Wisconsin’s new secretary of state surprised by appointment

Wisconsin’s new secretary of state says she had no idea that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers was going to appoint her to the job
Newly appointed Wisconsin Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski is interviewed on Thursday, March...
Newly appointed Wisconsin Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski is interviewed on Thursday, March 23, 2023 in Madison, Wis.(Harm Venhuizen | AP Photo/Harm Venhuizen)
Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 3:43 PM CDT
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Wisconsin’s newly appointed secretary of state said Thursday that she had no idea Gov. Tony Evers was going to offer her the job, defusing Republican allegations that her appointment was part of a long-planned scheme tied to her dropping out of a U.S. Senate race last year.

Evers announced Friday that longtime Secretary of State Doug La Follette, a Democrat who narrowly hung on to the position in November, had abruptly resigned. The governor said he appointed Sarah Godlewski to the position rather than call a special election.

Republicans who control the Legislature immediately accused Evers of handing Godlewski the job as part of a plan to reward her for dropping out of a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate last year and helping clear the way for Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes to win the nomination. Mandela eventually lost the general election to incumbent Republican Ron Johnson in November.

In her first interview since being tapped for the job, Godlewski told The Associated Press that she was summoned to the governor's office on March 15, two days before Evers announced La Follette's resignation. She said she had no idea what the governor wanted before they sat down and he offered her the job. She denied that any quid pro quo was at play.

“I came home after that meeting and my husband was like, 'How was the governor? Are you serving on a task force? Are you serving on a commission?'" Godlewski said. “I’m like, ‘Nope. You’re looking at your soon-to-be new secretary of state.'”

Evers' decision to appoint Godlewski rather than hold a special election to fill the office has outraged Republicans, who had been openly discussing transferring election administration duties from a bipartisan commission to the secretary of state office, following the lead of 38 other states. Former Republican state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck almost defeated La Follette in November, losing by only about 7,500 votes.

Republicans passed a resolution Wednesday calling for a special election.

“The people of Wisconsin didn’t vote for Sarah Godlewski,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu. “The voters of Wisconsin deserve to have their voices heard. ... Let the people speak, let democracy work out its process and let’s have a duly elected secretary of state.”

Evers told reporters on Tuesday that he first heard about La Follette's decision to resign on March 14. The first time he spoke to Godlewski about it was on March 15. He said he appointed her because she had served as state treasurer before running for the U.S. Senate and that job is similar to the secretary of state post.

He pointed out that no one complained when he appointed Carolyn Stanford Taylor to replace him as the state schools superintendent after he won his first term as governor in 2018.

“This is just such an odd story Republicans have put in place here,” Evers said. “The idea that I somehow colluded with Godlewski and Mandela and all these other people. I think the last time I talked to Doug La Follette ... I think I saw him at the inauguration (this past January) and I said ‘good speech, Doug.’ Three words that I've had with him over the last several years. I appointed a completely competent person to do the work and that's the end of that story.”

The 82-year-old La Follette, a distant cousin of legendary Wisconsin progressive “Fighting Bob” La Follette, first won election as secretary of state in 1974. He left the office after one term to run for lieutenant governor, lost that election and won election as secretary of state again in 1982. He served 10 consecutive terms before he was reelected in November.

But Republicans have stripped both the state treasurer and secretary of state offices of almost all their responsibilities and drained their funding. The only real job left for either officer is sitting on a state timber board.

La Follette said he decided to run for an 11th term last year to ensure that Loudenbeck didn't win it, take control of elections and ensure Donald Trump wins the state in 2024. But he said in his resignation letter that he was tired of serving without any resources.

Asked if she would like to control Wisconsin elections, Godlewski responded that she believes the state elections commission is doing an effective job of holding fair elections. She said she doesn’t have a clear vision yet for the secretary of state’s office, and that she plans to travel the state and talk to municipal and county clerks about ways she can help them.