The Battle Between Walker and Burke
They are two wildly different personalities with quite different agendas. A frank look at both candidates for governor.
November 2, 2010 was quite a day for Scott Walker. It was his 43rd birthday and the day he won election as governor, an ebullient, still-youthful looking politician whose victory speech to his joyous crowd of followers was punctuated repeatedly with the rhythmic message: “Wisconsin is open for business!” Walker had run as the man who would ramp up the state’s depressed economy and jack up employment by delivering a quarter million new jobs. His first act would be to work with both parties to create a jobs agenda, he promised the crowd, which by the end of this speech was chanting his slogan, “Wisconsin is open for business!”
In fact, Walker has fallen fall short of delivering 250,000 jobs, and the state has badly trailed the nation on most measures of economic development for four years. And no, Walker’s first act wasn’t to create a bipartisan jobs agenda, but to pass a law — bitterly contested by Democrats — that all but abolished public unions. The man who promised he would be “a governor for the entire state,” even for those who voted against him, now governs over what polls show is the most politically divided state in America.
Into this overheated cauldron of political passions has stepped one Mary Burke, a quiet, mild-mannered businesswoman who has spent her life avoiding public controversy. If you were scripting a movie to create a character that’s the sheer opposite of Scott Walker, you could hardly do better than Burke.
Walker is an extrovert who loves the limelight, Burke is an introvert who seems out of place in a crowd. Walker is a college dropout, Burke has a masters degree from Harvard. Walker is from the middle class, Burke is a millionaire. Walker has been married for two decades and has two adult children, Burke has always been single. Walker is a career politician, Burke is a career businesswoman. Walker is an intensely conservative Republican, Burke was a political independent for most of her life.
As for their political positions, there is little they agree on, whether its Walker’s restrictions on abortion, his elimination of collective bargaining rights or the kind of tax cuts he has passed — all of which Burke opposes. There may never have been a race for governor in Wisconsin where the two candidates were so diametrically opposed is so many ways.
The two had quite different childhoods. Walker was the first-born son with just one other sibling, younger brother David. Mary Burke was the second oldest of five children. Walker is the outgoing extrovert you’d expect of the first-born, Burke is more the introverted middle child
Walker’s father was a Baptist minister and Scott was three when his family moved from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Plainfield, Iowa, and ten when they settled in Delavan, Wisconsin. Burke had a more settled life, growing up in rural, Republican-leaning Waukesha County and attending Swallow elementary school. “The big fun was when the cows got loose from the nearby farm and came on the school grounds,” she recalled in an interview with me.
Delavan has a population of 8,500, so Walker, too, grew up at a remove from urban areas, but there the similarity ends. Burke’s father Richard worked at Roth Distributing, an appliance company in Milwaukee, and the family was comfortable enough they could afford to send Mary to University Lake School, a pricey private high school. (Only after Mary had moved away to college would her father begin to make his real fortune as founder and CEO of Trek Bicycle.)
Walker attended public schools. He’s always been described as having an average upbringing, but he has recently sketched a more dire tale. “We didn’t realize it until later in life,” Walker told the National Journal in a June story, “but we were poor.” The family, he noted, didn’t even own a TV until he was nine. “But most of the members of the Baptist church where Walker’s father, Llewellyn, was the pastor were farmers,” the story noted, and “because of that, Walker says, ‘we ate like kings.’”
Walker joined “practically every sports team and extracurricular organization that Delavan-Darien High School had to offer,” the National Journal noted, including the foreign-language and library clubs, pep band and symphonic orchestra. He also played football, ran track and cross-country and played basketball. “He was a very competitive person,” Tom Scharfenberg, the high school’s athletic director, told the magazine.
So was Burke, who played five sports a year in high school: field hockey, volleyball, basketball, softball and on the boys tennis team (“they didn’t have enough boys on the team,” she told me).
“Mary doesn’t like to lose,” her brother John noted in an Isthmus story. “[She] was definitely the hardest working [of her siblings]; she got the best grades; she was a great athlete and a very good basketball player.”
As a result, young Scott was seen by parishioners as a future preacher, but he also began to pepper his father with questions about politics. In a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story, Walker recalled standing at the back of the church with his dad on Sundays, watching his father interact with parishioners. “He’d remember things about people,” Walker recalled. “I was always enamored with that.” It’s clearly a skill Walker has cultivated.
Walker got involved in Badger Boys State, which brought together high school students from across Wisconsin for a seminar on government. He was selected as one of two two boys to serve as Wisconsin’s “senators” at the Boys Nation event in Washington, D.C. He was just 17, and already envisioning a career in politics.
Walker’s conservative views and strong religious bent arise from his strait-laced upbringing. Burke and her siblings had more room to develop in different ways. One family friend told the Journal Sentinel the Burke kids were “like the solar system,” all with different personalities orbiting around their parents. The message from their father was simple, Burke recalls: “He wanted us to do good.”
Still, her dad, too, was a big influence. Burke loved math as a kid. Both parents got business degrees 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 her undergraduate degree in finance from Georgetown University and was the top student in her class.
Yet Burke didn’t have a clear view of where this would take her. “I’m not just a person who sees this is the path and I’m following it,” she told the Journal Sentinel. Walker, by contrast, would win a position as senator in the Marquette University student government while just a freshman.
The Endless Campaigner
State Republicans joke that Walker has been running for president since he was teenager at Badger Boys State. Walker was just a sophomore at Marquette University when he ran for Student Council president. Walker lost, after accusations his supporters emptied racks of the student newspaper, which had endorsed his opponent. In senior year, he dropped out of MU, leaving him 34 credits short of what was needed to graduate. He never returned to the scene of his defeat to finish his degree.
But he was already running again, for state assembly in a Democratic-leaning district in Milwaukee, but lost (in 1990) to Gwen Moore. Undaunted, and now working as a marketing person for the American Red Cross, he told his future wife Tonette Tarantino, not long after they started dating, “Someday I’m going to be governor.”
In 1993, the same year they married, Walker won a race for assembly in a Republican-leaning district in Wauwatosa. As a legislator he was seen by fellow Republicans as ambitious and always seeking media attention. Walker began amassing a campaign chest to run for higher office. The opportunity came after a pension scandal rocked Milwaukee County and County Executive Tom Ament resigned. Walker ran as a reformer in a special election and won in 2002.
He won reelection in 2004, but as already plotting a run for governor. “The whole time he was here, he was running for governor,” says former county board chair Lee Holloway. In January 2005, less than three years after becoming county exec, Walker announced his run for governor in 2006. The state’s Republican establishment favored Congressman Mark Green and many felt Walker was too young and hadn’t paid his dues. Ultimately, Walker dropped out of the Wisconsin primary, which won him points with the party.
“His whole life revolves around politics,” Tonette told the Journal Sentinel.
Mary Burke took a more meandering career route. After graduation from Georgetown, she worked for a management consulting firm, Strategic Planning Associates, in Washington D.C., for a year. She next attended Harvard Business School for her masters, where she also excelled academically. Upon graduation, she worked as a consultant again, for McKinsey in New York City, but lasted less than a year. “I wanted to work in a company rather than give advice to one. And there was the pull of coming home and working for my father.”
But her father believed 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 upscale newcomers.
Burke ended up working for Trek and her start-up company at the same time. “I was working like 100 hour weeks,” she says. After nearly two years, she decided to give up on Manhattan Intelligence. “Frankly, I think I underestimated how much [money] it would take to succeed.” The failure, she once confessed, “was a huge blow to my ego.”
Burke went on to become Director of Operations in Europe for Trek. “You’re dealing in all these different languages, setting up in new countries from scratch, setting up an office and warehouse, hiring people,” she noted. “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.”
Steve Lindenau ran Trek’s German operations at the time and quickly decided she was one of the smartest people he’d ever met. “She worked tirelessly and was very good at analyzing the numbers and coming up with a strategy based on that. And really enjoyable to work with. I learned a lot from her.”
Once she had solidified Trek’s European operation, Burke quit her job — at age 35 — and took a nearly two year hiatus: she traveled a lot, moved to Colorado for some time, snowboarded and taught snowboarding. She wanted a break from the long hours, she says.
She came back to Trek after this and worked for about 10 years, mostly as head of forecasting and strategic planning. She reported to her brother John Burke, who told the Wisconsin 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.’”
Then came the call from Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle asking her to take a job as Commerce Secretary. She was intrigued by the challenge of managing 400 employees and a $221 million budget. Aaron Oliver — her deputy secretary — told the State Journal that Burke “introduced lean manufacturing principles in the department, seeking to reduce waste and improve efficiency” and “created employee labor management councils to help solve problems in the department.”
But she quit in October, 2007, after less than three years. Burke says she accomplished all she could and wanted to return to philanthropic work.
Very Different Styles
Walker’s political views have been the same since college, when he ran for student government as an avowed opponent of abortion. The words he typically uses to describe his style are “aggressive,” “bold” and “unintimidated,” but never as a unifier or compromiser. His first race, for Marquette student government, “divided the campus and broke voter turnout records,” the Journal Sentinel reported. His recall race for governor did the same statewide.
As a legislator, Walker was to the right of most Republican lawmakers and wasn’t seen as team player by the party’s leaders. As a County Executive, he rarely compromised with the liberal-leaning Milwaukee County Board, using the veto 204 times, about 25 times a year, and seeing them overridden all but 65 times. And as governor, with Republicans controlling the legislature, Walker has largely ignored any Democratic ideas. “Once his mind is made up, he doesn’t give an inch,” Assembly minority leader and Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) told the National Journal.
He’s been just as rock-sure of his personal life. He decided he wanted to marry Tonette shortly after their first date, they quickly had two sons and Walker frequently mentions his wife, offering an automatic contrast to Burke. She told the Journal Sentinel “I grew up just thinking I’d meet the perfect guy, get married, have kids…Life doesn’t always turn out the way you think it’s going to.”
Burke’s life has been far more unpredictable, with a career path that certainly never pointed to a run for governor. She seems drawn to challenges, and with the benefit of her inherited wealth, has had the freedom to pick and choose them.
For most of her life, Burke was a political independent who says she voted for some Republicans. As a business person, she has had to be a team player. Yet she can come across as stern on the stump. When she sat down to talk with a reporter from Mother Jones, “a handwritten note on the table reminded her to ‘Emanate strength and warmth.’”
The numbers crunching business woman is hardly a natural campaigner. “The day after our interview,” the reporter noted, “Burke spoke at a campaign fundraiser” and “flubbed her applause lines… and she looked ill at ease in front of a large audience.”
Yet Burke, in her dogged fashion, has worked tirelessly to improve. Many expected Walker, the consummate speaker and debater, to crush Burke in their two debates. Surprisingly, she held her own.
The Issues Clash
GQ mag called Walker “arguably, the most conservative governor in America.” He’s certainly taken many unpopular positions. Walker refused to accept hundreds of millions in increased federal funding for Medicaid, opposes raising the minimum wage, supports a big increase in private school vouchers, opposes legalizing medical marijuana, opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest and signed a law requiring women seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound.
Polls show a majority disagree with every one of these positions, as does Burke. Walker argues the federal government may some day cut back Medicaid funding; Burke says that’s no reason not to take the money now, and that any private sector CEO would be fired for such a decision. On the minimum wage, Walker contends it could lead to job layoffs, Burke says it hasn’t in states that raised it. On private school vouchers, Walker argues it gives parents choice, while Burke says it takes money away from good public schools. On medical marijuana, Burke argues it has benefits for those with debilitating illnesses, while Walker calls pot a “gateway drug” that leads to harder drugs. On abortion, Walker has argued the restrictions he passed will make women safer, while Burke calls this “ridiculous” and says women should make decisions about their health care.
But the issue Walker is best known for is Act 10, which largely eliminated public employee collective bargaining rights. State voters remain almost evenly divided about it. Walker touts the tax savings and flexibility that resulted. Burke says she supports requiring public employees to contribute more to their pension and health care, but favors restoration of collective bargaining. But as Republicans have noted, she gets a free pass on this issue, as the GOP-led legislature isn’t about to overturn Act 10
Walker promised to grow 250,000 private sector jobs, but fell far short, delivering just over 102,000. Wisconsin has trailed the nation in job growth through his entire term and trails 44 states in new business startups. Burke proposes to increase venture capital funding for new businesses and reduce the waiting list for tech schools in order to help boost the economy.
A key part of Walker’s jobs approach was to replace the Commerce Department with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). But the new agency has struggled with turnover, suffering a 25 percent turnover in all staff, and losing two CEOs, two COOs and four chief financial officers. The WEDC has lost track of $12 million in state loans and didn’t follow state standards for ensuring proper use of state money, a JS story noted.
While some business leaders say the agency has become more responsive to businesses, the Walker administration has never offered statistics as to the total number of new jobs it has created. The liberal magazine The Progressive reviewed WEDC records and concluded just 5,840 jobs have been created, and the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now found that nearly 60 percent of some $975 million in assistance distributed by WEDC went to firms that had contributed to Walker or the Republican Governor’s Association.
Burke has refused to take a stand on the WEDC versus the old Commerce Department she once ran, saying the organizational framework is less important than the results and the results need to be better.
Walker may be most popular for delivering tax cuts, which have averaged $322 per family. Burke actually opposed the most recent of these cuts, arguing it would increase the state’s deficit. This has prompted arguments back and forth over the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s analysis of the state’s “structural deficit.”
Arguably, a more accurate measurement uses a generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, analysis. According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Analysis, Walker cut the state’s GAAP deficit from $2.99 billion to $2.21 billion in 2012, but under the governor’s second budget, that figure was forecasted to increase to $2.36 billion by 2014 and $2.64 billion by 2015. (WisTax leader Todd Berry says the forecast through 2015 could change depending on various factors.)
Walker has greatly increased the state’s rainy day fund — to $279 million — but has also increased the state’s bonded indebtedness to its highest level since at least 1970, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. On balance, the state is in a better long-term shape, fiscally speaking, but not by all that much.
Burke has also argued that Walker’s tax cuts deliver more relief to the wealthy. In fact, the wealthiest 20 percent of state taxpayers — those earning $119,000 or more annually — have gotten more than half of the tax cuts, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Budget Project. Meanwhile, Walker’s cuts in the Homestead Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit resulted in low-income individuals and families paying $170 million more in taxes.
When you add in the $3 billion which Walker says he saved by requiring government workers statewide to contribute more to their benefits, that’s billions more taken from the mostly middle class public employees, which helped fund the tax cuts that were more helpful to upper-income taxpayers. Walker has been a governor who promised to be about jobs creation but instead has been about decimating public unions, and a leader who claims to help the middle class but has on balance achieved a huge wealth transfer from the middle class to the wealthy. Should he win reelection, he’ll soon be peddling that approach to the nation.
A version of this story also ran in two alternative weeklies: Madison’s Isthmus and Wausau’s City Pages.