…That was an applause line

douglafollette032812cLongtime Democrat Secretary of State Doug La Follette is a bummer.

The tall, lanky 74-year-old presided over the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s convention last month, the self-proclaimed party elder. Prior to speaking he was introduced as “active and exceptionally valuable in our fight against Scott Walker.”

DPW Chairman Mike Tate’s choice of intro, while certainly no surprise – he obviously knows his audience – reveals the real reason why The Left wants to hold onto that office. Not because it can be used for the betterment of Wisconsin, or that they have any faith that the lethargic incumbent will suddenly wake up from his slumber and do something worthwhile, but because it’s their last outpost in their quest to stand in the way of Gov. Walker’s agenda.

La Follette – who Tate also touted as a well-known environmentalist, which has no bearing on the office whatsoever – was sure to wear his trademark wide-brimmed strawberry picking hat.

After pausing for a moment to thank President Jimmy Carter for appointing liberal pontificator Barbara Crabb as a federal judge, La Follette explained how lonely it has been for him as the only elected Democrat statewide, asking Democrats to help “end his loneliness” by “ridding our proud state of Mr. Walker….This could be our year,” La Follette said. The crowd offered a smattering of applause, but the energy wasn’t exactly palpable.

“Of course, re-electing the Secretary of State is also on the agenda,” DLF said to a room as lethargic as the speech. “That was an applause line,” he added.

There’s a reason Democrats are even less excited about La Follette as they are about Mary Burke. He’s a relic of 20th Century liberalism, a shadow of the party’s past glories. First elected to the SOS office in 1974 during the peak of liberalism, before left-wing programs grew to become the budgetary barnacles they are today, DLF represents a past era.

He’s a reminder that the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has nothing new to offer beyond the same platitudes and stale ideas about new government programs to solve every problem, a figure with an aura of quasi-senility, exceptionally uninspirational for almost anyone who doesn’t spend their weekends laying down in front of construction equipment.

Maybe there’s still some residual euphoria about his name: DLF’s great-grandfather was an uncle of “Fighting Bob” La Follette. That’s cool – I think one of my cousin’s grandpa’s uncle’s second-cousins-twice-removed used to live next door to Teddy Roosevelt. But juxtaposed against his numerous failed ventures into higher elective office including Lt. Gov., U.S. Senate, U.S. House, and governor, DLF is the Dems’ little engine that couldn’t.

Democrats also know their preferred script of fielding the energetic, well-spoken younger candidates is flipped in a big way in the SOS race this year. While they’re saddled with the elderly distant relative of a bygone progressive hero, the Republicans overwhelmingly endorsed Julian Bradley to run against him.

Bradley, the first Republican to ever win the state party’s endorsement on the first ballot in a three-way race – he won with 66 percent of the vote – couldn’t be a more stark contrast. Bradley is a young, energetic, black Republican with a message of rebuilding the office after 36 years of DLF’s “absentee administration,” a tenure that’s seen the office decline from a Constitutional office with a respected role in the state’s affairs to a joke. Rightly, Bradley believes eliminating the office is justified given the current occupant but proposes instead to eliminate the current office holder.
La Follette has collected tremendous sums of money via his taxpayer-funded salary, but Wisconsin has very little to show for the investment other than his multiple failed runs for higher office and – the one time DLF woke up from his decades-long slumber behind the SOS wheel – a partisan-inspired failure to publish the Act 10 reforms.

Bradley at the RPW Convention

The Secretary of State should work together with the other Constitutional officers in the Wisconsin’s government including the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and treasurer to advance Wisconsin. In lieu of a responsibility to carry out specific duties, which is the current unfortunate state of affairs for the SOS, he should find a way to be useful to Wisconsinites. Because the office is here for the foreseeable future and the SOS still earns a salary, whoever is in that office needs to find ways to create a positive ROI for Wisconsin taxpayers.

Instead of this kind of entrepreneurial, taxpayer-focused attitude DLF spends most of his time enjoying a years-long half-retirement, famously spending extended amounts of time golfing out of state.

In most other states the SOS still has a substantive role in state government, and secretaries of state often gain experience to run for governor or congress. Kentucky’s secretary of state, Democrat Allison Lundergan Grimes, is bringing a surprisingly strong challenge for Republican Mitch McConnell. It would benefit Wisconsin to empower its SOS, distribute important duties to elected offices other than agencies under the governor, and join the rest of the nation again by having a more equitable distribution of duties across several Constitutional offices.

But under Doug La Follette, little would be gained by making such a change. Wisconsin needs a new secretary of state who represents the future of Wisconsin, who will earn the money Wisconsin taxpayers invest in the office and who can be trusted to use restored duties to work for the betterment of the state, not to work against reforms passed by the legislature and signed by the governor.

Progressives tend to agree with the idea of restoring duties to the SOS office. Maybe, just maybe, considering the underwhelming reaction by Democrats to La Follette, they also recognize it’s time for a new face in the office. Bradley, respected even by many Democrats, has a real shot at being Wisconsin’s next secretary of state.

About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.