Doug La Follette gets the reaction he is banking on when he walks over to Nanci Calamari on the Library Mall and tells her he is running for governor.
"Are you really?" she asks with genuine delight.
Calamari, a former Madison resident who now visits frequently from her home in Chicago, says she didn't know the longtime secretary of state was in the race, but was familiar with the legacy of his distant relative, "Fighting" Bob La Follette, a former Wisconsin governor and senator who founded the Progressive party in Wisconsin.
"His last name comes up," says Calamari.
Doug La Follette, who formally announced his candidacy Wednesday, says statewide name recognition is one of the advantages he has over the other two announced candidates: former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma. And though he lives and works in Madison, he says he's not your run-of-the-mill "Madison liberal Democrat."
"I'm an independent," he tells other potential voters lounging or lunching their way through the noon hour on a recent unseasonably warm March afternoon. "I believe I have the best chance to beat [Gov. Scott Walker.]"
La Follette is wearing his signature floppy hat, which, along with his off-white shirt and sneakers, makes him look a bit like a conservation warden. He is also sporting a black vest to assist him in breaking the ice: "HELLO I'M DOUG La Follette" it says in large white letters on the back.
The Government Accountability Board is expected to certify a recall election against Walker on Friday. May 8 is the expected primary date and June 5 the expected recall election date. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in 2010, says he will announce soon whether he will enter the race.
La Follette says he has some negatives -- he would expect his environmental record to be attacked by a Republican opponent -- but so do his primary opponents. He was hoping in the weeks leading up to his formal announcement that a media organization would run an independent poll to see how each candidate would fare against Walker.
"If we had two or three polls, wouldn't that eliminate a primary election?" he said at the time. "If I saw a viable candidate I'd step aside."
A survey by Public Policy Polling did do such match-ups in late February with a slate of potential candidates, including state Sen. Jon Erpenbach and state Rep. Peter Barca. Falk, the only declared candidate at the time, polled 48% to Walker's 47%, with 5% of voters undecided. Vinehout was two points behind Walker (46% to 44%), with 10% of voters undecided; and La Follette was one point behind Walker (46%-45%), with 9% undecided. The survey of 900 voters had a margin of error of 3.2%.
La Follette says he will eschew special-interest donations and limit campaign contributions to $20. He is not driven to seek office, he adds, especially for what he knows will be a "very difficult job."
"I don't need to be governor to make my life complete," he says. "I walk to work and back. I get to take weeks off and go hiking. And I go to Door County, where I've got a log cabin."
But La Follette says he has a "responsibility" to run if it turns out he is the best candidate.
"My strong desire is to defeat Walker," he says. 'I don't need to be the candidate. I want to take back Wisconsin for the people."
La Follette, 71, who has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and taught at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, made his first run for office in 1970 in the Democratic primary bid for Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District. He lost in a recount to Les Aspin.
He served from 1972 to 1974 as a state senator for Kenosha and has been reelected to the Secretary of State office every term since 1982 (he also served in the post from 1975-79).
La Follette seems most proud of his work as an environmentalist, noting he is a cofounder of Environmental Decade (now Clean Wisconsin) and helped the late U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson organize the first Earth Day in 1970.
Last year he was thrust in the spotlight when he used his statutory powers to delay publication of Wisconsin Act 10, the law pushed by Walker that strips most public workers of their collective bargaining rights.
That move earns La Follette props from Alice Astarita, a graduate student and member of the Teaching Assistants' Association.
"That was important," says Astarita, who calls La Follette a "dedicated public servant." "It slowed the process down."
Says La Follette: "I analyzed it and did what I thought was right."