Mary Burke vs. Scott Walker 2014?

 Joe Murray  |    September 06, 2013

Meet Mary Burke, potential Democratic candidate for Wisconsin governor in 2014. Burke is a current Madison school board member and wealthy former Trek Bicycle executive with a finance degree from Georgetown University and an MBA from Harvard Business School. She also served as Commerce Department secretary for Gov. Jim Doyle, is a former board president for the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, and a philanthropist.

For some Democrats, Burke’s business background and education credentials would offer a strong contrast to Walker’s long tenure as a “career politician” without a college degree. For others, she’s simply another example of how thin the Democratic “bench” is for viable statewide candidates.

Burke’s name first surfaced in June when it was reported that the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and Burke were polling to determine whether Burke was a viable opponent to Scott Walker. As a current Madison school board member, Burke has some name identification in Dane County, but it’s more likely that the Democratic Party conducted polls to see if her resume and other business-related issues in her background would resonate with voters.

Since June, Burke’s potential candidacy has generated a substantial number of mainstream media stories and even more discussion in political blogs and websites on both sides of the political divide. Here’s a quick and early overview of the strengths and weaknesses of a potential Mary Burke candidacy.

The jobs issue

Some Democrats believe that Burke’s business experience as an executive at Trek Bicycle would provide a sharp contrast to Gov. Walker’s experience as a 20-year politician. As reported by one source, Burke was responsible for Trek’s operations in seven countries before accepting the post of Commerce Secretary in former Gov. Doyle’s administration. Trek Bicycle was founded by her father, Richard Burke, in 1976.

Democrats see Walker’s biggest weakness as his inability to create 250,000 private-sector jobs in his first term as he repeatedly promised in his first campaign for governor. As a former executive, Democrats likely will argue that Mary Burke is a savvy businesswoman and knows how to create jobs in the private sector. The problem, though, is that according to another source, Trek manufactures bicycles overseas in Germany and China. If true, this outsourcing will make the “job creator” argument more difficult to sell to Wisconsin voters.


Democrats project that 2014 will be a good year for a woman to run for governor. Democrats strongly believe that Republicans in the legislature and Gov. Walker have overreached with their “attack” on women by passing and signing into law controversial pro-life legislation such as the ultrasound requirement. The abortion issue did create problems for the GOP nationally in 2012, and pro-choice Democrats hope the legislation that Walker signed into law in Wisconsin hurts his chances in next year’s election.


Walker’s ability to raise political money in Wisconsin and nationally is well documented. He raised and spent approximately $11 million in his 2010 campaign and an unbelievable $36 million in his successful 2012 recall election. Burke is allegedly capable of putting millions into her own campaign, a real benefit if she enters the race later this year. A late start and low name identification can be overcome quickly with enough money; think Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson and candidate Eric Hovde.


There are Democrats and opinion writers who believe Mary Burke is a moderate/conservative Democrat, not a progressive liberal who provides a strong contrast to Scott Walker and energizes the anti-Walker left. According to Ruth Conniff, political editor of The Progressive, Burke is “from a conservative business-minded family and is viewed with suspicion by some Dane County progressives for her support of Madison Prep. Burke’s proposed gift of $2.5 million to help start the charter school for African American and Latino kids put her at the center of the major controversy over Madison’s achievement gap and whether Madison Prep was the answer.” Burke’s support for education reform makes public school advocates uneasy. However, Burke has not taken public stances on a number of other major and controversial issues.

Candidate experience

Mary Burke has never run for statewide office. She did run for and win a seat on the Madison school board after spending $128,000 in 2012. By comparison, Scott Walker is already running in his third gubernatorial election in four and a half years. Some Democrats remain unenthusiastic with a possible Burke candidacy. According to liberal blogger Chris Liebenthal of the Cognitive Dissidence blog, “if the best that WISDEMS can come up with is Mary Burke, we’re screwed.”
Whether that’s true or not is yet to be seen. What we do know for sure is next year’s gubernatorial election will be a fascinating — and consequential — race. Stay tuned.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA.

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