By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
One of the first questions put to Mary Burke in her first major interview after announcing her candidacy for governor was, not surprisingly, about money.
“Would you have (decided to run) if you didn’t have some degree of personal wealth?” asked Milwaukee television journalist Mike Gousha.
Burke’s reply: “Well, I’ll certainly put into it what I can of my own resources, but it’s really going to be about the people of Wisconsin and them supporting a different type of leadership here in Wisconsin — you know, leadership that brings people together.”
Burke, it’s worth noting, didn’t answer Gousha’s question. Nor has the sole declared Democratic challenger to Republican Gov. Scott Walker disclosed how much wealth she is prepared to deploy.
The former Trek Bicycle executive’s spending power is vast enough to keep others from the race. From 2008 to 2012, while retired, Burke’s adjusted gross income topped $6.8 million, calculated Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice, using state tax records. Her actual income was likely much higher, as her substantial philanthropic donations would lower her tax obligation.
Bice compared Burke’s tax profile to that of Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who invested $9 million of his own money, out of $15.5 million raised, ousting Democrat Russ Feingold in 2010. But taking on national conservative rock star Walker could prove even costlier.
In the 2012 recall election, Walker’s campaign burned through more than $36 million. Outside groups blew through another $22 million on his behalf, tallied the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Walker and his allies outspent his Democratic challengers and their allies by nearly three to one.
Burke also won an election in 2012, for Madison school board. She self-contributed $129,000, a huge sum for this local post; her other supporters chipped in $0. Over the last decade, Burke has given more than $200,000 to Democratic contenders for state and federal office.
Burke’s slick three-minute video announcing her candidacy never mentions Walker, her school board position, or the fact that she’s running as a Democrat. Media access to the candidate has been conspicuously limited. She was not available to be interviewed for this column.
“We’re simply getting more interview requests than we can fulfill at this time,” says spokesman Joe Zepecki, who fielded questions in her stead. He won’t elaborate on Burke’s personal wealth or how much she might spend, but says she’ll be contributing “a fraction of what it takes to do this.”
As for the incumbent’s financial firepower, Zepecki declares, “No amount of spending by Walker and his deep-pocketed special interest allies is going to change the harsh reality that Wisconsin families understand all too well — we’re falling behind when it comes to creating jobs and growing our economy.”
Burke is stressing her successes at Trek and as state secretary of Commerce. She’s blasted the state’s poor performance on job creation and ripped Walker for not accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage for state residents.
On other issues, such as whether she would restore the collective bargaining rights of public employees, Burke has not staked out clear stands. This, reported the Associated Press, “has led some Democratic activists to express concerns about her candidacy.”
But Burke is backed by her party’s establishment. And, with Walker’s approval ratings south of 50 percent, his supporters seems to regard her as a serious threat. When she announced, the state Republican Party was ready with a website, MaryBurke.com, pegging her as an out-of-touch Madison liberal intent on taking Wisconsin back to the dark ages, Before Walker.
Through Oct. 21, as her campaign entered its third week, Burke’s own website was threadbare: No press releases, news stories, biographical info, positions on issues, or lists of supporters. Zepecki says the campaign is busy building the site. For now, there’s just a link to her campaign video and a big box that says, “Contribute.”
First things first.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by The Joyce Foundation.
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.