Burke gives Wisconsin Democrats a new approach

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Associated Press | August 14, 2014

JANESVILLE -- Only a few years ago, Wisconsin was the scene of huge protest rallies that shut down the state Capitol, a failed attempt to recall the new Republican governor and an outpouring of end-times rhetoric by Democratic loyalists about the stunning loss of their government power.

That turbulent history is hardly in evidence as Mary Burke makes her way around the state these days, introducing herself to voters as a Democratic candidate for governor. In fact, she seems to be ignoring it, even though she is aiming to oust Republican Scott Walker and end his conservative revolution in Madison.

Whether mingling on small-town streets, giving radio interviews or appearing at union hall rallies, Burke speaks in measured tones, saying little that stirs the old partisan passions.

"I come at this from a business perspective," she told voters in Janesville last month, "and you better have a detailed plan, and a plan that's going to work."

Burke is the Wisconsin Democrats' attempt at a reboot after their worst losses in recent history. They lost to Walker in the 2010 governor's race, again to him in the recall and to Walker's Republican allies in the Legislature as they stripped the Democrat-leaning public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights, triggering the protests. The latest polls peg the race as a dead heat, and groups on both sides are investing millions of dollars in the contest.

While populist slogans, union rights and anti-elite insults are the traditional red meat of Democratic rallies, Burke -- a former top executive at Wisconsin's Trek Bicycles -- is trying to win as an experienced business professional with a plan for improving the state's under-performing economy. The idea is to attract more people concerned about Wisconsin's fiscal health than labor issues.

It's a test Democrats in other Midwestern states with similarly shrinking union bases will be watching.

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