Meet The Woman Who Could Unseat Scott Walker

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke addresses students at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

MADISON, WISCONSIN—Just 40 of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s 43,000 students gathered Monday afternoon in one corner of an ornate wood-paneled hall draped with flags to hear from the woman who could soon become the first female governor of the state.

Holding printed campaign signs reading “I will vote,” the students listened to Mary Burke earnestly rattle off a number of reasons why they should support her over Gov. Scott Walker (R): “Whether it’s the economy, whether it’s education, whether it’s our environment, whether it’s women’s healthcare choices, the list goes on and on and on.”

“The future of our state is at stake here,” she told them, urging them to volunteer to knock on doors, phone bank, and encourage friends to vote. “Be part of something incredible. Are we going to get this done in the next two weeks?” After an awkward pause, the students broke into cheers that echoed in the mostly empty room.

Polls show Burke tied in a dead heat with Walker, and both candidates are spending the last few weeks of the campaign focused on boosting turnout, which tends to be much lower in mid-term elections. If Monday’s lackluster rally to encourage early voting is any indication, the Burke campaign has reason to worry.

When introducing Burke at the university’s Memorial Union hall, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) said low voter participation is a real concern: “If we get only one third turnout, we are going to have a re-elected Scott Walker, now the front-runner of the Republican nomination for president. We will have a Republican Tea Party Attorney General, and we’ll lose seats in the Assembly and the Senate. But if we get people out to vote, we can win.”

In the next two weeks before the election, Burke will hold get-out-the-vote rallies from Appleton to Green Bay to Milwaukee, with students, farmers, union workers and, soon, former president Bill Clinton and current president Barack Obama.

Speaking to ThinkProgress in the back of her campaign bus, Burke said she can’t remember the last time she took a day off. With a hard smile and narrowed blue eyes, she said she doesn’t mind setting her alarm for 4:30 a.m. In fact, most mornings, she wakes up before it even goes off.

“Being the type of person I am, I like to go full-on,” she said. “If things need to be done, I want to get them done.”

Burke is a fourth-generation Wisconsinite, a former Trek Bicycles executive, and served a term as the state’s commerce secretary, but she was largely unknown in the world of politics before throwing her hat in the race for Wisconsin’s highest office.

If elected governor, she would inherit some serious challenges. Wisconsin faces a $1.8 billion dollar deficit, and while the state has added tens of thousands of jobs over the past year, the improvements have not been shared equally across the population. A new report from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families found stark racial disparities among the state’s children. Based on a range of factors, the well-being of white children is the tenth best in the nation, but the well-being of Wisconsin’s African-American children ranks dead last.

Burke told ThinkProgress she is prepared to address these issues head-on, and believes the wraparound support services for low-income teens in Madison that she worked on for the past six years through the Boys and Girls Club would be a good starting point for tackling that deep divide.

“But a lot of [the disparity] comes from low incomes,” she added. “It’s important to increase the minimum wage.”

Governor Walker recently declared in an interview that the minimum wage “doesn’t serve a purpose,” and the Burke campaign has jumped on the opportunity to draw a clear distinction on an issue that impacts hundreds of thousands of voters.

“People who are working full time should be able to support themselves, and it’s not realistic to think that people can support themselves on $7.25 an hour without government assistance,” she told ThinkProgress, noting that she supports raising the wage to $10.10 an hour over two years. “It’s just impossible to get by now, and if you’re always struggling it’s really difficult to have a fair shot. Plus, this is money that gets spent and goes right back to our local economy.”

Mary Burke rallies students to vote early.

Mary Burke rallies students to vote early.

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Burke has also emphasized her and Walker’s differing tactics for addressing the rising cost of attending college in Wisconsin. The governor has imposed a tuition freeze at the University of Wisconsin for the past few years, but Burke says this isn’t a “long-term answer.” She has advocated letting graduates deep in debt refinance their loans at lower rates, and boosting state funding for financial aid.

“If you don’t have the state supporting higher education enough to at least cover inflation, then you’re basically looking at cuts,” she said. “We already have 41 thousand people on the wait-list for state financial aid. People are being priced out. I know I’m dating myself, but in my generation, people really could work their way through college with a part time job, and that’s impossible now.”

Over the past few months, the Democratic Party has been sending its most popular spokespeople, including Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren, to stump for Burke’s campaign. And national groups like Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood and the American Federation of Teachers have been showering her with funding and airing TV ads on her behalf. Yet Burke has made few solid commitments on the issues these groups prioritize.

Burke railed against Scott Walker’s cuts to Planned Parenthood but told ThinkProgress she would not commit to restoring the funding if elected. She says she “supports the rights of workers to collectively bargain,” but has said she would work to repeal only part of Walker’s law that prevents them from doing so.

Off-campus, residents told ThinkProgress their concerns about her range from her lack of time building relationships in the state legislature to her support for charter schools. Most said they would vote for her as a referendum on Scott Walker’s time in office, but did not feel excited about her as a candidate.

But after the rally Monday on the Madison campus, several students set off for the Capitol right then to cast their vote early for Burke. Others hung around to shake her hand or take a selfie with her. One student gushed, “Mary Burke is behind me. This is, like, the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me!”

Another asked Burke what to say to fellow students who aren’t as politically engaged. “Tell them it’s about creating good-paying jobs,” she answered, “about women’s health care choices…”

“That’s the best-selling issue by far!” the student interjected. Burke agreed. “There were women who fought for these things so many years ago and now we’re having to fight for the same thing. Spreading the word and having those conversations would be great,” she urged.

As three other young women clustered around Burke, she told them: “You know, I didn’t get into this race for gender reasons, but I think it’s time for a woman governor.” She grinned at them. “I’ll keep the seat warm for you.”