Former Trek executive Mary Burke brings strong business record to Democratic gubernatorial race

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Democrat Mary Burke announced today that that she’s running for governor next year.

The candidate, who’s been meeting with officials and influencers around the state for months to explore a bid, lost no time in taking aim at Gov. Scott Walker for Wisconsin’s dismal job-creation record.

“Wisconsin ranks 45th out of 50 states in projected job growth,” Burke said in an online video announcing her entry into the governor’s reelection race. “We’re fifth from the bottom. I’m running for governor because we can do better than that. A lot better. But to do it, we’ve got to make some real changes in Madison.”

Burke, 54, is positioning herself as a job creator with private-sector business experience. As a former executive at Trek, the bicycle company founded by her father in 1976, Burke served as director of European operations, helping to create and manage companies in seven countries.

“I know that Wisconsin workers can compete with anyone in the world. That’s why when you look around at places like Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio, whose economies are creating more jobs than ours, you wonder what the heck’s going on?” Burke said in her announcement.

It’s likely her campaign will sharply contrast her business experience with Walker’s. The governor’s private-sector experience includes a part-time job as a warranty salesman for IBM while attending Marquette University, followed by four years as a fundraiser for the American Red Cross.

Walker never completed his degree at Marquette. He left shortly after being suspended for violating the university’s campaign rules while running for student body president.

In contrast, Burke has an MBA from Harvard University. She served briefly as former Gov. Jim Doyle’s commerce secretary and is currently a member of the Madison School Board.

Burke’s exploratory outreach included meetings with LGBT leaders in the state, as well as a quick, impromptu visit to the Wisconsin Gazette on Oct. 4.

“We welcome Mary Burke to the race for governor and look forward to engaging in a robust dialogue through our endorsement process about her vision for supporting the LGBT community as governor of Wisconsin,” said Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger.

Some Democratic officials view Burke as the best choice for governor because she can use her personal wealth to help overcome Walker’s enormous fundraising advantage. The governor has raised $3.5 million in the first half of this year alone to support his reelection.

A great favorite of the Republican’s tea party faction, Walker appears to have limitless financial support from the corporate right, which considers Wisconsin among the most critical states in its war against labor unions, corporate taxes, the minimum wage, women’s pay equity, environmental regulations, consumer protections, government-subsidized health care and easy access to voting. Many of the most controversial policies approved by Walker include boiler-plate legislation created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-right group that develops model legislation that benefits big business.

Democratic Party of Wisconsin officials welcomed Burke into the race.

“It’s exciting news that a proven leader like Mary Burke is entering the race for governor,” said Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Mike Tate in a statement. “Between her track record of growing good-paying private sector jobs right here in Wisconsin and experience as an executive in the public and nonprofit sectors, Mary really understands how to create jobs and opportunity for Wisconsinites. Mary also knows that the way we move forward is together. Her history of bringing people together for the betterment of our state will serve as a stark contrast to Scott Walker’s style of divisive extremism.”

But Democratic officials stopped short of endorsing the highly polished Burke over other Democrats this early in the election cycle.

“We know that Wisconsin deserves better than Scott Walker and are confident that Democrats will field the strongest possible candidate to take him on next year,” Tate’s statement said.

In the months leading up to Burke’s announcement, Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout had said she would not oppose Burke for the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nomination if the latter decided to run. Vinehout ran in last year’s primary to select a Democratic opponent to run against Gov. Scott Walker in his recall election.

But following Burke’s announcement, Vinehout said she’s still considering a run for Wisconsin governor. Vinehout, who said she wants the state to elect a woman governor, plans to announce her final decision early next year.

Two more obscure Democrats, Hariprasad Trivedi and Marcia Mercedes Perkins, also have filed gubernatorial campaign committees.

In addition to Burke’s ability to provide some of her own financing, she appeals to many Democratic leaders because of her slim public record. The longer a candidate’s political dossier, the easier it is for opposition researchers to spin a vote or statement out of context and then use it in political advertising.

But Burke is not popular among the most liberal Democrats, some of whom dismiss her as an elitist. They disapprove of her wealth, her support for a charter school in Madison over opposition from a teacher’s union and for spending $120,000 on her school board campaign.

In July, a Daily Kos blogger criticized Burke as a leftist Mitt Romney and said she would hurt Democrats. In non-presidential elections, when each party’s hardcore political base is more likely to vote than swing voters, candidates who fail to catch fire with their party’s most engaged voters often lose. The Daily Kos blogger claimed that Burke falls into that category.

In online rants, some staunch liberals are comparing Burke to Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, a progressive who has earned their ire for making decisions stressing fiscal responsibility in budgeting and spending. But that same characteristic has earned him praise from middle-of-the road voters seeking decision-makers who emphasize problem-solving over ideology.

At any rate, Democratic officials – privately, at least – seem bullish on Burke for the same reasons that ideological purists oppose her. They say it will be hard for the political right to pin the epithet “Madison tax-and-spend liberal” on her candidacy.

But then her candidacy is only several hours old.