Mary Burke: “I am trying to raise enough money to get my message out."
Mary Burke: “I am trying to raise enough money to get my message out."
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There were, into the month of May, no signs in the front windows of Mary Burke’s campaign office across the street from the state Capitol in Madison, nothing to broadcast her name to the many people passing by.

That’s an odd missed opportunity for a candidate struggling to make herself known. A Marquette Law School poll in March found that an astonishing 59 percent of respondents did not have either a favorable or unfavorable impression of Burke. (A subsequent “Democratic-leaning” poll said seven in 10 respondents had an opinion of her, evenly divided.)

In modern political campaigns, shaping these impressions often hinges on money. And Burke, despite her personal wealth from family business Trek Bicycle, where she was an executive, is not likely to match the financial firepower of the incumbent, Gov. Scott Walker. In the 2012 recall election, Walker’s campaign spent $36 million.

“I am trying to raise enough money to get my message out,” Burke says in a recent interview at her inconspicuous headquarters. She vows to be deliberate in doing this “because I do expect unfortunately that I will be greatly outspent.” (See video excerpts from the interview below.)

Mary Burke: “I am trying to raise enough money to get my message out.”

Burke, a Madison School Board member and former state Commerce Department secretary, is the clear front-runner among four Democrats vying to take on Walker this fall. Her personal wealth is seen as a key asset to her campaign. But part of her game plan is to impugn Walker’s support.

“I do point out how much money he raises from outside interests,” Burke says. “I think it strikes the people of Wisconsin as wrong. And it should.”

In the recall election and afterward, more than half of Walker’s money has come from people who live in other states. And that doesn’t include outside groups like the Republican Governors Association, which has already dropped $2 million on ads attacking Burke, and booked another $2 million in ads for this fall.

Burke sees such support as toxic, saying it comes from people with a narrow political agenda that’s out of step with Wisconsin values. She brands Walker a Tea Party conservative and political extremist.

Asked about these specific allegations, Walker campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre offers general remarks: “Under Gov. Walker’s leadership, Wisconsin has created over 100,000 jobs and nearly 17,000 new businesses, turned a $3.6 billion deficit into a $911 million surplus, and cut taxes by $2 billion. Wisconsin is moving in the right direction.”

Burke, who declared her candidacy in October, raised $1.8 million through Dec. 31, including $430,000 in self-contributions. During this same three-month period, Walker raked in $3.6 million, 52 percent from out of state.

Mary Burke from WisconsinWatch on Vimeo.

About $224,000 of Burke’s reported contributions — 12 percent — came from other states. Burke says some of this comes from relatives and long-term friends and vows that, overall, “the vast majority of my money will be from inside the state.”

In fact, she would like to ban out-of-state contributions: “When you look at U.S. elections, we don’t let any foreign money play a role, so I don’t see why we should have out-of-state money coming into a gubernatorial race.” She even favors limits on “self-funders,” as part of comprehensive reform. Both ideas would face constitutional challenges.

“I would certainly look at all possible options,” Burke says, acknowledging that any solutions would have to hold up in court. The current system, she says, is just not working: “Money plays too big a role in terms of our elections and as governor I would work to reduce that impact.”

But first she has to get elected, under the current system.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.

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.

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6 replies on “Mary Burke, underdog millionaire”

  1. TO have any chance at all, Burke must immediately stop talking in political clichés – “get my message out” makes her sound like the career politician she claims not to be. At the very least, she should lever some MBA lingo that gives her some street cred, talk about bonding for govt finance or something. She doesn’t sound like she really knows about anything. The only thing she has going for her is her party affiliation. That gives her a large base. But she’s doing exactly nothing to win independents. Fine work, as usual, Mr. Bill.

  2. Great column and very revealing of what is in my opinion a very odd campaign. And please don’t take this as snark but did they ask you to sign a non disclosure agreement in order to get them to tell you where to go for the interview? OK, it’s snark towards the candidate, not you.

    1. I’m assuming your comment is somewhat tongue-in-cheek but I’ll answer: No agreements were signed or made.

  3. Bill,

    What is the street address on the square. I phoned the office manager, Lizzie, and she refused to reveal it, citing concern over “disruptive” passersby.

    If you are under no obligation to keep it secret, could you respond with the street address?


    1. The column doesn’t make an issue of where Burke’s office is, just that there are no signs. Joe Zepecki of the Burke campaign says there is “no serious reason” the address isn’t publicized, other than that it’s “a place of business” and drop-in traffic could disrupt staff.

      1. Campaign refuses to reveal address over phone.

        Not asking about your column (I read it), asking what is the street address of the campaign headquarters of the presumptive nominee of Democratic Party for governor.

        Do you not feel comfortable revealing the address here?

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