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Primary challenge puts La Follette on the campaign trail

Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette paid a visit to Hudson last Thursday as part of a campaign swing through western Wisconsin.

As a longtime incumbent and relative of a famous Wisconsin senator, La Follette hasn't had to do much campaigning to get re-elected in the past. This year is different because he is being challenged by a young firebrand in the Sept. 12 Democratic Party primary.

The primary winner will face Republican Sandy Sullivan and Green Party candidate Michael La Forest in the general election.

Scot Ross, 37, a Democratic Party worker, has accused the 66-year-old La Follette of spending too much time in Madison and failing to work on behalf of fellow Democrats.

Ross also promises to fight to return oversight of state elections to the secretary of state's office.

"My opponent has trouble finding an issue," La Follette said in a visit to the Star-Observer office that preceded a reception for him at the St. Croix County Democratic Party campaign headquarters at 524½ Second St.

"I'm there a good bit, but I don't think I spend too much time there," he said of Madison. "I always travel the state, but during election time you travel it more."

As to the charge that he isn't partisan enough, La Follette replied: "I've always been proud to be a Democrat. That's my preferred place at the moment given what is going on in the world. But not all Democrats are perfect, and I've always been a very independent person."

He doesn't think returning oversight of elections to the secretary of state's office would be a good idea even in the unlikely event that the Legislature could be convinced to do it.

The Legislature set up the non-partisan Elections Board to ensure clean and fair elections after the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, he noted.

He said the 2000 presidential election in Florida and the 2004 presidential election in Ohio are examples of what can go wrong when partisan secretaries of state are in charge of the voting.

"I respectfully, but emphatically, suggest that if our system isn't broken, let's not try to fix it," he said.

The reason the Wisconsin secretary of state's office hasn't attracted much publicity over the years, La Follette suggested, is because it's well run. An apropos headline for a newspaper story would be, "Doug La Follette doing a great job," he said.

"Everything is done on time and on budget. The office is modernized."

The main duties of the secretary of state's office are to record official acts of the Legislature and governor, coordinate the publication of state laws, register trade names and trademarks, issue notary authentications and preserve city, village and town records.

As secretary of state, he also holds the position of chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, which manages 80,000 acres of forest and wild land in northern Wisconsin remaining from 19th century federal land grants to the state.

La Follette relishes his role of overseeing the wild lands. It was his love of nature and environmental activism that brought him to politics in the first place.

After earning a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Marietta College in 1963, a master's degree in chemistry from Stanford University in 1964, and a doctorate in organic chemistry from Columbia University in 1967, he took a position as an assistant professor at UW-Parkside in Kenosha.

The environmental movement was just beginning, with Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, one of those leading the way. La Follette designed and taught the first environmental class offered at UW-Parkside, Ecology 101.

"One of the points that I made in my class, and it's been a part of me ever since, is that we have to learn to vote the environment," he said, "because the people who run our government have a major impact for good or bad on the environment."

When friends suggested that he get involved in politics himself, he ran for and was elected to the state Senate in 1972. He then was elected secretary of state in 1974. He left office after his first term, but ran again in 1982 and now is in his 28th year as Wisconsin's secretary of state.

The La Follette name was made famous in Wisconsin by Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette (1855-1925), who served the state as a congressman, governor and for 20 years as a United States senator. Doug La Follette is a first cousin twice removed of Fighting Bob.

At 66, many people would be ready for retirement, but La Follette said it isn't for him.

"I like my job. I'm not in a mood to retire," he said. "I believe my most important job is being there when people need help."

A lifelong bachelor, La Follette lives just a few blocks from the capitol.

You can learn more about him at www.doug lafollette. com.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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