La Follette steps down as secretary of state, replaced by former treasurer Godlewski

By: - March 17, 2023 2:04 pm
Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette | Official Photo

Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette | Official Photo

In a surprise move Friday, Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette abruptly retired less than five months after narrowly winning reelection in November to a new four-year term.

Gov. Tony Evers immediately appointed former State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski to fill the remainder of La Follette’s term, which runs through 2026.

In his resignation letter, hand-delivered to Evers, La Follette said he was leaving the post “with a heavy heart” effective Friday.

“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. “After decades of public service, I must now focus on my personal needs.”

With her appointment, Godlewski returns to the Capitol just months after leaving it at the end of her single term as state treasurer after she entered the Democratic primary for U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s seat.

“Secretary of State La Follette’s retirement after more than 40 years of state service 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,” Evers said Friday in a prepared statement. “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.”

Sarah Godlewski (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Godlewski was elected state treasurer in 2018 months after leading a campaign to defeat a state referendum that would have amended the constitution and eliminated the post. As state treasurer, a constitutional post that has seen its duties removed by the Legislature over the last few decades, Godlewski raised the profile of the office, making it a platform to promote issues such as affordable housing, retirement security and related matters.

Her successor, John Leiber, ran a campaign in which he called for returning the office to the duties specified under Wisconsin law, primarily as one of three officials on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, along with the Secretary of State and the Attorney General.

Godlewski’s appointment will return her to the board, and potentially to her role as its chair, which she held during her term as treasurer. The board elected La Follette chair at the beginning of this year. 

La Follette was first elected to the office in 1974 for one term. After a one-term hiatus, he ran again in 1982 and has been reelected 10 times over the next four decades.

Over the course of his time in office, the state Legislature whittled away various responsibilities for the secretary of state, leaving the post with no official staff and largely ceremonial duties. As a post identified in the Wisconsin Constitution, the job cannot be eliminated except by a constitutional amendment.

In his 2023-25 budget, Evers has proposed adding a paid deputy secretary of state and an office associate to the office. There seems little chance that the Republican majority in the Legislature would leave those positions in the budget, however.

La Follette’s closest call at the ballot box came in the 2022 election, which was unusually expensive. After he handily survived a Democratic primary challenge, he went on to defeat Republican Amy Loudenbeck, a Wisconsin Assembly member, by a margin of just 7,000 votes. Loudenbeck did not run for reelection to the Legislature.


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.