Uncommon candidate Burke defies easy categorization

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Republicans and Democrats alike have struggled for months to brand gubernatorial nominee Mary Burke with sound bites and labels. But Burke has proven too complex for the sloganeering that dominates today’s political process.

In the early days of the campaign, right-wing talk radio tried to label Burke “Millionaire Mary.” But that epithet came off as laughably hypocritical in the mouths of politicos who pander to wealthy interests. 

Lefties initially perceived Burke as icy and removed. But as they became familiar with her broad smile, the countless hours she’s given to helping disadvantaged youth and her penchant for hugging over shaking hands, that mirage soon evaporated.

Burke is an original, both politically and personally. A third-generation Wisconsinite, she exudes the bedrock Midwestern  values of hard work and fairness. The most damning criticism the GOP’s opposition research could find about Burke is that she took time off between jobs 20 years ago to travel. She even went snowboarding.

Burke says she’s alternately bemused and frustrated by the way politics is dominated by marketing that distracts voters from the real issues and offers voters no solutions. She says she’s eager to solve problems, not sling mud.

“I knew what I was getting into,” she says. “The silliness is part of this. I ignore it. I focus on what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is letting people get to know me and what kind of governor I’d be.”

Businesswoman at heart

Burke’s spent her recent years in public service, with an emphasis on working with youth. In addition to sitting on the Madison School Board, she’s volunteered for the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County since the late 1990s. 

But Burke is at heart a businesswoman, more comfortable analyzing budgets than rallying crowds with fiery speeches. On the stump, she advocates raising the minimum wage and expanding health care, but she never fails to remind listeners that she views government as a tool to help people who are willing “to do the hard work” to lift themselves up, not to foster dependency.

If Burke were conservative, she’d be a dream candidate for the GOP ticket. For the better part of the past generation, Republicans have sought out candidates they can position as government outsiders and business leaders with real-world experience. They’ve spent billions of dollars demonizing career politicians while building up the need for leaders with successful entrepreneurial and private sector management experience.

In this race, that candidate is Burke. Walker is the career politician who’s never even held a substantial job outside of politics.

‘A can-do bunch’

Burke says she wanted to be an entrepreneur ever since she was a small child, inspired largely by her father Dick Burke. He was already a successful businessman when he founded Trek Bicycle Corp. in 1976. 

Family friend Dick Gallun remembers how surprised he was when the elder Burke went to him in the 1970s and said that he was starting a bicycle company.

“I said, ‘You’re crazy. Who wants to compete with Schwinn?’” Gallun says, laughing.

Gallun, 79, is a former Republican fundraiser who turned Democrat after President George W. Bush went to war in Iraq. Now he’s a strong Mary Burke supporter. Disgusted with the partisanship and political stunts that characterize politics in Wisconsin today, Gallun says the state needs a business-oriented, smart and grounded leader like Burke now more than ever. 

Mary Burke was 17 years old when her father started Trek, the company that would put him on the map and today pumps nearly $100 million into the state economy and employs 1,000 Wisconsinites. Gallun remembers her as a very smart child and the Burke clan as impressively ambitious, hard-working and highly competitive. One of Burke’s brothers mentored Gallun’s son at competitive tennis.

“They were a can-do bunch,” Gallun says. 

Trek started in the famous “red barn,” actually a former carpet warehouse. But it grew rapidly. In 1980, Trek built a 26,000-square-foot facility in Waterloo. The company was a trailblazer in the development of carbon fiber frames and cycling apparel.

In 1999, Lance Armstrong rode a Trek 5500 into cycling history, becoming the first American to win the Tour de France on an American team riding an American-made bicycle. Today John Burke, Mary’s brother, runs the business, which has operations in 30 countries — many of them established from the ground up by Mary Burke. In fact, she had a large hand in growing the company’s European sales from $3 million to $50 million annually. Her business success brought her to the attention of former Gov. Jim Doyle, who asked her to serve as his commerce secretary.

Burke, 55, spent her earliest years in Wauwatosa before the family moved to Hartland, a village in Waukesha County, when she was in the fourth grade. Family life centered around sports and competitive games. The family was apolitical, she says. Issues were discussed around the family dinner table, but never in a partisan way. During high school, she focused on studies and sports, playing on the field hockey, volleyball, basketball and tennis teams.

“It wasn’t that I was such a great athlete; it was a small school,” she says. “We all played five or six sports. But I was really a sports fan. In my room, I had posters of athletes on my wall.”

Family events always featured a variety of competitions and games. “I’ve spent time with a bunch of her family members, and they all talk about all of the sports they played,” says Burke’s communication director Joe Zepecki. “That was a big part of who she is and probably where her competitive nature was formed.”

Thanksgiving dinners with the Burkes wouldn’t be complete without peanut toss competitions and outdoor miniature golf — even in the snow. “We form two-person teams, so everyone gets to play, young and old, from 6 to 85,” Burke says.

Since childhood, Burke, who was treasurer of her senior class in high school, has been the go-to person in the family when it comes to numbers. She’s the official scorekeeper at family events and she doles out the prizes — including, she admits, a rubber chicken for the loser. 

Even though the family was financially successful, Burke’s parents lived modestly and gave the kids plenty of chores and responsibilities around the house. “It was put on your big-boy pants and do whatever you need to get done. I was brought up to believe that I could do anything as long as I was prepared to do the hard work,” she says. 

For instance, when Burke was 10, she and her siblings were assigned the task of building a stone walkway to the house. Burke’s mother loaded the kids into the family’s used Buick station wagon, and off they went to a quarry in nearby Sussex.

“We’d pull in beside these massive trucks where they’d weigh the car,” she remembers. “And then we’d drive down to the quarry and we’d load up the stones in the back of the station wagon and then get back in line with the trucks to get weighed. We were the only station wagon I saw there all summer. Then we had to haul all the stones out of the car, too. This was hot, dusty, hard work. I still kid my mom to this day about all the hard labor she made us do. And her comeback is, ‘It builds character.’”

Midwest modest

Despite her family’s wealth, Burke lives in a simple two-bedroom bungalow with a one-car garage off Madison’s Willy Street, where she’s frequently seen walking her dogs. It’s a house where her grandfather used to deliver the mail.

Both of Burke’s parents went to Marquette University, where Walker also went before dropping out. Burke, on the other hand, attended Georgetown University and later received an MBA from Harvard Business School, famous for its emphasis on statistical analysis. 

The inclination Burke always had toward math blossomed in the program. She evolved into an expert numbers-cruncher and a budget maven — the very skills Republicans have placed next to godliness in conservative voters’ heads.

“When we’re talking statistics and budgets, I know my stuff,” Burke says, but only after being pressed. It takes prodding to get Burke to shake off her modesty.

“I was not a great student because I’m smart, but because I worked hard,” she says.

After months on the campaign trail, Burke still frustrates her staff with her innate humility. She is uncomfortable with boasting. It goes against the grain of her Midwestern character.

“When I heard she was running for governor, I called Mary up to congratulate her,” says Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County. “And I said, ‘Mary, you’ve got to let people know about the good stuff you’ve been doing.’ She’s done some rock-star good deeds in her life, but she’s uncomfortable talking about it — and I don’t know why.”

“My parents are very modest,” she explains. “My dad was a successful man. People say he must have been a larger-than-life character. But what made him so great was that he wasn’t. He was a guy who didn’t want to be picked out in a room. He didn’t want to stand out. Standing up and tooting your own horn and being the center of attention is not how I grew up.”

Although Burke has no children of her own, her volunteerism and philanthropy have focused largely on youth and education. In addition to serving on Madison’s school board, she co-founded an innovative public-private partnership that helps kids at risk of dropping out to remain in school and continue on to college. Called AVID/TOPS, the program has more than a 90-percent success rate.

But no charities are closer to her heart than the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County. In a roundabout way, she says, her involvement with the group led her on the path that resulted in her gubernatorial bid. It realigned her focus toward public service and a stronger commitment to her community.

Burke’s volunteerism with the group began when she became a Big Sister to two at-risk kids — the siblings of a boy her brother was mentoring. Soon she was keeping the organization’s books, and before long her role with the group had blossomed into essentially an unpaid job.

Burke served as the organization’s president for several years, growing it from an annual budget of $1.4 million to $4 million. She led a fundraising campaign that resulted in the building of a $6 million, state-of-the-art facility to serve underprivileged Madison youth. 

Full-on commitment 

Burke has succeeded at nearly everything she’s done in life, according to her friends and colleagues. A notable exception was the first company she founded — Manhattan Intelligence. The company was designed as something of a pre-Internet version of Yelp for people interested in customized suggestions of things to do and places to go in New York City. The rapid rise of personal computing and search engines such as Google helped to doom the effort.

Burke’s co-founder in the enterprise was her Harvard Business School classmate Allen Sperry. A self-described “No. 1 Mary Burke fan,” Sperry says he’s never met anyone who works harder.

“We rented a loft in SoHo, which was our office space, and she lived in that space,” he remembers. “She put a futon in a closet and when we would all go home, she would stay and work.”

Burke taught herself how to program the business’ database. She raised capital and managed the staff. “She covered the business on all fronts,” Sperry says. “Everyone who worked there liked her and everybody was inspired by her commitment. When she commits, it’s a full-on commitment.

“A friend of ours from business school said that Mary would be the perfect person to have around if you were back on the prairie in 1850 and got attacked by bandits. She’d have a baby in one hand and a rifle in the other. She’s very nurturing and caring, but she’ll fight back. That woman has a deep, deep resource of drive and strength and courage the like of which you don’t see in many people.”

Burke’s drive extends even into her social life, says Karen Weltzin, a Madison friend of 20 years. When the two took up golfing, Burke worked with an instructor until she got her handicap down to two or three, Weltzin says. But she didn’t stop there. She also was elected the first female president of the golf club, according to Weltzin.

Underneath all the drive, however, is a very fun-loving woman and a sharing friend with a dry wit — a woman who loves to try out new restaurants, read the latest mystery novels and exercise, Weltzin says. She’s comfortable in her own skin and very informal. She takes her dogs with her to the campaign office.

“She’s really just got a heart of gold,” Weltzin says.

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