Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Mary Burke, Underdog Millionaire

She's raked in $1.8 million but is still far behind Walker in fundraising.

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There were, into the month of May, no signs in the front windows of Mary Burke’s campaign office across the street from the state Capitol in Madison, nothing to broadcast her name to the many people passing by.

That’s an odd missed opportunity for a candidate struggling to make herself known. A Marquette Law School poll in March found that an astonishing 59 percent of respondents did not have either a favorable or unfavorable impression of Burke. (A subsequent “Democratic-leaning” poll said seven in 10 respondents had an opinion of her, evenly divided.)

In modern political campaigns, shaping these impressions often hinges on money. And Burke, despite her personal wealth from family business Trek Bicycle, where she was an executive, is not likely to match the financial firepower of the incumbent, Gov. Scott Walker. In the 2012 recall election, Walker’s campaign spent $36 million.

“I am trying to raise enough money to get my message out,” Burke says in a recent interview at her inconspicuous headquarters. She vows to be deliberate in doing this “because I do expect unfortunately that I will be greatly outspent.” (See video excerpts from the interview below.)

Mary Burke: “I am trying to raise enough money to get my message out."

Mary Burke: “I am trying to raise enough money to get my message out.”

Burke, a Madison School Board member and former state Commerce Department secretary, is the clear front-runner among four Democrats vying to take on Walker this fall. Her personal wealth is seen as a key asset to her campaign. But part of her game plan is to impugn Walker’s support.

“I do point out how much money he raises from outside interests,” Burke says. “I think it strikes the people of Wisconsin as wrong. And it should.”

In the recall election and afterward, more than half of Walker’s money has come from people who live in other states. And that doesn’t include outside groups like the Republican Governors Association, which has already dropped $2 million on ads attacking Burke, and booked another $2 million in ads for this fall.

Burke sees such support as toxic, saying it comes from people with a narrow political agenda that’s out of step with Wisconsin values. She brands Walker a Tea Party conservative and political extremist.

Asked about these specific allegations, Walker campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre offers general remarks: “Under Gov. Walker’s leadership, Wisconsin has created over 100,000 jobs and nearly 17,000 new businesses, turned a $3.6 billion deficit into a $911 million surplus, and cut taxes by $2 billion. Wisconsin is moving in the right direction.”

Burke, who declared her candidacy in October, raised $1.8 million through Dec. 31, including $430,000 in self-contributions. During this same three-month period, Walker raked in $3.6 million, 52 percent from out of state.

About $224,000 of Burke’s reported contributions — 12 percent — came from other states. Burke says some of this comes from relatives and long-term friends and vows that, overall, “the vast majority of my money will be from inside the state.”

In fact, she would like to ban out-of-state contributions: “When you look at U.S. elections, we don’t let any foreign money play a role, so I don’t see why we should have out-of-state money coming into a gubernatorial race.” She even favors limits on “self-funders,” as part of comprehensive reform. Both ideas would face constitutional challenges.

“I would certainly look at all possible options,” Burke says, acknowledging that any solutions would have to hold up in court. The current system, she says, is just not working: “Money plays too big a role in terms of our elections and as governor I would work to reduce that impact.”

But first she has to get elected, under the current system.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

4 thoughts on “Mary Burke, Underdog Millionaire”

  1. Tyrell Track Master says:

    I like Burke and plant to support her but my god she has to get out there with some ideas. Entrepreneurial ideas, sustainability ideas, urban ideas… gotta have the guts to nail walker’s lack of understanding head on. Not get tied up in the crap about the unions … Walker’s methods were horrible but the unions *did* need to be reformed. She needs to admit this.

  2. PMD says:

    I also like Burke and want Walker gone, but she doesn’t stand a chance. 6 months before the election and nearly 60% of poll respondents have no opinion of her? Yikes.

  3. tomw says:

    Maybe it’s time to drop the timid and think big! The Dems or someone needs to start talking about an economy for all and not just some. It’s time to explain why infrastructure is important including high speed rail (I know it’s a four letter word to some) and why sustainable agriculture including so called “factory farms” are so important and what the state can do to support such without destroying the environment which in turn supports one of our greatest industries which is tourism. The conversation needs to be about climate change and how we, Wisconsin, can lead a change in addressing it through industries like wind turbines and solar panels. And let’s not forget how one of the leaders in this is Johnson Controls with UWM and UW-Madison collaborating on storage of energy. Dare to be bold there’s really nothing gained by just responding to the Republicans. Ms. Burke needs to show leadership not reaction.

  4. Jeanne P says:

    It really makes it hard when mainstream media chooses to limit coverage on her as a candidate for governor. That is true of both print media (Journal Sentinel) and local TV. Wisconsin has never had a woman as governor so one would think that there would be a lot of coverage on her but corporate-owned media calls the shots so that means tons of coverage of Walker, Ryan, Johnson, etc. In addition, the Democratic Party has not been good at coalescing, communication and messaging. With the poorly planned and failed recall of Gov. Walker, there should have been a change as to the leader of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin but that has not happened. 🙁

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