Who Is Mary Burke?
After meeting and interviewing her, I still find Burke something of an enigma.
As she campaigns across the state, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke sometimes runs into Republican picketers dressed as snowboarders. Aside from proving what a wacky state this is, these demonstrators are meant to remind people that Burke quit her job at age 35 and snowboarded for a year in Colorado and Argentina. The horror.
Burke says she had been working 80 hour weeks for her family’s company, Trek Bicycle Corporation, and needed a sabbatical. Republicans have seized on this to portray her as a rich dilettante who is out of touch with average people.
Campaigns are about who tells the best story. Gov. Scott Walker’s portrayal of himself as an Eagle Scout took a beating after the emails of his Milwaukee County Executive staff made them look like tawdry and malicious. But Walker still remains very well-defined for voters as an ambitious, hard driving, career politician who as governor has cut taxes and spending.
Burke, by contrast, is hard to get a grasp on. Republicans have labeled her a Madison liberal, but the evidence suggests she has until recently been an independent who was apolitical. “I thought voting was being very political,” she tells me. Liberal democrats find her suspicious because she supports choice and charter schools and does not seem very pro-union (Trek is a non-union company).
That might actually help Burke present herself as a non-ideological problem solver. But to convince voters of this, she needs to sell us on her resume. And that’s where vagueness could hurt her.
This is only her second try for political office (she won an election for Madison school board) and the inevitable question is whether she is strong enough to take on a candidate like Walker, a tough campaigner who never seems to lose his steely, stay-on-message discipline.
She didn’t exude toughness in our interview, but then it occurred to me that at age 55, this woman with scant political experience has decided to run for statewide office against a very formidable foe. That takes a lot of guts.
Her brother John Burke, who succeeded their dad as CEO of Trek, recalls his sister as an intensely driven kid with a strong competitive streak. “Mary doesn’t like to lose,” he told the Madison weekly Isthmus. “[She] was definitely the hardest working; she got the best grades; she was a great athlete and a very good basketball player. There was one game where I bet she scored over 40 points.” And now she is engaged in what may be the biggest game of her life.
Her parents were mostly of German and Irish extraction and were political “independents,” she says. Though her father’s business ultimately made the family wealthy, that came later. Burke and her siblings grew up middle class in rural, Republican-leaning Waukesha, attending Swallow elementary school. “The big fun was when the cows got loose from the nearby farm and came on the school grounds,” she recalls.
For high school she attended University Lake School, with just 18 students in her graduating class. She played five sports a year: field hockey, volleyball, basketball, softball and on the boys tennis team (“they didn’t have enough boys on the team,” she recalls).
She loved math and numbers as a kid. Both of her parents graduated from the business program at Marquette University and Burke says “I wanted to be just like my dad.” In high school, she had a part-time job with an accounting firm in Milwaukee.
She got a a degree in finance from Georgetown University and was the top student in her class in finance. After graduation she worked for a management consulting firm, Strategic Planning Associates, in Washington D.C., and recalls working on a study for Eli Lilly Co. on how to handle an agricultural chemical it manufactured that was coming off patent.
She next attended Harvard Business School for her masters, where she also excelled academically. Upon graduation, she tried the consulting business again, working for McKinsey in New York City, but lasted less than a year. “I wanted to work in a company rather than give advice to a company. And there was the pull of coming back home and working for my father.”
But her father preached the idea that you had to earn everything, and didn’t immediately offer a job. By the time he did, Burke and a business partner had launched a new company based in New York, Manhattan Intelligence, a kind of resource guide to the city for newcomers, particularly business people.
Burke ended up working for Trek and trying to grow her start-up company at the same time. “I was working like 100 hour weeks,” she says. After nearly two years of work, she decided to give up on Manhattan Intelligence. “Frankly, we ran out of money. I think I underestimated how much it would take to succeed.” The failure of the business, she told Isthmus, “was a huge blow to my ego.”
So Burke concentrated only on Trek, where she would serve as Director of Operations in Europe for the company. “You’re dealing in all these different languages, setting up in new countries from scratch, setting up an office and warehouse, hiring people, setting up banking relationships. The markets in each country are very different, you are creating materials in different languages and setting up a network of independent bike dealers who will sell our bikes.”
A story in the Wisconsin State Journal quoted Steve Lindenau, who ran Trek’s German operations at the time and wondered if Burke’s hiring was a case of nepotism. “It wasn’t long before he considered Burke one of the smartest people he knew,” the story reports.
“Lindenau was used to making decisions from the gut based on his experience growing up around bike shops,” the story goes on. “Burke insisted on a different approach based on analyzing data and assembling all available information… ‘The business changed (to) being less of an emotional way of making decisions and more of a pragmatic approach,’ said Lindenau.”
Once she had built up the separate operations in various countries, each country director could report directly to Trek, Burke notes, and eventually her position wasn’t necessary. It was then she took that famous snowboarding sabbatical.
She came back to Trek after this and worked for the company for about 10 years, “most of it as head of forecasting and strategic planning,” she says.
She reported to her brother John Burke, who told the State Journal that she “came in and ‘tore the process apart’ using data analysis to reduce inventory levels and increase profits… ‘It went from one of the worst things we did as a company to one of the best,’ he said. ‘Mary has always been somebody who takes a look at things and thinks it can be done better.’”
Meanwhile, Burke was getting involved in philanthropy, in particular helping the Madison Boys and Girls Club, where she had started as a tutor. She was asked to join the board and began flexing her executive skills, the State Journal reports: “reviewing financial statements on weekends, generating fundraising ideas and laying the groundwork for transforming the South Side neighborhood club into a citywide organization. In 2002, she was unanimously elected president by fellow board members.”
“She was focused, she had the ability to raise money, she loved the cause and she had the Rolodex that is such a key part of getting anything done in those particular arenas,” the club’s founding president Peter Brey told the State Journal.
In 2004, after nearly a decade of work at Trek, she resigned to lead the Boys and Girls Club’s $6.25 million fundraising effort for a new state-of-the-art facility, and also served for a while as the organization’s interim director.
Then came the call from Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle asking her to take the job of Commerce Secretary. She was intrigued by the challenge and began in February 2005, managing 400 employees and a $221 million budget. Madison economic development director Aaron Oliver — who served as Burke’s deputy secretary and later Commerce secretary under Doyle — told the State Journal that Burke “introduced lean manufacturing principles in the department, seeking to reduce waste and improve efficiency…Dissatisfied with the lack of employee input in decision-making, Burke created employee labor management councils to help solve problems in the department. ‘Her M.O. is to get the right table of folks together to tackle a problem,’ Oliver said.”
Burke also had to deal with a 2006 audit which found the state had more than 150 economic development programs that often overlapped. The audit covered only six months of her tenure, Burke notes, but she agreed with many of its conclusions. “Commerce does not create the programs, the legislature does.” But, she adds, “we tried to implement the recommendations.”
Burke says there was much she loved about the job. “I spent a lot of time on the road. I’d meet with business people, the leading businesses, economic development folks, entrepreneurs, chambers of commerce.”
But she quit in October, 2007, after less than three years. Burke says she accomplished all she could (she insists she had no problems dealing with the Doyle administration) and was interested in returning to philanthropic work. She has worked in that arena since.
Her resume certainly suggests some restlessness. “Mary is always doing something different,” her brother told Isthmus. “She gets on something and follows it all the way through, and then she switches gears.” And her financial independence (she is reputed to be a millionaire) gives her the freedom to make such choices.
As Republicans suggest, it is not your standard resume. They are doing their best to find any inconsistencies and shop this to Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice, who mans the newspaper’s dirt patrol.
Nor has Burke lived the average sort of life. Notably, she has never married. “Like a lot of kids I thought I’d grow up and be married,” she says. “Life doesn’t always turn out like you expect it.”
But by all accounts, Burke is a driven, hard worker who has succeeded in the business and philanthropic spheres. In her relative indifference to politics, she resembles former Republican governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus, who had never served in politics and stepped down after just one term in office. In her late start to politics, she exactly parallels Ronald Reagan, who was first elected governor at age 55.
She may lack the extroverted charisma of Reagan or Dreyfus, but Burke does present a clear contrast to a career politician like Walker, whose life story echoes that of Bill Clinton or LBJ, who knew from childhood they wanted to rise to the top in politics.
Republicans, of course, are very aware of the appeal of the outsider from the business world: they’ve seen Ron Johnson become U.S. Senator with just that sort of resume. So they will be battling every inch of the way to take apart Burke’s business history. Ultimately, more so than any of the issues, her background and personality may be the key to the race. If voters become comfortable with the idea of Mary Burke as a leader, they might decide it’s time for a change.