There are those on the far right and far left of the political spectrum, but they don't make up the majority of Wisconsin voters, says Mary Burke, the lone declared Democratic challenger to Gov. Scott Walker. The bulk are near the middle, and Burke says she is their candidate.
Burke is even willing to concede that she agrees with parts of Act 10. Walker's signature legislation eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees, sparking massive protests at the Capitol and a recall election against the governor. Burke says if elected she would look to reinstate collective bargaining rights, but is okay with the hikes in public worker contributions for health care and retirement that were also bundled into Act 10. Like Walker, Burke says these concessions were necessary to balance the state budget.
Here's an edited version of our conversation with Burke, whom we interviewed at her campaign headquarters on the Capitol Square.
When did you first think about running for governor?
There were folks who were encouraging me and thinking I would be a good type of candidate who could win, who could bring in people from the middle, who with my private-sector experience brought something to the race.
Around what time was this?
The poll was done in June, so it was leading up to that, I would say.
Had you thought about running before this past year or was it really the political climate that we're in?
It was the political climate. I love Wisconsin. I'm a fourth-generation Wisconsinite, and I'm deeply concerned about the direction we're headed. And I don't believe the divisiveness we have today is who we really are in Wisconsin, and it's not the type of leadership people want.
If Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) enters the race and it's you and she in the primary, why do you think you'd be the better candidate?
I think [one reason is] the private-sector track record of working at Trek for over a decade that was selling great Wisconsin products all over the world, which meant increasing jobs here in Wisconsin. Then leading forecasting and planning at Trek, which is, again, understanding what it takes to grow jobs here in Wisconsin [and what is needed] for companies to be successful in a global marketplace. And the work I've done in education over the last six years -- in putting together a partnership between the Boys and Girls Club, the school district, bringing in our tech colleges, universities, our businesses to address a real challenge. That is a model for how we can work together as a state for when we have challenges that are difficult to overcome.
Why do you think some progressives have been slow to warm to you?
I think many times it's people just haven't gotten a chance to get to know me. I have sat down and done outreach over the last few months, and I would say 99% of the time -- I was thinking could I say 100, but I'm sort of a stickler for the facts -- when I sit down with people they're like, "Oh, okay, I support you. I didn't understand where you were on vouchers...." It's just making sure people have a chance to get to know me.
Wisconsin is a little odd in that we elected both President Barack Obama and Scott Walker. How do you see yourself reaching out to Obama/Walker voters?
It is to me about the tone. It's about the type of leadership. And people in Wisconsin do want to see effective leadership but believe that we can find common ground. I still remember the weekend after I announced, I was out at the Madison Farmers' Market shaking hands and I introduced myself to a couple. They said "we're from Kenosha, we read about you, we voted for Walker but we really like what you're talking about, this issue of bringing people together." They said "we believe people in Wisconsin are on a bell curve politically, and you find many more people who are nearer the middle than on each side." I represent that type of candidate.
You've stated your opposition to the statewide expansion of voucher schools, but it's unclear what you would do if elected governor to reverse course.
First and foremost I would not allow the caps [on student enrollment] to be lifted or increased. Then I would work with the Legislature to roll back that statewide expansion. I don't feel it's in the best interest of our communities or students to be offering that. Then I'd look to have accountability for any schools that are taking any taxpayer dollars.
When your campaign website came out, it didn't mention your experience on the Madison School Board. Are you concerned about being associated too closely with Madison?
Not at all. It was just an oversight. I'm really proud of my experience on the school board. When I travel around the state, that's one of our elected positions where you find it's really representative of communities and people who are really committed to their communities, and that's certainly why I serve.
Do you feel Scott Walker has demonized Madison?
That's a good question. I'm thinking of other folks he has demonized. Act 10 and demonizing our public-sector workers undermines effectiveness of that whole sector. No one does their best work when they are seen and talked about as being the problem.
The GOP has been pretty specific so far in terms of its criticisms of you. It's hard to find something that doesn't mention you as a millionaire. What do you think of that tactic?
It's just silly politics. I believe it's what you give that's more important than what you have. And I have committed my life and resources to my communities and to helping improve the life of others.
Both Govs. Walker and Jim Doyle had issues balancing the budget. What would your approach be to that?
First and foremost I would look at the money that's being spent and make sure it's being spent wisely. Under Walker's administration our state budget has increased by $4.6 billion. Some of that's tied to turning down the federal Medicaid money, so we have to make decisions that are smart for Wisconsin. We need to go after every single dollar of federal money that's available. That's Wisconsin taxpayers' money that has gone to Washington. We should be aggressive about going after investments that could fuel our economy.
If federal money became available for high-speed rail during your term, is that something you would go after?
I would certainly look at it. I think rail is an important infrastructure, and we will be stronger if we're tied to the strong economies in Chicago and Minneapolis. We have to be thinking as a regional area.
Do you see areas where the state budget could be trimmed?
I would look at every single dollar to see whether it's being well spent.
That sounds like the sort of thing politicians say in terms of trimming fat, but have you identified anything specific?
I will be. Two months into the campaign I haven't identified those. But as we move forward and put out our entire platform and economic development plan, we'll certainly have those.
You've said you're opposed to Act 10. What specifically would you do to try to roll that back?
I'd want to restore collective bargaining rights, and I'd have to work with the Legislature to make that happen.
So you'd look to repeal Act 10?
I think there is a difference, and what I'd look at is restoring collective bargaining.
Are there any parts of ACT 10 that you agree with?
Yes, I do believe [state employees] paying a fair share of health care and pension costs is something we needed in order to be able to balance the budget.
Do you have a number in your mind of what you're willing to personally contribute to your campaign?
I don't. I will be putting in what I can of my own resources. I don't know what that will be. But it's only a fraction of what will be needed to run an effective campaign that is going to win.