Why you should care
Mary Burke might heal Wisconsin’s political divides and derail Republican Scott Walker’s bid for the presidency — that is, if she’s not too centrist to get elected.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
Mary Burke has squeezed me in on a Sunday morning — 9 a.m. Central — and even over the phone she reminds me of the girls I grew up with in Iowa. In a good way. It might be the trace Midwestern accent that can turn Wisconsin into ’Skahnsin and Washington into Worshington.
Photos show a blonde woman smiling wide and forthright, eyes squinted as if she were facing the sun. Burke looks about 15 years younger than her 55, possibly because of her bangs, possibly because of the bob that’s long enough to tie back when she does something sporty, which is often. Those Iowa girls, too: They were athletic and pretty, but sensible and ambitious.
Somewhere I read that Burke scored 40 points in a high school basketball game. Burke delights at the trivia but hastens to correct me. It might have been 34 points or 36 points, and it’s best to get it right — or else, she says, “I’ll get Politifact-ed!”
Yes, the stakes are high in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race, where Burke is challenging incumbent Scott Walker. She is a seasoned businessperson, with a Harvard MBA, a penchant for 100-hour workweeks and years of executive experience at her father’s company, Trek Bicycle. But she has little electoral experience and was, until recently, little known even inside Wisconsin.
The race could shape U.S. politics for years to come.
Walker, on the other hand, is known and polarizing, beloved or despised. He’s a college dropout who treats politics like the preacher’s kid he is: as a vocation. In 2011, not long after taking office, Walker became a conservative poster boy for facing down the unions — or eviscerating them, depending where you stand. After surviving a recall vote, he’s now an early Republican favorite for the 2016 presidential nomination.
So long as he beats Burke. And there’s a good chance he won’t.
Yesterday’s Marquette University poll gives Burke a slight edge in likely voters, and Walker a slight edge in registered voters. This is why journalists who’ve never set foot in Wisconsin, and Super PACs, and Politifact, and national party apparati and, of course, unions are all obsessed with the Burke-Walker race. It “could shape U.S. politics for years to come,” the New Republic opined this week.
Certainly it will shape Wisconsin, a purple state that’s long cleaved between cities like Milwaukee and Madison (the latter so crunchy it started a composting program way back in 1989) and Walker’s largely white suburban base. This is, after all, the state that’s gave us both populist “Fighting Bob” LaFollette and anticommunist witch-hunter Sen. Joe McCarthy.
And, of course, Walker, whose fight with the unions deepened the state’s divisions. The recall vote nearly tore Wisconsin apart. Dinner-table conversations got angry, then silent, and email chains got tense.
Burke might skirt those rifts. She hews moderate, maybe to court the tiny swath of voters — supposedly about 5 percent — that are persuadable. She emphasizes job creation and hard work, especially hard work. Over and over, she returns to some combination of those words: hard work, work harder, hard worker. Everyone should have the opportunity to work hard.
Did Burke ever think she’d end up so close to the threshold of the Wisconsin governor’s mansion?
I knew they’d throw every lying dirty trick in the book at me.
– Mary Burke
“There aren’t too many people who go to HBS [Harvard Business School] with that in mind, if they’re Democrats,” she says. “I grew up wanting to be a businessperson like my dad. I was always very focused on that.” She was class treasurer in high school, not president, and it wasn’t until the spring of 2013, she says, that “running for governor … entered my mind.”
That she never married may also attest to the recency of her political ambition. Unmarried female leaders are rare, but until recently they were almost nonexistent. “It’s hard for me to think that it’s an issue,” says Burke of her marital status. “I talk every day about how … I’m completely, 100 percent committed to the people of Wisconsin.”
Burke comes with some statewide political experience, though. She left Trek from 2005 to 2007 to be Wisconsin’s commerce secretary under Walker’s predecessor, Jim Doyle, and has since worked in education. She founded a public-private partnership that focuses on educational mentorship and has been on the Madison school board since 2012.
A chunk of her platform consists of overturning the most right-wing of Walker’s policies. She supports collective bargaining, for instance — she frets about the state’s young teachers heading to neighboring Minnesota — and would reverse Walker’s refusal to accept federal Medicaid funding in exchange for participating in Obamacare. She’s also promised fiscal responsibility. Safe stances, and they might not stir folks in Milwaukee to come out and vote for a wealthy white businesslady, especially in a non-presidential election year. Hatred of Walker alone might not rally the radical-left base, either.
But Republicans are scared. They’ve plowed $18.7 million into Walker’s campaign since 2012 — three times Burke’s haul — and taken swings at the family business, Trek, for “outsourcing” jobs. (Burke’s brother John, who is company president, took out a full-page ad in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asserting that Trek makes more bikes in the U.S. than any other American company.)
The Republicans have called her “Millionaire Mary,” too.
“I knew they would throw every lying dirty trick in the book at me,” says Burke, fiery and faster now. “I was brought up on the values that you — you judge people by their contributions and their consideration of other people and the values that they hold, and that’s the type of way I’ve run my life, and that’s how I view things. To me it’s not about how much money people have.
“I think I grew up like many other kids did,” she continues, with “Midwestern values of hard work, and fairness, and you give back to your community, and the more you have the more you have to give back.” Burke remembers school trips to farms and cheese factories, cows sneaking onto the school playground, lemonade stands, and I’m again transported back to a world I’m certain no longer exists.