March 24, 2011- 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.