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It’s on: WI Democrats now have a candidate in their quest to topple Walker

By   /   October 8, 2013  /   News  /   3 Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON – Ending months of media speculation, former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive Mary Burke threw her bicycle helmet into the political ring Monday, giving Wisconsin Democrats their first official candidate for governor in the party’s bid to take down the Republican they most love to hate.

The Madison millionaire in a campaign video released Monday plays up her experience as strategic manager for the company her dad started in a rural Wisconsin barn.

“Helping to turn my family’s business into a global company has been a big part of my life,” she says, surrounded by Trek bikes on work benches in the glossy campaign launch video. “Now I’d like to help our great state of Wisconsin even better, as your governor.”


MONEY TALKS: Madison millionaire Mary Burke becomes the first Democrat to launch an official campaign for governor, saying she wants to take on Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Of course, Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Mike Tate, who spent this past summer all-but anointing Burke as the Dem’s chosen one to topple Walker, rejoiced in Monday’s announcement.

“It’s exciting news that a proven leader like Mary Burke is entering the race for governor,” Tate said of the candidate’s entry into the 2014 race.

What must be most exciting for a state Democratic Party that reported a cash balance of $40,776.98 in July at the end of the last campaign finance reporting period is Burke’s personal wealth.

Burke, it is widely expected, will dig down deep into her own pocketbook to finance her run for governor. She did as much in her successful run for a seat on the Madison School Board, pumping $128,000 of her personal cash into the campaign.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dan Bice in late August reported Burke has paid $516,965 in state income taxes over the past five years, meaning she reported at least $6.8 million in adjusted gross revenue from 2008 to 2012.

“In other words, Burke — who has the backing of Democratic Party leaders — can claim official membership in the 1% club,” Bice wrote.

“I had no idea she was worth that much,” a “prominent state Democrat” reportedly told Bice in the article. “Wow, just wow.”

Burke, who may very well have a primary ahead of her — whether party leaders like it or not — faces a Republican incumbent who has proved to be  a titan of fundraising. Walker raised more than $3.45 million in the first six months of the year and had nearly $2.23 million on hand as of the end of the last campaign finance reporting cycle in July.

Walker is raising money at much faster rate than his predecessor, Democrat Jim Doyle, did in his race for a second term as Wisconsin governor. And an army of financial supporters came to Walker’s assistance in 2012, when the Republican faced and prevailed in a recall challenge led by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

John McAdams, political science professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, called Burke a “dream candidate” for Wisconsin Democrats, in part because of the dearth of quality gubernatorial candidates stepping forward and the Democrats’ limited bench.

McAdams believes self-funding may not be as important as some think, mainly because the Dems’ eagerness to toss Walker out of office should open a lot of big checkbooks.

“I think (Burke) will have no problem raising money,” the political scientist said. “I think Democrats all over America will be salivating at the chance to knock off Walker, and they could write some very big checks.” But McAdams agrees Burke, with a big pot of personal cash from which to draw, has a sizable advantage over potential Dems looking to challenge, such as Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma.

Burke’s involvement in the private sector, too, gives the Democrat some advantage in the race, McAdams said, perhaps enough to take the edge off of the “Madison liberal” label that will mark the candidate.

Burke seems to have an early handle on the spin essential in running a campaign.

In her campaign video, Burke notes her tenure as state Department of Commerce secretary under Doyle, boasting that during her time Wisconsin had 84,000 more jobs “than we have today.” True, during her time at the post, from January 2005 to October 2007, the state’s private sector added some 80,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that was right before the bottom fell out, and Wisconsin employers went on to shed nearly 150,000 jobs on Doyle’s watch. While the Great Recession hit the Badger State hard, some economists would argue Burke’s time at Commerce and the policies she supported had a role to play in the hemorrhaging.

A July 2009 report by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute pointed to the state’s failure creating jobs while it descended to “Alabama-level wages” during Doyle’s two terms in office.

“Since 2005, Wisconsin’s average wage has dropped by nearly 4 percentage points to 85.6 (percent) of the national average — roughly equal to wages in Alabama,” the WPRI report stated.

“Wisconsin’s drop in relative wages and drop in job growth is troubling. Generally, states with below-average wages see job growth as businesses move to areas with low operating costs. The demand for new employees then drives up local wages. Similarly, areas with high wages tend to see slowing job growth. Yet, Wisconsin has managed to slide to below-average wages and below-average job growth.

“In short, we have the worst of both worlds.”

The Republican Party of Wisconsin on Monday began painting the Democratic candidate as out of touch with the average Wisconsin voter, noting that Burke in the 1990s took a “snowboarding sabbatical midway through her career” after career burn out. The Capital Times in a 2011 Q&A notes Burke, now in her mid-50s, “briefly retired in her mid-30s to be a snowboard bum in Colorado.”

RPW executive director Joe Fadness, who once worked for the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Eric Hovde, another Madison millionaire, pointed to the $3.6 billion budget mess Walker inherited, a shortfall the governor and the Republican-led Legislature have replaced with more than a half-billion dollars in surplus.

McAdams said Walker’s campaign must see Burke as a candidate who could make a good run, but he doesn’t see them “quaking in their boots.”

“If I had to handicap it right now I’d say Walker by three or four points,” the political science professor said. Walker is election tested, McAdams said, winning his recall by seven percentage points and effectively coming out on top in a spate of proxy elections, Supreme Court races and 2012 legislative midterm elections among them since he was first elected governor in 2010.

“If there is no bad news for Walker, I’d say Walker is the favorite,” McAdams said. “It’s not by a runaway by any means, though. He’s probably a favorite to win narrowly. She’s an impressive enough candidate that Walker’s people are taking notice.”

Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]


M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.

  • Dan

    As someone who is talking about her business experience and who will – during the upcoming campaign – be wearing the mantle of job creator, Mary Burke needs to be asked: during your tenure as strategic manager at Trek, how many Trek jobs did you bring back to Wisconsin from the company’s Asian (China and Taiwan with some select parts coming from elsewhere, like Malaysia) manufacturing facilities that are making the lion’s share of Trek products for the American market? Or (more likely) did the number of Trek’s Wisconsin manufacturing jobs decrease with an expansion of overseas manufacturing?

    The very high-end Trek bikes are made here; the Trek bikes that the average casual-rider schmo might buy, and much of the “lower-end of the higher-end” are made overseas. Given that global strategy was under her purview at the time, this bears at least some relevance during any discussion of her past job-creation experience, as well as how her private-sector work directly affected jobs here in Wisconsin. If one strategic decision during her tenure was to increase overseas production while Wisconsin manufacturing remained the same or even saw a decrease… well, there you go.

    Businesses need to make decisions. Increased production – and where it happens – is one of them. If she wants to tout job creation (and I’m sure she does) then be sure to ask, “Are you talking about jobs created here, or those production jobs the company created overseas under your watch as strategic manager?”


    “Select Town bikes are assembled in Hartmansdorff, Germany, and the
    remainder of our bikes are built in Asian facilities under strict Trek

  • SJB

    It’s rather entertaining to see the democrat party get all enthused because they found a candidate with deep pockets when they are all but broke. There is a reason they have so little in their war chest.

  • Dan Behrens

    Has the world turned upside down? Does anyone remember an election with a business person with some government experience running against a career politician? It will be entertaining to see how both sides use the same weapons their parties used against them in 2012. Obviously not identical but funny just the same.