Wisconsin’s longest-serving secretary of state, Doug La Follette, resigned Friday from the position he has held for more than four decades, with former state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski tabbed to lead the office.
The 82-year-old La Follette’s announcement comes just months after the Democrat was reelected in November to his 11th consecutive term in office in a narrow win over Republican state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, of Clinton.
In his resignation letter to Gov. Tony Evers, La Follette said serving as secretary of state has been “the honor of my lifetime.”
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“I am so proud of all I have accomplished in my many years of public service, and grateful for the many people I’ve had the privilege of getting to know in this role,” La Follette said.
Evers, a Democrat, appointed Godlewski, 41, to the role of secretary of state, effective Saturday. She becomes the third woman in state history to hold the office, according to the governor’s office.
Godlewski will serve the remainder of La Follette’s four-year term, which concludes in January 2027.
Evers said in a statement La Follette’s retirement “leaves an incredibly important role to fill, and I want to thank him for his years of dedication to the people of Wisconsin throughout his long career.”
“In a critical position that has seen no turnover in decades, maintaining continuity with a leader who’s prepared and committed to fulfilling this office’s constitutional obligations could not be more important — and there’s no one more uniquely qualified or better suited for the job than Sarah,” Evers added.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, in a statement criticized Evers for filling La Follette’s seat, rather than calling for a special election. LeMahieu called on the governor to order a special election for the seat and, in the meantime, appoint either current staff or a nonpartisan individual to hold the seat until a special election is completed.
“This suggests a premeditated action to award the power of incumbency to a partisan ally,” LeMahieu said. “It is an insult to voters of Wisconsin and our democratic process.”
Godlewski led the bipartisan effort against a constitutional amendment seeking to abolish the state treasurer’s office. The effort was ultimately rejected by more than 60% of Wisconsin voters in 2018. Godlewski was elected state treasurer later that year.
Rather than seek reelection last year, Godlewski opted to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Ron Johnson, of Oshkosh, but dropped out of the race before the August primary. Johnson ultimately won a third term in office last fall.
“Now we see why Godlewski ducked out of the U.S. Senate race, as she was apparently promised a soft landing,” Republican Party of Wisconsin chairman Brian Schimming said in a statement.
‘I am humbled’
Godlewski was appointed by Evers in 2019 to chair the Governor’s Task Force on Retirement Security, which worked to develop new strategies to address concerns among the state’s aging population, including the lack of retirement savings and security.
“It was a privilege to serve the people of Wisconsin as state treasurer for four years, and I am humbled that Governor Evers has called upon me to serve as secretary of state,” Godlewski said in a statement. “To become just the third woman in our state’s history to hold this office is the honor of a lifetime. I know how important this role is and my responsibilities are, and I’m looking forward to getting to work.”
La Follette fended off a GOP push for his office last year that included proposals to install into the office more controls over state elections — powers that currently reside with the Wisconsin Elections Commission. The bipartisan agency faced mounting criticism from Republicans over how it handled the 2020 election, despite no evidence of widespread fraud.
Loudenbeck told The Associated Press that those who voted for La Follette should be “upset” and those who voted for her “should be outraged.”
“This move coming so soon after the election raises questions once again about the tactics used by those in power who will do anything to keep that power,” she said in a statement.
La Follette faced legal threats from then-state Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, last year for not sending out documents to Congress and other states — as required by approved legislation — about holding a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit federal powers. La Follette ultimately sent the documents shortly before the August primary.
The Legislature already has stripped many of the secretary of state’s powers over the years. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker removed the office’s power to publish bills after La Follette delayed publishing the former governor’s Act 10 collective bargaining law in 2011.
The office’s budget and staffing also have been reduced over time, and the office currently has just a few duties, including processing annual requests to authenticate documents for trade, travel, adoptions and education.
“After many years of frustration, I’ve decided I don’t want to spend the next three and a half years trying to run an office without adequate resources and staffing levels,” La Follette wrote in his resignation letter. “After decades of public service, I must now focus on my personal needs.”
La Follette did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The secretary of state also serves on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, one of the state’s oldest agencies. The board has several responsibilities, including holding title to nearly 77,000 acres of school trust lands and managing more than $1 billion in assets, including the Common School Fund, which distributes annual net earnings to public school districts.
La Follette, a distant relative of former governor and U.S. Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, was first elected secretary of state in 1974 and served one term before stepping down to run for lieutenant governor.
Vel Phillips, the first Black candidate to hold statewide office in Wisconsin, was elected after La Follette’s departure.
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