Mary Burke, Democratic candidate for governor, is hitting the campaign trail hard
MILWAUKEE--Mary Burke works the party room at La Perla restaurant in Milwaukee where she meets and greets 60 people who gather for a fundraiser on a cold December night.
Five bucks gets you in the door to size up the Democratic Party candidate who wants to take on Gov. Scott Walker next year.
Burke, 54, shakes hands, smiles and listens intently as people offer encouragement. Then she hops up some stairs and gives her 7-minute campaign speech, laying out her personal story — fourth-generation Wisconsinite, businesswoman, public servant — and what she brings to the race for governor.
"When we come together, that's how we do our best work, that's how we overcome our challenges," she says. "I call it the Wisconsin Way. I know how to create jobs. I know how to improve education. And that's how we're going to get Wisconsin on the path to prosperity."
In the marathon campaign for governor, Burke is already at a sprint.
Since announcing her candidacy in October, Burke has visited more than 30 counties, logged nearly 10,000 miles in her four-wheel drive Ford Escape and sat for more than 50 media interviews as she seeks to introduce herself to voters.
"We just knew we had to hit the ground running, get Mary out there to build a team and a statewide organization for next November," says campaign manager Maggie Brickerman. "We all feel great about the place we're in."
Republicans taking on Burke
Although State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) is pondering a low-budget, long-shot primary challenge, Burke and her team are concentrating on the general election race against Walker.
And Republicans are responding in kind, with a website and frequent news releases taking on Burke, a former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive who served in Gov. Jim Doyle's administration as commerce secretary.
"Mary Burke is desperately running from her record of raising taxes and putting our state into a downward spiral as part of the disastrous Doyle-Burke administration," says Joe Fadness, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
Fadness adds, "It's offensive that Mary Burke won't tell us where she stands on the issues. She has no plan for Wisconsin, no plan to help create jobs, no plan for our economy. The only thing she has to stand by is her failed record and Wisconsin deserves better."
In recent days, the GOP stepped up attacks on Burke for entering the race without a jobs plan.
"It will be an important part of my campaign," she says, adding that her jobs plan will be "one that is well thought out and one that I will implement as governor."
Sitting in a coffee shop in Green Bay, Burke discusses the state of the campaign. No one in the coffee shop appears to recognize her. That will likely change next year when the campaigns go on the air with advertisements.
Burke is backed by a significant political operation that includes 12 full-time staffers and an array of consultants, including strategists who have worked with President Barack Obama and Wisconsin's Democratic U.S. senator, Tammy Baldwin.
The campaign says it recently added two firms, BlueLabs, founded by senior members of the Obama team that pioneered the use of big data technology to contact likely supporters, and Anne Lewis Strategies, a digital marketing consultant.
"I need to be the candidate and I need to get out around Wisconsin and make sure people have a chance to know me and that I have an opportunity to hear what issues are important to them," Burke says. "To do that, I need to have campaign staff that I trust and that I delegate the running of the operation to."
Burke, a member of the Madison School Board, is eager to cement her relationship with the Democratic base. To some on the left, the rap against her is that she appears to be the handpicked candidate of the party elite, chosen because she has the funds to wage the race.
In an October article, Ruth Conniff, editor of The Progressive, summarized conventional wisdom on why Burke is either the perfect candidate, or an imperfect one. There were pluses, like business executive, job creator and public servant. But there was a zinger that stood out: "A rich lady who once took a year off to go snowboarding, and is out of touch with ordinary folks — including those who took part in the massive public uprising against Scott Walker."
Burke courting liberals
Burke has met with several prominent liberal bloggers and activist groups to convince them that she's a worthy candidate.
"Every time I sit down and talk to people who are progressives and they get to know me and my values, every single time people walk away and are supporting me," she says.
Burke, who is expected to spend millions of her own dollars on the race, is upbeat about fundraising.
"I'm starting from scratch," she says. "Not having been a candidate before, I don't have my big donor list, I don't have all my email lists. And to accomplish what we have accomplished in nine weeks is pretty amazing. I feel pretty confident that I'm going to be able to raise the sums that are going to be necessary to get the message out. Will I be out-fundraised? Yes. When Scott Walker raises nearly 70% of his money from out of state, that's going to be hard to beat. But what I feel is I'll be able to raise what I need to get the message out. My money is going to come largely from the people of Wisconsin."
Wisconsin's campaigns can be rugged, especially with the rise of negative advertising.
"I'm prepared for what they will throw at me," she says. "They have been doing it since June. It will get a lot tougher, a lot meaner, but it actually strengthens me. I get more resolved because I just feel that's not the type of leadership we need in this state."
She says her family is also prepared for the campaign, especially with Waterloo-based Trek Bicycle sure to come under a microscope. Burke's brother John is the firm's CEO. In November, the U.S. Department of Labor ruled that up to 20 Trek employees lost jobs to foreign-related layoffs. Liberal activists criticized the company.
"My brother has a pretty strong backbone himself," she says. "I, of course, believe the attacks on Trek are just completely unfounded. Trek is a great company, does great stuff for Wisconsin, has great people and treats its people really well. The largest single shareholder in Trek is the employee stock option group. It does so much for the community and it doesn't toot its horn very much. So, yes, it's not pleasant and it's not fair but it will happen, and before I got into this I made sure that my family was on board. I would not have gotten into it without their support."
Watching Burke at two small fundraisers, it's clear that she connects with her audience. They laugh at her punch lines and nod their heads in agreement when she discusses issues such as mining, women's health and Act 10, which put strict limits on collective bargaining for public workers.
"Talking to her makes me realize this is not a single-issue race," says Josh Ebert, a lead documentation specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "It's about a perspective on how Wisconsin can do better. Politics is more than sound bites and a compelling narrative. It's instilling hope."
Deb Stover, who opened her Suamico home to a small fundraiser for Burke, says the candidate impresses activists with her hard work.
"You can tell talking to her in less than five minutes how much more she knows about job creation than our current governor," Stover says.
In the months leading up to her campaign announcement, Burke says she consulted with hundreds of people around the state, including Brown County Democrats like Stover and Nancy Schleis.
"Every single question we asked, she answered," Schleis says. "She was forthcoming about her history, her plans, her vision."
Schleis says she likes Burke's message.
In her speeches, Burke answers the question of why she's running for governor.
"It's pretty simple," she says. "I love Wisconsin. We deserve better, a lot better."