Almost a year into her unlikely run against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Mary Burke faced a tough week. Tied or slightly ahead in major polls since May, she fell a few points behind in the respected Marquette University survey released Wednesday. It’s not entirely surprising; the GOP scandal generator is working overtime. If you’re in Wisconsin, you’ve heard all the wild charges: She supposedly plagiarized her jobs plan, and denied seats to disabled and elderly Democrats at a Milwaukee rally. She even allegedly played a Chris Brown song.
Given Burke’s lack of experience running for political office, you might expect her to stumble on the trail this week, but her message discipline and overall comfort with herself are strangely paying off. It may be that not being a career politician actually helps you endure the partisan scandal machine. I watched her handle a barrage of reporters’ questions, many of them hostile, in Green Bay Tuesday afternoon, and marveled at her equanimity. It’s as though she can’t believe these are serious questions, so she’s not rattled by them. (You’ll find our full interview at the end of this article.)
But the same aplomb and poise that’s helped Burke avoid a meltdown this week can also look a little like detachment, and the question I have after spending six days in Wisconsin is whether she can heat up the Democratic base in a race that, for all her rhetoric about transcending partisan rancor in this bitterly divided state, will ultimately come down to turnout for both parties on Nov. 4.
Burke has stayed clear of the bitter Milwaukee vs. Wisconsin politics that Republicans here have perfected. Running against Mayor Tom Barrett in the 2012 recall, Walker actually ran an ad blaring “We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee” -- even though Walker was the Milwaukee County Executive before he became governor. But he represented suburban Milwaukee in its implacable campaign against the nearby city. Walker is both the product of the grim racial politics that have polarized Wisconsin, and its leading modern purveyor. He’s cut funding for mass transit and welfare programs, slashed the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to 140,000 working poor families, and now he wants to drug test welfare recipients -- after a top staffer was caught laughing at a joke comparing them to dogs.
As Robert Draper wrote this week in a GQ Walker profile: “He's vaporized public-sector unions, forced women seeking abortions to submit to an ultrasound, and restricted early voting in ways that are sure to diminish Democratic turnout” while “dogged by a hazy but persistent waft of scandal that could engulf him at any moment.” Yet on the stump, Burke mostly sticks to hitting Walker on his broken promise to create 250,000 new jobs in his first term, ignoring both his ethics troubles and most of his far-right political posturing, his union busting and his dog-whistle politics.
Still, Burke’s best asset may be that when you Google her, the thumbnail bio on her landing page says simply “businesswoman.” She is not a veteran of the ugly partisan battling that has divided the state. She doesn’t pretend to be anything other than who she is. Yes, she’s a wealthy business owner who took off some time to snowboard. She’s also a philanthropist who gave her time and money to Madison’s Boys and Girls Club, and other groups working with low-income families in the state. She financed her own run for a Madison school board seat in 2012, her first elective office (she was commerce secretary under Gov. Jim Doyle). She is a moderate, business-minded Democrat who’s not pretending she’s Elizabeth Warren.
In our interview, Burke was relentlessly upbeat, on message, non-ideological. Her discipline isn’t robotic; she’s fully present even as she refuses to engage, for instance, in my questions about Walker’s racialized campaign history, her clear blue eyes locked with mine. She knows where I’m coming from, and she’s not going there with me. But Burke can also be blunt: She answers a question on paid family leave – it’s not a “priority” right now, she says, given that she’ll inherit a $1.8 billion budget deficit -- knowing she’s not saying what I want to hear.
On the campaign trail, she delivers much the same pitch whether she’s talking to a mostly African-American crowd in Milwaukee or a group of almost all white retirees up in Green Bay: jobs, jobs and jobs, with a word or two about education. “Wisconsin is dead last among the 10 midwest states in private sector job creation,” I heard her say every time she talked to anyone.
Admirably, she doesn’t pander. The downside of her message discipline is that she may miss opportunities to connect with her constituencies more deeply and personally.
When she walks into Green Bay’s Kavarna Coffeehouse for our interview, its four female staffers rush out from behind the counter for a photo. “I’m going to cry!” one says, as press aide Hilary Cronon gets the group shot. (To be fair, the two young men working there later came out for hugs.) If she wins, she’ll be Wisconsin’s first female governor, but it’s not something she plays up a lot, even though – or maybe because – polls show a wide gender gap in the race, with women backing Burke 54 to 40 over Walker, while men favor the incumbent 62-34 percent in the last Marquette poll.
“It’s hard for me to see myself as a great trailblazer,” she tells me when we sit down.
But Walker is quite comfortable touting his edge with male voters. "I think the bigger trend is not if I have a gender question, it's actually that she's off the chart from where a Democrat normally is, gender-wise, with male voters as opposed to female," Walker told reporters Wednesday with his trademark awkward syntax.
The latest Marquette poll found that the Republican took the lead because he consolidated his support among men and with rural and suburban voters since August, while Burke hadn’t made comparable gains with her base. In fact, she even lost a little ground with women. But campaigns by Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood are designed to turn that around. “Scott Walker has proven that he’s only focused on advancing his extreme agenda and his own political profile, especially at the expense of Wisconsin women,” Emily’s List’s Stephanie Schriock tells me in an email. The group will spend $1.2 million on ads for Burke in the month to come.
Still, national Democrats could learn from this relative neophyte’s toughness: Facing a faux-scandal over BuzzFeed’s revelation that a Burke campaign consultant recycled some of his own work for other Democrats into her jobs plan, Burke is unbowed. She fired the consultant and plowed ahead. She doesn’t even seem to understand the game of “gotcha” reporters are playing, as they ask her to produce one original idea in her plan. She serenely answers, again and again: “It’s all based on my own business experience. And yes, I’ve borrowed ideas from other states.”
Undeterred, the Walker campaign has a stark ad running in regular rotation: “Mary Burke plagiarized her jobs plan. Wisconsin deserves better.” This week she released her own ad where she calmly faces the camera and hits back:
In August, Wisconsin lost 4300 jobs. That’s why in September, Scott Walker is attacking my jobs plan, saying it takes ideas from other states. Well of course it does. As Governor, I’m going to take the best ideas wherever I can find them. And if Scott Walker did the same, maybe we wouldn’t be dead last in jobs growth. Take a look at my plan and decide for yourself, because Wisconsin shouldn’t be dead last in anything, especially jobs growth.
The Marquette poll found that the plagiarism charge has been a minor issue, beyond the GOP base that’s already for Walker --voters care more about the weak jobs numbers that came out the same day as the allegations about Burke’s jobs plan, the poll found -- so on that issue, at least, Burke’s calculation appears correct.
She was a little more fired up in Green Bay than in Milwaukee, telling the Brown County Democrats, “They are gonna throw every lie and dirty trick in the book,” but “the tougher they get, the tougher I get.”
In the crowd of mostly retirees, there’s a fondness for Burke, an odd gratitude that this affluent woman, a comparative newcomer to politics, has graced their party, and their state, with such a high-minded campaign. If this is noblesse oblige, bring it on. Introducing Burke, liberal state Sen. Dave Hansen gives her campaign skills a backhanded compliment that nonetheless seems affectionate. She was a good candidate when she started out, he says diplomatically, but “she has continually gotten better!”
In both Milwaukee and Green Bay, though, there’s palpable anxiety about the new voter ID law, which could affect 300,000 people who don’t have the required state-issued photo identification. (The ACLU and the Advancement Project have asked the Supreme Court to block it.) In the Milwaukee crowd, I heard two longtime Democratic activists, one black and one white, fret about the law and discuss a planned training for what to do on Election Day. “It’s confused the hell out of a lot of people,” says former Democratic assemblyman Jim Soletski, who lost his seat in the 2010 GOP takeover.
The biggest problem may be with absentee ballots. Even people who registered to vote absentee years ago will now have to produce a state sanctioned form of ID and either bring it in to vote in person, or copy it and send it along. (In this very close race, examining the absentee ballots to make sure they’re all properly identified could delay a result.)
Deleana Scannell, the mother of Green Bay city council member Randy Scannell, has voted absentee for a decade. “When you’re 87, it makes it so much easier,” she tells me. But here was Scannell, at the local Democratic Party headquarters to see Burke, also getting her driver’s license copied so she could mail it along with her ballot.
Joan Zeiger, the leader of a Milwaukee County retiree group, says Burke can win anyway. “She’s getting Walker on jobs,” Zeiger insists. When I ask if the businesswoman turned politician is connecting with the party’s urban base, she tells me, “She’s doing a lot better.” But she will have to work harder: Obama carried Wisconsin in 2008 and 2012 thanks to high turnout in Milwaukee, where 74 percent of voters cast ballots, compared with an urban average of 60 percent. Despite GOP chortling about Burke trying to distance herself from the president, Obama is scheduled to return to the state for Election Day, almost certainly in Milwaukee.
Some Democrats think Burke’s pledge to end divisiveness will resonate not only with independent voters – the few that exist – but with the party’s base, too. “Let’s stop making our own citizens the enemy,” Bill Appel, a local attorney and Democratic activist, says.
But the Walker campaign is certainly making Burke the enemy. We’ll see if her above-the-fray approach endures, and she prevails.
Here's our interview:
How has Wisconsin gotten so polarized in the Walker years? Something has happened, and there’s not a lot of people left in the middle – 5 % of people are undecided.
I don’t believe that’s who we are here in Wisconsin, and I wouldn’t have gotten into the race if I really thought we were. I’m a fourth-generation Wisconsinite; I grew up in a household that’s largely independent, I grew up in Waukesha County, one of the reddest areas. A couple of weeks into the race I was at a farmer’s market shaking hands with folks and I met a couple and they said, oh, we voted for Walker, but we really like what we’re hearing about you. Most people in Wisconsin aren’t that far from the middle. It doesn’t have to be this divisive. Certain polling shows that 40 percent of people identify themselves as independents. Now whether they vote that way or not…
Yeah, people like to think they’re “independent…”
They like the idea. But you go back to 2006, when Herb Kohl last ran for Senate – he won with 67 percent of the vote. And he carried Ozaukee and Waukesha counties – not by huge margins, but he won them.
You’re saying Democrats could once do that, and could do it again…
Absolutely! That’s not going to be this race, and I know that. But that’s the type of state I believe we are and it’s the way I want to govern.
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert wrote a piece about Walker not doing as well, in some red areas of the state, as he did in the recall, and he said it was partly because he’s not running against Mayor Tom Barrett this time, so he can’t run against Milwaukee. The recall election did follow in the Republican tradition of “Wisconsin against Milwaukee,” and that’s racially and culturally charged as well. I wonder how you address that. Why do Republicans win running against Milwaukee?
It’s not an issue that I think about, and it’s not an issue that I think is relevant in this race. My approach to this campaign is to say it doesn’t have to be divisive, it doesn’t have to be about one or the other. I want to be a governor for the entire state. I’m happy to stand up and say I think Milwaukee is a great asset for this state. The greater metropolitan area is nearly a third of the state’s economy, and for Wisconsin to be a thriving state we need to have a thriving Milwaukee. So I want to take on the challenges there.
But I want to take on the challenges as well in rural Wisconsin, that has seen such tremendous loss of jobs, that over a five-year period of time has lost 9,000 farms. When you have a lagging economy like we do right now, there’s a lot of areas that are really struggling. The urban areas of southeastern Wisconsin actually are similar to northern Wisconsin in terms of the amount of job loss. People have similar concerns wherever you go in the state, people have similar ideas about what they would like to see.
And they would like an end to the divisiveness. This thought of sitting around going to Thanksgiving with families coming together and feeling like “I can’t have a conversation with him or her because…they’re on this side.” We’ve got to end that, it’s not who we are here. I just came from an event where a woman said to me: “I’m supporting you, and the thing that got me on your bandwagon was ending this divisiveness.” That’s what resonates and cuts through everything else. It may be hard for people to know what to think about jobs numbers; Walker’s spinning it, the ads go back and forth. But the divisiveness -- they feel it, they see it in their lives, and they don’t think it’s who we are in Wisconsin.
It seems the Walker campaign has taken a page from the Karl Rove playbook, where you attack your opponent at their strength. John Kerry, war hero, gets Swift-boated; you’re the only candidate in the race, as you like to remind people, with any private-sector experience – so they’re hitting you on this charge of “plagiarizing” your business plan. How are you dealing with it?
I’m just straightforward about it, as I am with most things. It doesn’t surprise me – it’s a distraction from talking about Walker’s jobs record. They tried attacking Trek Bicycle, same thing, and that didn’t work too well, it blew up in their face. These allegations are completely untrue. There’s a journalism professor who’s said that’s not what it is. I’ve answered every single question about it. This is a really good plan [she points to a copy on the table], it is based on my business experience at Trek, as an entrepreneur, talking with experts like Michael Porter, it’s what we need to drive this economy forward, and yeah, they’re attacking it. But I’ve answered every question. And the only people who continue to talk about this are Walker and his folks...
Yes, you got an ethics lecture from Chris Christie yesterday, that must have been fun…
[Laughs] Yeah, well, you know what, it’s the people of Wisconsin who are going to determine this race. I’m just going to keep pushing where Wisconsin really stands and how I’m going to address it. And I think the ad that we have up now is very effective in just saying: I’m straight about this, I’ll take ideas wherever they come from, and I don’t care if they’re Democrat or Republican ideas. The same with my ad that talks about Ronald Reagan: you know what? He did have a good idea, he expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit…
And Walker actually cut it. The EITC was a Republican idea – Gerald Ford signed it, Reagan expanded it, I think every president expanded it, including George W. Bush. A few short years ago, that was a bipartisan program.
Yes! [Walker] cut 140,000 families!
So why did the 2010 election usher in a period of restrictions on women’s rights, particularly around issues of choice and contraception? Five Planned Parenthood clinics have closed in Wisconsin thanks to Walker.
It’s just the Tea Party agenda. The number of governorships Republicans were able to win in 2010 gave a green light to that kind of agenda. We see a lot more things happening on state levels, if they don’t get their way in Washington they go to the state levels. We need to stand up and say this isn’t right. Women should be able to make their own health choices. This is ridiculous. You talked about the clinics closing – that means women are not getting basic health services, they don’t have easy access to family planning.
How would you turn that around?
Well, I’m going to have to work with a Republican legislature, there’s no doubt about that. We have to find common ground. But we can certainly stop more of this nonsense from happening, because I have no doubt this is a start. This is a long process. I’m in this race to be governor for a long time, because we’re a great state. This is a state with incredible potential. We are the type of people who believe in working together. That’s what I’m gonna be focused on every day.
Do you support paid family leave? There’s some federal legislation, but a few states – California, Rhode Island – have implemented their own plan, mainly through state disability insurance.
In terms of expanding it further from where it is now?
Well, it’s not paid now, except in those states…
We’re going to have tough budget issues here, because of the hole frankly that Walker has dug us into. I mean, we have a $1.8 billion dollar projected deficit, and there was a surplus in his last budget. While you have a nationally growing economy? I mean, this is fiscally irresponsible, and it really does set it up to be very difficult. So no, it won’t be a priority, when we’re looking at historic cuts to education, we’ve got 41,000 people on a waiting list for needs-based financial aid. We have a transportation budget with a huge hole in it. Adding programs that cost money? I don’t see that happening in the near future.
I’m really practical. You have to focus on priorities. I mean longer term – if it’s an issue that really needs attention, and people aren’t being covered through plans by their employers, then I think that’s something to be looked at. But it’s not going to be a priority now.
Well that’s a very straightforward answer. It’s not an answer I particularly like, but I like that you were honest…
[Laughs and nods at her press aide, Hilary Cronon.] Hilary’s not surprised.
So the reaction that you got when you walked in – is that a common thing for you? It’s still such a big deal…
What’s a big deal?
To have a woman running for governor. At least that’s what I thought the reaction was about. Maybe that’s just me.
No, of course I’m honored. I’m gonna be a governor for the whole state, but as I campaign, and I meet people in coffee shops or on the street, or at the Packers game, or wherever I’m at – more and more it’s parents coming up with their daughter, who’s 7 or 8 years old, who says she wants to be the next president of Wisconsin -- they don’t even know the word governor -- and can they have a picture? It is very cool. It’s exciting to think that I can inspire young women and girls, that they can see they can do anything. There are so many women who have blazed a trail in front of me so I can do what I’m doing and not feel that gender is an issue that’s gonna hold me back. I want to be that type of role model.
As somebody who covered Hillary Clinton in 2008, it seemed to me she didn’t emphasize the historic nature of her role enough – until it was too late.
As you’re talking about it, I think about why I would, or would not, do that. I think I was brought up to not toot my own horn, just get the job done. I think women in general are brought up that way. It’s hard for me to see myself as a great trailblazer. I do whatever I need to do to get things done. That’s probably for me why I don’t emphasize it. I’m probably more modest than thinking oh I’m this great trailblazer. But I know there is incredible support for me out there.
Where do you fall, in the debate within the Democratic Party – I personally think the divisions are somewhat hyped – about income inequality and populism? You and I are the same age, so I think of us as the last generation to whom the country really kept its promises – we could get a great K-12 public education, and then we had great public universities – I paid $350 a semester when I went to UW-Madison.
How does a governor begin to rebuild that kind of opportunity society that we benefited from in the '60s and early '70s?
We just have to. I don’t believe the U.S. can have a strong economy without a strong, growing middle class. As a business person – you need people who are able to spend money, right? On inequality, it’s not as much the inequality, to me, as the fact that people are not seeing opportunities, to move from the working class to the middle class, the middle class is being squeezed. And as we come out of this recovery, all the benefits of it are going to the top? It’s just not a good economic model. It doesn’t help people’s lives, in terms of having just the basic things. And when you see you’re not able to do that through hard work, it’s a disincentive. So I want to have an economy where people see that opportunities exist for them as long as they’re able to do the hard work. That affordable higher education exists, that we have a strong, growing middle class. We’re not seeing it right now. We’re not seeing it at all.
So why, at a time like this, is Scott Walker talking about drug-testing food stamp recipients?
You’re going to have to ask him about that. It’s not in my jobs plan!