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Secretary of State Doug La Follette: His Finest Hour; Our exclusive interview

March 15, 2011

Doug La Follette in his office this past Saturday; Photo: Mary Maller, a retired school psychologist in Madison for Saturday's protest.

Background: As the March 10 post indicates the Republican controlled Wisconsin Senate and Assembly passed Gov. Scott Walker’s legislation to strip collective bargaining rights from the state’s public employees. On Saturday, more than a hundred thousand people jammed the Capital Square in Madison to protest the measure as well as massive budget cuts for education and other public services. Wisconsin Secretary of State, Doug La Follette, a Democrat, is now at the center of the battle.

Doug La Follette: When I was a young faculty member at University of Wisconsin-Parkside (Kenosha, WI) one of my colleagues was a chemistry professor by the name of Doug La Follette. We continue to be friends. Doug is an ardent environmentalist and the co-founder of the Wisconsin Environmental Decade (now Clean Wisconsin). For 32 of the last 36 years, La Follette has been Wisconsin Secretary of State. See Wikipedia’s bio of La Follette.

As Secretary of State, it’s La Follette’s job to publish legislation within ten business days of being signed by the governor. Last week La Follette received a letter from Gov. Walker asking him to publish the anti-collective  bargaining law immediately.

La Follette, however, announced that he will take the full ten business days and not publish the law until March 25. The delay is essential because the law only takes effect once published. The ten days  will allow dozens of communities statewide to negotiate contracts with public employee unions for the coming year. Without the contracts local governments and workers are left in the dark. For his stand, La Follette has endured massive pressure from Republican office holders and their allies – including hundreds of “sign it now” letters and emails, some very nasty.

Phone interview: On Saturday, I was lucky to catch Secretary La Follette in his 10th story office overlooking Capitol Square and where more than 100,000 protestors were demonstrating against the GOP’s agenda. I called again Monday to get the latest. See Picture Gallery by Becci Roberts, a protester from Amherst, WI.

The view from La Follette's Office; Saturday at Capital Square; Photo: Mary Maller

Ekos2: Doug, You are sure in the middle of it; how are you feeling?

DL: Mostly I’m very sad; in my many years as an elected official I’ve never seen anything as bad as this; they (Republicans) have in a single night taken away the collective bargaining rights that public workers have held for more than 60 years.

Ekos2: Can you tell us why you’re delaying publication of the law restricting collective bargaining?

DL: I’ve been getting phone calls from dozens of mayors of cities and towns and from members of school boards. They are telling me that they need more time to reach agreements with public employee unions before they are forbidden to do so once the bill becomes law.[1]

The usual practice of my office is ten business days and I owe them that. We checked our records; out of 406 bills published the last two years, only 18 were rushed through for emergency purposes. In this case, there is no emergency. On the other hand passage before local governments have had time to work things out would produce confusion and chaos for months to come.

Ekos2: What are your other concerns?

DL: Well, for one the Governor and his Republican allies have proposed a nearly $1 billion cut in aid to schools in his two-year budget plan and he also wants to limit the ability of schools and local governments to pay for the cuts through local property tax increases.

Ekos2: Sounds like a big blow to the state’s education.

DL: Absolutely. Teachers have already made big concessions. However, a cut so big will require more – teacher layoffs, increased class sizes and the elimination of essential programs from arts to athletics. I don’t see how this is good for school kids. Kids from area high schools have already joined the protests and I expect to see parents to weigh in a big way. If Walker thinks all of this is good, he is putting his ideology over the real needs of our people.

Ekos2: So what happens next?

High school students join the protest; What a lesson in Democracy!


DL: As I said, I will have to sign on the 25th, unless I’m ordered by a court not to do so. And that could happen. There are a number of legal challenges to the bill. For example Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk (Democrat) will argue against enactment in Dane County Court this coming Wednesday.[2]

Ekos2: I also understand that that the opponents of the bill are launching a number of recall actions.

DL: Right. Big efforts are underway to recall the 8 Republican state Senators who engineered the closed door process that enabled the anti-union bill to pass. The challenge is to get 30,000 – 40,000 signatures in each district. Given the energy level of public employees, students and supporters, I think they have a real chance to succeed. Since the governor just took office, a recall of him first becomes possible next January and there you need 500,000 signatures.

Ekos2: Thanks, Doug; we congratulate you on your courageous stand and hope that the people of Wisconsin will turn things around in a big way!

What you can do: Send a letter to the editor (local paper) or op-ed supporting  Secretary of State Doug La Follette. Especially if your from Wisconsin.

Support the recall of GOP union busters: ( an ActBlue. Nearly $1 million raised in a few days! Add to the total.

See Great OP-ED by Nicholas Kristof, “Pay Teachers More,” Quote: “From the debates in Wisconsin and elsewhere about public sector unions, you might get the impression that we’re going bust because teachers are overpaid. That’s a pernicious fallacy. A basic educational challenge is not that teachers are raking it in, but that they are underpaid.” NY Times (March 12, 2011). We agree!


[1] The new law would not affect collective bargaining agreements that are already in place, which is fueling the decision by unions to reach deals as quickly as possible.

[2] Dane contends there was not adequate public notice at a legislative committee meeting where an amended version of the budget-repair bill was passed on Wednesday. The suit also alleges that the state Senate did not have enough members on hand to legally vote on the bill later that same day.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary permalink
    March 17, 2011 12:26 pm

    I like the immediacy of this article…both the interview and the background information seem very accurate, not just in detail, but in tone. I like the explicit link made between the information that’s given and possible action readers can take.

    Since I get almost no news on television, I appreciated the video footage I found on this blog that documented what happened the day the bill to strip unions of their power passed in the Wisconsin legislature. Very powerful footage. It brought up strong emotions for me and is worth watching, even tho the events are, at this point, history.

    I think many people know and appreciate what Doug La Follette has done at this critical juncture in the process of Walker’s radical agenda for change as Wisconsinites struggle to understand and integrate what’s happened in Madison. But few realize what the repercussions have been to La Follete as a consequence of his courageous stand. It occurred to me today that the Fab 14 got enormous public support (deservedly) and they could also support each other because they were working in concert. But there was no option for La Follette to act within a group…his actions have been determined by the circumstances…by the law. This article is the first I’d seen that referenced the ugly responses directed toward LaFollette from Walker supporters.

    I’m grateful La Follette ran for office again last fall. He was the only Democrat holding state-wide office who was elected in November. If he hadn’t decided to run we’d, very likely, have some brand of Republican as Secretary of State and the people of Wisconsin wouldn’t have had the opportunity to reflect and consider the ramifications of this initiative of Walker’s that makes such profound change to Wisconsin law.

    Douglas La Follette is a hero to many.


  2. Laura Rench permalink
    March 16, 2011 10:02 pm

    Excellent interview. Mr. LaFollette is a very honorable public servant and the State of Wisconsin is fortunate to have his leadership .

  3. March 16, 2011 1:45 pm

    Doug has done exactly the right thing. It is a shame that some many people have made hateful remarks to him. But hateful remarks from the wingnut fringe should be considered a badge of honor.

  4. Lisa Johnson permalink
    March 16, 2011 9:36 am

    Thanks for following the Law unlike the others.


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