Three days before Wisconsinites head to the polls to elect their next governor, two final public polls show the race between controversial Gov. Scott Walker and business leader Mary Burke remains a virtual dead heat.
Walker leads by only one point in both polls, well within their margin of error. Both campaigns have acknowledged that their success on Election Day — Tues., Nov. 4 — depends on who turns out to vote.
Public Policy Polling released a survey yesterday that found Walker with a 48–47 lead over Burke. The poll is operated by Democrats and often criticized for favoring that party. But a respected Fordham University study following the 2012 elections showed that PPP was the most accurate pollster in the nation for that year’s races.
Also released yesterday was the final poll from YouGov, which showed Walker leading Burke 42–41. Both polls are consistent with the results of repeated polls over the last two months.
“The final public polls released over the last few days confirm what we’ve known for months — the race between Scott Walker and Mary Burke is all going to come down to turnout,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Mike Tate said today. “Wisconsin voters need to know this race is incredibly close and their vote will make a difference between four more years of Scott Walker’s failed policies or a new direction with Mary Burke.”
Burke is fighting back with new ads addressing a smear campaign by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin Reporter, a right-wing publication with ties to the ultra-conservative Bradley Foundation. The foundation’s leader Michael Grebe is also the chairman of Walker’s reelection campaign.
In the 2012 recall election of Walker, the Bradley Foundation was widely condemned for placing billboards in Milwaukee’s predominantly African-American neighborhood that warned voter fraud is a felony. The billboards were seen as part of a coordinated right-wing effort to legitimize the unproven myth that voter fraud is an actual problem.
The Wisconsin Reporter’s smear piece on Burke quoted three GOP operatives who once worked for Trek Bicycle Corp., owned by Mary Burke’s Family. All three said she was fired in 1993 as head of Trek’s European operations.
Denounced as patently false by Mary Burke, current Trek CEO John Burke and others who worked at Trek during those years, the story was nonetheless picked up by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which has endorsed Walker in the past and seemed to endorse him again last Sunday in an article that was not tagged as an endorsement. The newspaper used it as one of two top cover stories, placing it in a prominent position above its fold and next to a story about an unlikely poll from Marquette University Law School showing Walker surging ahead by seven points among likely voters.
Today, the Journal Sentinel placed a story about Burke’s campaign firing back against the GOP’s smear campaign on the cover. But the story read like an attempt to reignite the false claims for readers who missed the first smear piece. It made no attempt to update readers on negative information about Burke’s accusers that has come to the forefront in the past few days or to speak with former Trek employees who disagree with her critics.
The same pro-Walker Marquette poll headlined by the Journal Sentinel a few days ago had, only a week prior, showed Burke ahead among likely voters; and even the more recent poll showed only one point separating the two candidates among registered voters, although the paper’s editors decided to go with the pro-Walker angle in its headline. That led many Burke supporters to dismiss the most recent Marquette poll as either an outlier or as intentionally manipulated to help its favorite son (even though he failed to graduate) out of a tight spot.
In the Journal Sentinel’s smear piece against Burke, the three bylined reporters spoke only to John Burke to defend his sister, creating the perception that no one else disputed the assertions of the Republican operatives. While the Journal Sentinel article revealed that one of the Republican Burke critics — Gary Ellerman — has posted on Facebook comparisons between President Barack Obama and Hitler, the piece did not mention that he believes Michelle Obama is really a man and that the president is, in his words, a “homo.”
Ellerman, who chairs the Jefferson County Republican Party, quickly deleted his Facebook page after receiving media calls. Ellerman ran as a “fake” Democrat in the 2011 state Senate recall elections.
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin has called on Walker to fire Ellerman from his chairmanship.
Trek dismissed Ellerman for incompetence in 2004, giving him a personal axe to grind, as John Burke charged. Another of the Burke detractors also had reason to retaliate: In addition to being a volunteer on Walker’s campaign, he heads one of Trek’s primary competitors — Specialized Bicycle Components.
All three of the Burke critics who were given a splashy, uncritical treatment in the conservative press are staunch Republicans and Walker supporters who have longstanding political involvement with him. That led Burke to accuse Walker of being behind the smear.
Walker famously acknowledged that he’d considered planting fake protesters to incite violence in the demonstrations outside the Capitol in 2010, and there’s video of him bragging to a mega-wealthy donor that his political strategy is based on “divide and conquer.” Such statements demonstrate his willingness to participate in dirty tricks, such as the 11th-hour revelations from Burke’s right-wing former colleagues at Trek.
In the “divide and conquer” video, he suggests that his goal is to make Wisconsin a “right to work” state, a subject he’s been coy about on the campaign trail as he tries to woo moderates and independents.
Six companies in five years
“The fact is, my track record, is I created six companies in less than five years (at Trek). I grew sales from $3 million to over $50 million and I did all of this before I was 35 years old,” Burke said on the campaign trail yesterday.
John Burke confirmed that his sister left during a corporate restructuring and that the work she did remains a profitable asset to the company today. In fact, far from firing Burke, Trek asked her to come back to the company two years later to head global forecasting.
None of that was mentioned in the Journal Sentinel story, which took her to task over a snowboarding sabatical that she took as if it was a criminal activity. Burke has repeatedly stated that she worked part time creating trade shows during the two years in question, but she acknowledged that she wanted some time off as well. In forcing her on the defensive over such an odd story that occurred more than 20 years ago, the Journal Sentinel succeeded in trivializing her business achievements, especially since the coverage was not accompanied by side-by-side comparisons with Walker’s activities during that period. Those activitiesincluded being disciplined by Marquette University for breaking its campaign rules in his bid for student body president, quitting college and dealing rumors that he got a Marquette student pregnant around the time he left. That last rumor was initially reinforced by comments posted by Daniel Bice, one of the writers bylined on the Journal Sentinel’s smear piece on Burke. Bice later said he investigated the charges and was convinced they were not true.
The head of Trek’s German operations joined John Burke and others in praising Burke’s performance in developing the company’s European operations. Both said she established a profitable market, complete with supply-chain and marketing operations, from scratch.
“Mary built the foundation of a business in Europe that continues to pay dividends today,” John Burke told the Wisconsin State Journal. “What’s happening here is people are trying to discredit what Mary accomplished. What I’m saying is ‘No, I was there, Mary accomplished an amazing thing.’ ”
John Burke described the media-coordinated, last-minute smear of his sister as “a highly orchestrated move by Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign.”
“This is what you get with Scott Walker-style politics,” said Burke campaign spokesman Joe Zepecki. “Convictions, arrests, shady donations, secret email systems. This is what the people of Wisconsin are going to reject next Tuesday.”
Among the many related issues missing from all of the right-wing newspaper attacks on Burke’s credentials is the fact that Walker has no business management experience, has run up a budget deficit despite huge cuts in government spending, failed to create more than 40 percent of the 250,000 jobs he pledged in his 2010 campaign, turned down $4 billion in federal aid to the state and made a shambles of both the Milwaukee County Executive’s office and his flagship job-creation organization — the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
Ironically, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contends that WEDC was a smart idea that was terribly managed, and the paper cited the business-experienced Burke saying she would keep the agency but overhaul it as proof that it dosn’t deserve the wrecking ball.
The ‘anti-woman’ card
Burke’s three GOP detractors accused her not only of being fired for incompetence but also of having a difficult “management style,” which is often used as euphemism among misogynists to describe strong, confident women. That characterization, given the lack of high-level women executives in 1993, suggests to many Burke followers that her white male critics didn’t like answering to a young woman with an MBA from Harvard University Business School.
Neither Burke nor her campaign would talk about that hot-potato aspect of the story, illustrating how difficult it is for women to run for public office. If they behave with the same aggression that a male candidate would, they offend men. If they complain about the unequal treatment they’re given due to their gender, then they face backlash for “playing the woman card.”
Numerous anti-Burke comments that Wisconsin Gazette has had to remove from its Facebook page have attacked the candidate for her appearance, while only two commenters out of the more than 30,000 who’ve seen WiG’s supportive Burke posts on Facebook in recent days have slammed Walker over his looks, specifically his large bald spot, which one commenter said is big enough to host a Burke campaign sign.
While no woman candidate wants to play the “woman card,” the “anti-woman card” gets played frequently and sometimes and it can create a backlash of its own. The Republican Party — both nationally and in Wisconsin — is widely accused by progressives for waging what they call a “war on women.” The result has been a wide gender gap among voters.
Walker’s record is as hostile toward women as any governor’s in the nation. He vetoed legislation mandating equal pay for women doing the same jobs as men. He and Assembly Republicans eliminated funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides poor women with STD testing and pre-natal care. Wisconsin Republicans have also eliminated many pre-kindergarten programs, making it impossible for many mothers to work.
Perhaps the most draconian measure that Wisconsin Republicans have taken against women is a state law forcing women who want to terminate their pregnancies to undergo medically unnecessary and invasive ultrasounds that involve placing wands in their vaginas and then forcing the women to look at pictures of the fetal cells in their wombs. Virtually all women’s health experts and groups that oppose government interference with personal freedom have condemned the law in the strongest terms possible.
Walker has denied any involvement in the smear campaign against Burke. He even released a TV ad calling himself sympathetic to women on the issue of abortion, despite opposing abortion even in cases of rape and incest and when the mother’s life is in danger.
The question is will voters fall for the desperate anti-Hail Mary pass to save Walker, who’s divided the state perhaps more than any other governor in history while and presiding over the worst job-growth rate of any governor in the region? Or will voters rally on Tuesday against such sordid tactics and give Burke the edge by showing up to vote in a race so razor-thin that every single vote counts.