On a Wednesday night in December of last year, it’s close to frigid outside. Heavy licks of snow whip about Milwaukee and serve as a cruel harbinger of the polar vortex yet to come. Just two months after announcing her plans to run for Wisconsin governor, Mary Burke shakes hands with supporters at local Mexican restaurant La Perla.
Well-dressed, smiling students staff the sign-in table, enthusiastically greeting supporters who leave snow-dust footprints on the black tile floor. Burke works the crowd mechanically, perpetually nodding, smiling, clasping her hands together with her elbows creating obtuse angles, and hunching over to hear supporters congratulate her above the din. A life-sized cardboard cutout of a bleary-eyed woman riding a giant pepper is tucked in the corner of the room and hovers over those sampling the chimichanga buffet.
After a bit of glad-handing and excited introductions, it’s speech time. Burke, in a well-tailored peplum skirt suit that will soon become one of her campaign uniforms, climbs a few stairs and then turns to the crowd.
Her speech that day hits all the campaign-approved talking points, like moving Wisconsin forward, creating jobs and accepting federal money when it’s offered. Her statements are peppered with colloquialisms (she has a particularly fluid way of pronouncing “I’m going to” as ahm gunna), but the flow is off. Elongated pauses and abrupt stops and starts make it sound as if she hasn’t quite memorized all of the material intended to keep the 15-minute stump speech afloat. It’s a shaky start for one of her first campaign stops in Milwaukee, but the crowd cheers anyway.
Four months later, in early April, Burke and her campaign have parked themselves in La Crosse for a few stops on the campuses of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and adjacent Western Technical College. Six months into her campaign for governor – her first campaign for higher office – the presumed Democratic gubernatorial candidate takes a tour of the Health Science Center classrooms and labs shared by students from both campuses.
Burke, 55, ducks into a physical therapy classroom where a handful of students are lounging on padded therapy tables. The tour leader begins to explain the room’s purpose, but Burke cuts her off by beelining for the back of the room. School officials and reporters stand with mouths agape, while Burke’s campaign staffers smile nervously. She heads toward the students – whose expressions vary from confusion to mild amusement – and introduces herself. Some of the students sit up, their ponytails perked, and others remain lounging.
One by one, Burke starts to question them earnestly on why they’re taking this course and how they came to attend one of the La Crosse schools. Her interest in their answers seems genuine, and her questions seem unending. She leans lightly on one of the padded tables but then assumes the hands-clasped pose she’s mastered. As her questions roll out in low tones, it becomes clear that she could have a career as a journalist should the August primary or November election not go her way.
Satisfied with their answers, Burke walks over to a table near the front of the room, where one student, who looks older than the rest, sits quietly. As he tells her that he is a veteran and a student, Burke lowers herself into a chair facing him and leans forward, putting both elbows on the therapy table. In soft tones, he tells her that he is taking the course because he likes to work out and likes to teach people to do the same. Nodding her head and linking her fingers together, she asks a few follow-up questions, then thanks him for his service and stands up.
The ease with which Burke moves through these conversations, speeches and press meetings has improved dramatically since Oct. 7, 2013, when she announced her candidacy for the governor’s race. Her movements have become less robotic, her conversations flow more naturally, and her energy for the fatigue-filled life of a gubernatorial candidate has yet to wane.
Which is good.
Because she’ll need to muster every bit of charisma, affability and diplomatic phrase-turning to stand a chance against Scott Walker, the twice-elected governor in a state whose voters are, historically, reluctant to oust incumbents.
On a bright day in early May, well-heeled Milwaukeeans swarm like buzzing bees in a second-floor ballroom of the InterContinental Hotel. They’re there to toast tourist bureau Visit Milwaukee, which is hosting its annual meeting with speakers like Badger Meters CEO Rich Meeusen, Harley-Davidson Museum Vice President Bill Davidson, and Gov. Scott Walker, who had helped persuade the National Governors Association to host its 2013 conference in Milwaukee last August.
When Walker finally mounts the podium to speak, the crowd catches a full glimpse of his lightweight short-sleeved shirt, its red Leinenkugel’s logo plastered across the back. He launches into an energetic speech, seemingly without notes, about the governors’ conference, relaying the compliments he’d received from other governors, their first names rolling off his tongue with familiarity. He touts a few statistics, uses his best jocular tone to tell a story about how much New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s children loved Milwaukee, and then thanks the crowd before dashing out the door.
In all, it was a few minutes packed with anecdotes, data and the steady affability he’s now known for – the recipe that’s resulted in major network TV appearances since 2012’s recall election. That recipe for relatable yet unflappable public appearances is part of what will make him so formidable this November.
That packaging, of course, isn’t all. At the end of 2013, Walker’s campaign counted more than $5 million in contributions, and it was well-reported that more than half of those came from out-of-state donors. In the same period, Burke’s war chest was not even half the size. But the discrepancy isn’t surprising to people like Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
“I think she’ll be vastly outspent,” he tells Milwaukee Magazine, and he would know, having twice challenged Walker for the governor’s seat and losing the money race both times. Barrett first met Burke while she was working as Wisconsin’s commerce secretary and recalls a first impression of her as “incredibly smart and very, very engaged.” They met again when Burke coordinated, pro bono, a 2009 audit of Milwaukee Public Schools, and when Barrett was pushing for mayoral control of the city’s public schools. The audit would later become one of the justifications for her education platform.
These days, he’s not shy about supporting her. “She’s not trying to use this as a stepping stone to anything else,” he says, perhaps subtly jabbing at Walker’s hinted-at presidential ambitions. “I think people really want to have someone who’s serious about solving the issues the state faces. And she’s very serious about it.”
She’s certainly serious about getting the job. When asked what she wants to be doing in 10 years, Burke says she wants to still be working as governor, which, if elected to three consecutive terms, would be the longest she has ever stayed at one job. In fact, she says, she’d like to be the longest-serving governor Wisconsin’s had, but she’d have to serve at least four terms to beat Tommy Thompson’s record of 14 years in office. In April, when asked if he would commit to a full term as governor if re-elected, Walker dodged the reporter’s question, presumably leaving his options open for a presidential campaign.
Burke, too, has seen the benefits of an election that has gained national attention, in part because the recall election served to embolden Walker and earn him darling status in Republican circles. Just a month after launching her election campaign, Burke was interviewed by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and she was later endorsed by New York Democratic U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Burke received an early endorsement from national abortion-rights group Emily’s List, as well as Progressives United PAC, the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
Marquette University Law School polling numbers released in late May showed support for both Walker and Burke tied at 46 percent, with 6 percent of the poll’s 805 respondents still undecided. In a detailed breakdown, the poll suggested voters are becoming increasingly aware of her, but, analysts say, she’s still emerging from relative obscurity – a daunting challenge considering Walker’s increasingly dominating national presence.
Charles Franklin, a professor of law and public policy at Marquette, and director of the Marquette Law School Poll, says that while the Burke campaign has hired some former Obama campaign staffers to help her win, he’s still not clear on the “central themes” of her campaign.
“The Barrett campaign struggled to find a message that could drive the election in 2010 and 2012, and with Burke’s campaign, I think the core message is still developing,” he says. Voter turnout, historically low for elections that fall outside of a presidential election year, will also hurt Burke, analysts say.
The political environment in which an election occurs always impacts the results. In 2010, Franklin says, “a lot of the dropout [voters] were Obama supporters who were a bit underwhelmed by the administration they voted for; the people who were absolutely not dropping out were the angry Republicans and [the] Tea Party.” Currently, Wisconsinites have had more than three years of Walker leadership, and for better or worse, Franklin says, they have “firmly established views” of the job he’s done. Burke is the opposite in that while she’s becoming more familiar, she still has “a long ways to go before she even approaches universal familiarity comparable to where Walker is,” he says.
As a candidate, Burke could resemble another Wisconsin lawmaker from the other side of the aisle. Barry Burden, a professor of political science at University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson launched his campaign when he was relatively unknown, was a first-time politician and also used his business experience as the CEO of the Oshkosh-based Pacur Inc. to paint himself as a jobs creator. Both Burke and Johnson have spent quite a bit of their own money to bolster their campaigns, though Burke’s nearly $430,000 in contributions are just a fraction of the $8.7 million Johnson spent.
Burke winning is “certainly not out of the question,” Burden says. “But there is a huge task in front of her.”
When it comes to Milwaukee, Burke will need to “show that she cares,” says a longtime Democratic campaign strategist. Baldwin had a Milwaukee-based HQ, he says, which provided visibility that he thinks helped her win, as did the fact that Milwaukee consistently leans Democratic. And though Walker lost the hometown vote in both of his gubernatorial elections, the area’s outlying counties almost all vote for Republicans.
Perhaps to gain favor with moderate Republicans in those red counties, Burke has begun to describe herself as a fiscal conservative, and has even gabbed about a sit-down chat she had with Kurt Bauer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Association, which generally supports Republicans and is perhaps the most powerful business lobbies in the state. (Through a spokesperson, Bauer declined to comment on the meeting.)
“Accountability and fiscal responsibility are things that are trademarks of mine,” she says in an interview. “I think when you’re in the public sector, there has to be an increased emphasis on that.”
In what appears to be Burke’s personal Facebook profile page, which hasn’t been active since the summer of 2013, she is a member of the Facebook group called “Independent Politics,” and in 2011, she shared on her profile page a New York Times op-ed written by billionaire Warren Buffett titled “Stop Coddling the Super Rich.” He argued that the wealthiest Americans aren’t shouldering enough of the tax burden thanks to a “billionaire-friendly Congress.”
“I think I just grew up in a household where we didn’t identify with a party,” Burke says, despite growing up in Waukesha County, which has voted overwhelmingly Republican in the last two gubernatorial elections. And she agrees with recently retired state Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center), who said in his farewell speech in April that “partisanship is a lens, not a straitjacket.”
Her lens – especially concerning social issues like affirmative action, gay marriage and abortion – just happens to closely align with that of the Democratic Party’s, especially her support for public education – a doubly contentious issue in the aftermath of Walker’s Act 10 legislation. Burke has said she’d restore collective bargaining, which is something Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, says is necessary. Burke also opposes the state’s school voucher program.
And despite her professed fiscal conservatism, in her 40-page jobs plan, she pushes for increasing the minimum wage and more support for public education. Yet she also calls for tax deductions on student loan payments, as well as investing heavily in entrepreneurism.
“It seems to me that she is running sort of as a business-experienced Democrat,” says Jim Haney, former president of the Wisconsin Manufacturer’s and Commerce Association. “I think we’re all waiting to see in her public policy announcements some indication that she is pro-business, something that is different from orthodox Democratic policy.”
“So far, I haven’t seen that, but it may be coming,” Haney says.
Certainly, Burden says, “she is not your typical Democratic politician in Wisconsin.”
Mary Burke was born April 30, 1959, to Elaine and Richard (Dick) Burke, and grew up in Hartland listening to Al Green and Aretha Franklin. Long-legged and bearing an uncanny resemblance to her mother and younger brother John, Mary attended University Lake School through high school, where she played a handful of sports, including basketball – once scoring more than 40 points in a game.
John, the current president of Trek Bicycle, says he remembers Mary going to work with Dick at the company on her summer vacations in high school. “They shared a love of business, and they for sure shared a love of sports,” he says. (Nearly everyone interviewed for this article mentions Mary Burke’s love of the Packers.) But whether it was football in the family’s driveway, baseball or tennis, Dick was a “jack of all, master of none,” John says with a laugh. It was clear early on that Mary’s athletic abilities surpassed those of her father.
In high school, her interests weren’t confined to sports, and she became interested in cooking. “She’s one that follows the recipes very closely,” Elaine says. And in addition to cooking, her mother notes, Mary also organized the family’s recipe drawer.
When Dick and Elaine gave their five children – John, Mary, Michelle, Kathleen and Sharon – allowances, her mother says, Mary was the only one of the bunch who kept track of how much she saved and spent. “Whenever there was a fundraiser [at school],” her brother says, “Mary was in charge. If anyone needed to keep track of the cash, it was Mary.”
Elaine and Dick divorced in the late ’80s and Dick remarried Camille Wiersgalla. After high school, Mary headed to Georgetown University, where she studied finance, a degree suited to her interest in business as well as her affinity for data. (John calls her the “brains” of the family in his book One Last Great Thing, which details the last few months of Dick Burke’s life.)
After graduating from Georgetown, she briefly worked at consulting firm Strategic Planning Associates, then earned her master’s of business administration degree from Harvard Business School, where she met Allen Sperry, now an investor. “Every time Mary had something to say [in class], she was always very articulate, very prepared and clearly had done her homework. She stood out like that.”
The two became friends, Sperry says, because she was “a lot of fun, and she was pretty – you’re just drawn to people like that.”
After her first year at Harvard, Burke held a paid summer associate position at Morgan Stanley, and after graduating in 1985, she took a consulting job at top management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
It wasn’t long after that she set out with Sperry to found their own company, a Yelp-meets-Google search engine of sorts called Manhattan Intelligence. In their small office in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood, Burke says, she would sleep in the office to save money on rent, but Sperry says she slept there in part because she would work as much as 100 hours per week.
Despite the long hours, after about a year of trying to get Manhattan Intelligence off the ground, Burke sold her stake in the company in 1990. “It was not a success,” says Sperry, who has remained friends with her and even traveled with her campaign as moral support. “It was probably the first time she’s failed at something.”
It was then she looked toward Wisconsin.
In 1990, Burke began working at Trek as head of European operations, living in Germany and the Netherlands. “I’m confident her father would have not hired her if he didn’t feel she was qualified,” Sperry says. “I think she had to prove herself all the time, and probably the fact that her brother was going to be the head of the company, she probably thought she had to prove herself even more.”
John Burke took over as president of Trek Bicycle in 1997. In his book, John illustrates Dick’s unwavering moxie, and his ability to become not just a corporate role model but a philanthropic leader as well. His philanthropic efforts, some of which even his children didn’t know about until after his death, included large donations to Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center, the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, as well as establishing 10 annual full-tuition scholarships at Marquette University. John also calls his father “brutally honest,” both with life and work, and in a way, Dick’s approach sounds like Mary’s. “She’s very straightforward and she’s very tough on herself,” Sperry says. “She tells the truth and she tells the truth to herself.”
“That’s the nice thing about Mary,” says Karen Weltzin, who befriended Burke when the two became neighbors in Madison roughly 15 years ago. “When you’re a good friend, you can be very frank with her.”
In John’s book, he talks about Trek’s European expansion, which was what Mary was tasked with upon returning home. In her campaign, she touts growing those operations from $3 million to $50 million annually.
In 1993, Burke left Trek to take a yearlong sabbatical. It became a focal point of early attacks by her Republican critics, and likely contributed to their dubbing her “Millionaire Mary.” She has defended the break as a vacation in which she also worked for advocacy group Bicycle Industry Organization. However, she returned to Trek in 1995 and stayed there until 2004.
In 2005, then-Gov. Jim Doyle appointed her commerce secretary, replacing lawyer Cory Nettles. Thad Nation, owner of Nation Consulting, met Burke after his 2003 exit from the Doyle administration, where he worked as communications director during Doyle’s first term. At the time, Nation was still consulting for the Doyle administration, and identified Burke as a “key asset” of the cabinet. One of her best qualities, he says, was that she could “talk to anyone; Democrats, Republicans, independents and businesses.” At the helm of the Commerce Department, Burke oversaw more than 400 employees and a budget of $221 million.
After just under three years at the Commerce Department, Burke left in 2007 to pursue a decidedly philanthropic course. But in 2008, Dick Burke’s unexpected death after heart surgery complications would affect her new direction profoundly.
“She took a little time to reassess her situation and her life,” Weltzin says. “I think that’s when she started looking at some of the things she didn’t even know her dad did and started to take the reins.”
Before joining the Commerce Department, Burke began mentoring two boys at the Dane County Boys & Girls Club. This would lead to a phase of intense involvement in the club, especially after leaving the Commerce Department. She served on its board for nearly a decade, including a stint as interim president, helping to overhaul its finances. She eventually helped hire its current CEO, Michael Johnson, who revealed that Burke is even paying for some Boys & Girls Club members’ college tuition.
Mentoring “crystallized for her that people don’t have the same advantages; pulling yourself up by your bootstraps isn’t the same for everybody,” Welztin says.
That could be partly why MTEA President Peterson thinks that Burke will be more committed to addressing “the growing segregation and inequality based on race and class … in terms of opportunities for children and young people” than Walker has been.
Around the same time, Burke founded a program called AVID/TOPS, an educational mentorship program that pairs Boys & Girls Club mentors with public school children who need additional social support. It’s a public-private partnership – some of which Burke says she has supported financially – that her campaign touts as helping to close the racial achievement gap that persists in both Milwaukee’s school district and Madison’s, where the program was founded.
“I got the sense that through [Dick’s] philanthropic spirit, because she has the flexibility of being single and not tied to a family, that she has the flexibility to be even more energetic in giving back,” Sperry says. “It’s not that the spirit wasn’t in her when I knew her, but in the experience of her father dying and her wanting to maybe live up to that legacy … maybe in some ways, running for governor of Wisconsin is kind of the ultimate way of doing that,” he says.
At Dick Burke’s celebratory memorial service in 2008, John Burke recalls Mary talking about Dick as a “guiding light” in her life, and that he was the first person she went to for advice. Asked at a recent Milwaukee Press Club and Rotary Club of Milwaukee event whom she sought advice from, she immediately says her father. And sought advice she did before deciding to launch her campaign for governor.
And in some ways, she says, “he liked being an underdog a little, and certainly coming into this, you know, challenging an incumbent, I’m the underdog.”
In addition to her involvement with the Boys & Girls Club, Burke donated $450,000 to a Madison homeless shelter by selling her house and downsizing to a modest $230,000 home on Madison’s east side. She still owns a vacation home in East Troy, which listed for more than half a million dollars in 2012.
In December 2011, then-Madison School Board President Ed Hughes emailed Burke to see if she’d be interested in serving on the city’s school board. He knew of her through her work starting the AVID/TOPs program, which she piloted at Madison East High School, where Hughes’ children attended.
“I talked to her about what was involved with serving on the school board, and at that time, I didn’t paint a very appealing picture of what it was like,” Hughes says, “but I did state that I knew of her interest in education, and if she wanted to make an impact, this could be where she would make a big impact.” She agreed, and after spending more than $120,000 of her own money on her campaign, was elected to a three-year term by defeating Michael Flores, a local paramedic and firefighter. In April of this year, Flores was elected to the board as well.
As has become a motif of her campaign platform, Hughes says Burke demanded accountability and performance metrics with every initiative the board went after. It helped that “she is very pleasant,” Hughes says, “but has high standards and will be insistent on high performance.”
In fact, he says, “I think she’s tougher than me.”
In her living room one day in early May, Burke sips a Diet Coke and sits, legs crossed, in an armchair. There’s a breeze in the narrow living room, and her dogs, Gema and Rosie, walk about, panting, sniffing, licking and generally loafing as Labrador retrievers are wont to do. A pile of books rests on an end table, and framed art covers the walls of her living and dining rooms. She chats about what she’s reading – Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit and David Maraniss’ When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi – and of her admiration for Abraham Lincoln, for his ability to unite the country. Walker has also cited him as an example of courage.
Burke says she wouldn’t be in the race unless her family – including her mother – was on board, especially because Elaine still lives in the Waukesha County family home. But Elaine isn’t worried for her daughter.
“I know she can handle things,” Elaine says. “She always has been able to.”
Democratic consultant Nation says that one of the largest challenges Burke’s campaign likely will face is the ability to lay out “a substantive positive agenda that people will see and understand. Can we get above all the negative noise?” he asks.
That negative noise may be starting to wear on some. “You go through these political campaigns and you watch these stupid 30-second commercials, and for someone to really understand Mary…” her brother says, then pauses with exasperation. “Mary’s just a hard worker with a big heart. That’s it.” But Burden, the UW-Madison political scientist, thinks that the format of the 30-second TV spots could help Burke clarify her message.
The attack ads, however, don’t seem to be bother Burke herself. In an interview with Bicycle Retailer magazine, she said the ads have had a strengthening effect. “I get more and more resolved because it’s not the type of leadership we need in this state,” she says.
If the day comes when the ads do start to take their toll, Burke says she has a group of friends like Weltzin and Sperry, as well as her siblings to rely on. Mostly, though, she’s been surprised by how much she likes campaigning, saying the hardest part about it has been learning to “toot her own horn.”
“I’ll tell you,” she says in a rare moment of candor, “I was brought up to be independent and to realize I deal with issues…” But as soon as she says it, she slips back into campaign mode, declaring one of her strengths is that she’s an independent listener.
Back in La Crosse on that April afternoon, Burke sits at an oval conference table to talk to roughly 10 Western Technical College students, whose backgrounds vary from the Police Academy to fresh out of high school, and whose majors range from nursing to marketing.
Burke asks them to tell her about themselves, their backgrounds, their reasons for attending the college. Then she asks them about their high school experiences, and explains that part of her jobs plan includes an earlier emphasis on career tracks and technical skills in high school.
One student, a wide-eyed mother with a psychology degree who has returned to school for nursing, asks Burke how her father came up with the idea for Trek. Burke launches into the company’s founding, telling how Dick Burke originally got the idea from a man he sat next to on a plane.
“I wanted to grow up and be just like my dad and be a business person,” she tells the group. “He was always interested and open to ideas, open to different things and sometimes” – her voice speeds up – “it’s about being in the right place in the right time and recognizing it and taking a risk.
“I think that’s sometimes what it takes,” she says matter-of-factly. “To take those risks, and do the hard work but also to have good planning, to understand, OK, when I’m gonna do it, I’ve talked to all these other people who have started their business, and this is what they go through, I’ve networked so that I understand what it takes, I’ve put together a game plan, and I’ve run that by people so that they’ve given me feedback and told me what it’s about,” she says all in one breath, her hands tapping the table rhythmically for emphasis.
At this point, it’s not clear if she’s talking about her father’s plan or her own.
“I think my dad just had that spirit in him all the time to be thinking about things differently and seeing possibilities and” – she lowers her voice – “it was more about creating and succeeding at building things than it was necessarily – you know, for him, it wasn’t all about making money – it was about dreaming.”
“Geez,” she says, realizing she’s worked herself into a fervor, “you got me really thinking about that.”
At this, she laughs loudly, perhaps a little self-consciously, and the students do, too. Then she thanks them for hearing her out and stands to leave. She’s off to the next campaign stop, her fourth of the day. ■
Claire Hanan is an associate editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Burke began working at Trek in 1991. The article has been updated with the correct information. We regret the error.
This article appears in the July 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine,
on newsstands now.