Meet Scott Walker’s Challenger, Mary Burke

It’s official. Today former Trek Bicycle exec, Democrat Mary Burke announced she is challenging Scott Walker in the 2014 governor’s race.

Even before she announced, Burke’s name began generating a lot of buzz for several very good reasons:

·      She has millions in personal funds to pour into a race against the biggest-spending governor in state history, with and his nationwide network of rightwing billionaires.

·      Unlike Scott Walker, Burke is an actual job creator. A Harvard MBA with deep roots in Wisconsin, Burke has years of business experience an executive at Trek Bicycle—the Wisconsin company founded by her father, Richard Burke, in 1976. Mary Burke oversaw Trek’s operations in seven countries before she was tapped by Governor Doyle to run the state’s commerce department.

·      It’s a great year for a woman candidate in Wisconsin. The Republicans have overreached badly with their attacks on women’s health, closing four Planned Parenthood clinics in the last year, eliminating comprehensive sex ed, putting up more and more barriers to birth control and abortion, and ramming through an ultrasound requirement over the objections of women legislators and their Democratic colleagues who were told to “sit down right now!”and gaveled into silence when the Senate cut off debate in an incident that went viral on youtube.

In the video announcing her run, Burke dwells on Walker’s abysmal job creation record, pointing out that Wisconsin now ranks 45th in job creation, while neighboring states like Minnesota are experiencing a much stronger economic recovery.

“That’s sixth from the bottom,” Burke points out. “We can do better than that.”

The problem, she says, is that Madison, like Washington, DC, is “so focused on the next political fight, it’s pulling our state apart and our economy down.”

Burke’s campaign is a departure from the politics that drove the failed recall effort against Scott Walker. While the Republicans are trying to paint her as “as out-of-touch Madison activist,” the truth is that Burke is neither the unions’ candidate nor one of the Democrats who fought Walker’s attack on public employees in 2011.

"As Democrats desperately work to defeat Scott Walker, they have recruited an out-of-touch Madison activist to wage an attack against the reforms that have put Wisconsin back on solid financial ground," Joe Fadness, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, told the Associated Press.

This is the same line of attack the Republicans used in the Tammy Baldwin/Tommy Thompson Senate race.

But it didn't work against Baldwin, and it is even less likely to work against Burke. If anything, Burke might have more of a Mitt Romney problem. The telephone poll included a question about a sabbatical she once took to go snowboarding.

While Baldwin did, in fact, have “the most liberal voting record in Congress,” as Thompson repeatedly pointed out, Burke is from a conservative, business-minded family and is viewed with suspicion by some Dane County progressives.

Union leaders don’t like the fact that Trek has no union employees, and that Burke oversaw the company’s operations in seven countries overseas—as opposed to making sure jobs stayed at home in Wisconsin. Nor are they charmed by her assertion that Trek is such a good employer, it doesn’t need a union.

She also ran afoul of local progressives for her support for 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. But Burke withdrew her support when the Urban League rejected school board oversight.

Burke has also denounced the Republican drive to voucherize public education. However, she doesn't regard school "reform" as a dirty word--which makes some public school advocates very nervous. 

When she ran for school board, the progressive blog Forward Lookout asked “Who Will Mary Burke Fire?” in a post noting that Burke provided financial support for a study of cost-savings measures in the Milwaukee Public Schools that included firing teachers.

Burke does not reject the idea that outside-the-box ideas might improve public education. She has her own ideas, which some people might not like, but she is not a tool of the all-powerful school choice lobby.

She is a true independent, one that Wisconsinites can relate to.

And that could make her a real threat to Walker. 

Photo: Screenshot via Mary Burke for Wisconsin.

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter