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.”
“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]