elected, and you came in, and you upended all this, I mean, at least on [the climate ban]. But that’s, when people say, “Do elections matter?” You actually upended a ban, in a major state, on talking about climate change. And you now sit as the chair of a board of public lands with a lifelong environmentalist as another member of that board, our secretary of state [Doug La Follette]. And a young attorney general [Josh Kaul] who is very committed to a lot of environmental causes. So in one election we saw a radical transformation of how we talk about what a lot of people think is the existential issue of our time.
Sarah Godlewski: Right. When I became chair of this board, literally the second meeting we stopped the ban, and overturned the gag order because we thought that was ridiculous. And then we allowed for investment in renewable energy, which were things we weren’t able to do. That just seems silly to me.
John Nichols: So you did policy changes immediately, and big ones that matter. Now, you’re still sitting in an office, which was formerly a closet, and you are in the basement of the state capitol and the only way to get to your office is to go to the information counter and ask where the secret elevator is, and you don’t even have stairs that could come down here. So there is a tremendous amount of work you have to do to renew this office. Tell us about some of what you’re doing.
Sarah Godlewski: So just for the first point, John, though, we didn’t run for the views so—
John Nichols: And you don’t have any, so it’s important to point out that there is zero view.
Sarah Godlewski: Right, we make our windows on like sticky notes and things like that. But we’ve been doing a lot of different work to get this office back on track. I mean, the first one, as silly as it sounds, is that Wisconsin was missing from the public finance conversation for almost a decade. We were not a part of the National Association of State Treasurers.
John Nichols: You didn’t even go, you were not even in the club?
Sarah Godlewski: No, we weren’t even in the club. Wisconsin was not there. And so we initially joined that conversation, and within that conversation I became a part of the banking committee. We are looking at ways in which to address cannabis and hemp, because those are some serious financial challenges here, not just within the state of Wisconsin, but across the country. We also joined the Economic Empowerment Committee where we are looking at ways that financial literacy and core life milestones impact people’s financial health. So a divorce, getting married, having kids, how do we help people that are going through those transitions? And then the third thing is looking at health care. We know that medical debt and disabilities are a big problem. And so how can we help in looking at, whether it’s tax incentives or investment solutions, to help people address that. So just within the first week of office, I joined the National Association of State Treasurers, [brought] Wisconsin back to the national public finance stage, and we’re leading these conversations across the country.
John Nichols: And you must have a massive staff to help you do this
Sarah Godlewski: So you are looking at technically the only staffer in the office.
John Nichols: You’re a statewide elected official, elected by how many votes did you deliver?
Sarah Godlewski: Over 1.3 million
John Nichols: One point three million votes. And you’re it?
Sarah Godlewski: That is it. But I think that goes back to what I walked into. When I was sworn in on January 7th, I walked into this office and it was quite appalling, to be quite frank. There were wires that were hanging from the wall, the phones were disconnected, and we didn’t have any Internet. And then literally the previous legislature whittled down my budget to basically nothing, and left me as the only employee. But here’s the kicker, John. People will say, “Well, Sarah, this is big government. Tax dollars are gonna go down the tubes, you know, tax dollars wasted, blah blah, blah.” But here’s the reality. My office runs on the money that it earns. So it doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime to run this office.
John Nichols: And you’re actually kicking money into the state budget.
Sarah Godlewski: Right, I would argue that even within the first couple of months of us being in office, we have continued to increase our revenue stream. But the challenge is, I can’t access that money. So even though I have over $40 million in my checking account, I can’t access any of that.
John Nichols: So a lot of people put government down, right? And they say, you know, it can’t do anything. And there’s a very dismissive attitude, frankly, [among] a lot of our media, even among our political elites. People run for office and say, “Government can’t do anything.” But one of the things that you found is that when you go out to grassroots folks, small towns, small cities, and you say, “Let’s have a conversation about what government can do,” they get really excited. It’s something that perhaps a lot of elected officials fail to do.
Sarah Godlewski: Right, and the other thing that we’re not afraid about is being bold, and talking about these ideas. I mean, let’s use a great example. So one of the things that we are probably most excited about is really working so that every kid in the state of Wisconsin has a child savings account. But it really goes back to what does that look like? And so one of the things that we have been working on is to create a 401K basically for every kid, and we want to call it 401Kids. And it’s going to be this great opportunity where literally if you’re born in the state of Wisconsin, we will open up this account for you, and then it will be invested over that course of time. And so you can use it on education, you can use it on first-time home buying, you can use it for medical emergencies, or you can use it for retirement. So I think it’s those kind of ideas, and the fact that then we get to invest it, the program actually pays for itself, because it’s not taking tax dollars. We literally partner with other groups to put in the first $50 and then it accrues all this interest over time. And then that helps run the program. So it literally is zero net cost.
John Nichols: And you’ve also, you haven’t gone down the road all the way, but you are interested in ideas like public banking or in using the state’s money, not in the traditional banking systems, but an alternative routes.
Sarah Godlewski: Right. And I think another really good example of that is we are looking at a public retirement option. I mean, when 50 percent of Wisconsinites have less than $3,000 saved for retirement, they need an option. And a lot of times, wealth management are only wanting to help those that have the most amount of money to actually invest in retirement. So who’s helping everybody else? And so one of the things that we could look at is actually setting up like a Roth IRA for any Wisconsinite that wanted to pay into it, and it could be five, 10 dollars, and over time that can make a really big difference. I mean, if you set up a tool for people to save, they are 15 times more likely to save. All they need is a tool. And so the fact that we don’t have a tool and we could give them that tool, I think can really make a big difference.
John Nichols: And making a difference is sort of at the heart of it, isn’t it? You, you are someone who had a pretty successful career doing other things, and you could do a lot of other things, but you’ve chosen this political path, and chosen office that people didn’t always line up to run for, clearly because you want to have an impact. And you’re only a short amount of time in, but was your instinct right? Can it work? Is it possible?
Sarah Godlewski: Yeah, I mean, I think the biggest opportunity that has been lacking in our political world is finance expertise. For somebody to come in and talk about how they can use public finance to really make a difference. And I think that’s been missing, that’s been significantly missing from the conversation. And so this office is the natural choice, as the chief financial officer for the state, to start bringing those economic issues front and center. And I don’t really feel that Wisconsin had that champion before, to talk about these types of issues.
So I’m really looking forward to all the different things that we can do and being bold about it. I mean, Wisconsin has been a bold leader, whether it was looking at Social Security, or different worker rights in the past. And we need to continue that trajectory of moving forward. And I think that this is a way in which we can do that financially. These constitutional offices provide opportunities in which you can really govern. I mean, we are part of the executive cause we need to execute these policies. And part of it is not just executing, but what is it that we want to be doing and what does that look like?
But it’s not easy. It’s not like anybody was necessarily encouraging me to run for this office. And it’s not like I had a seat at the table. To use the Shirley Chisholm quote, “If you don’t have a seat, bring your folding chair.” I feel like throughout this whole process I’ve been bringing a folding chair. But I think that we bring a different voice to the conversation. The fact that, for example, we are talking about things like retirement, or things like disability and health care and childcare, just our experience in life, and I think that’s been missing.
John Nichols: Technically, you don’t have a folding chair, you’ve got sort of half of a bar stool.
Sarah Godlewski: I have a wheelie bar stool. Yeah, fair, fair.
John Nichols: Sarah Godlewski, you’ve been a fabulous conversation here. Let me just ask you one final thing. When you’re out there fighting to empower women to take back democracy and all that, is there a song you listen to? Favorite song?
Sarah Godlewski: Oh my gosh. So I’m actually a big Beyoncé girl, so I will just put it on her playlist. I switched between sometimes Beyoncé and Queen. It kind of depends.
John Nichols: Sounds good. Well, I would say a Beyoncé state treasurer? That is pretty cool.
Sarah Godlewski: I mean, who doesn’t like Beyoncé?
John Nichols: Exactly. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk and joining us here today on Next Left.
Sarah Godlewski: Thanks for having me, John.
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John Nichols: Did you go to prom with Bon Iver?
Sarah Godlewski: So, um, I went to high school with Justin Vernon,
John Nichols: Who is the internationally recognized, you know, center of the group project Bon Iver.
Sarah Godlewski: Yeah. And at the time he was in a band called Mount Vernon and we were all part of the same homecoming group. So yes, we all went to homecoming together.
John Nichols: So you chose finance over rock and roll.
Sarah Godlewski: It was a really hard decision, but I felt like that’s what I needed to do.