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Mary Burke on election night

Mary Burke, right, talks with with supporter Erika Monroe-Kane as they wait for election returns to come in on election night in April 2012. Burke easily won election to the Madison School Board in her first run for public office.

State Journal archive photos

It’s no secret that Mary Burke’s wealth is one of the main drivers of her likely candidacy for governor. With few identifiable political leaders, Democrats believe one of the best ways they can compete with Gov. Scott Walker’s fundraising prowess is to find a candidate who already has millions to her name.

So far the former Trek executive, whose money largely comes from the estate of her deceased father, Trek founder Richard Burke, appears to be the only one percenter up to the challenge.

While it’s clear that Burke, who has not had a fulltime job since stepping down as state commerce secretary in 2007, has enough money to dedicate her life to philanthropy, it is unclear whether her treasure is vast enough to match the funds from across the country streaming into Walker’s war chest.

Last month I asked the state Department of Revenue to provide me the amount that Burke has paid in state income taxes, beginning in 2006. The records indicate her state tax liability has steadily increased since that year, when she paid $35,082. The following year she paid $57,687. In 2008, the year her father died, the amount she paid jumped to $98,052, apparently because her stake in Trek increased after his death. In 2012, she paid $120,316 in state income taxes.

Beyond highlighting the fact that Burke is far richer than most of us, these figures are not very useful. The size of the bicycle baroness’ fortune is still anybody’s guess.

“Honestly, it tells us basically nothing about her income,” says Susannah Tahk, a UW law professor who specializes in tax law. “The tax code has in it literally thousands of special provisions (exclusions, deductions and credits).”

She explains further:

“These deductions, exclusions and credits mean that it is impossible to tell what someone's actual gross income is by looking at their tax liability.”

In Wisconsin, the tax rate for those with incomes north of $220,000 is 7.75 percent plus $15,070. If Burke paid that rate in full (and took advantage of no credits or deductions), her most recent taxes suggest an income of roughly $1.36 million. However, much of Burke’s income likely derives from investments, which is taxed at the lower rate of 5.4 percent. Furthermore, 30 percent of capital gains are excluded from tax entirely.

Thus, her income was almost certainly higher than $1.36 million last year and may have been significantly higher.

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In an email response to questions about her wealth and taxes, Burke declined to provide more specific information about her income, saying only that if she runs for governor, she will look at what past candidates have released to the public to inform how much she discloses. In a statement, she emphasized that she was not always wealthy, and that she has been generous with her money since.

“When I was growing up my father was a small businessman with a family of 7 to provide for, so we grew up like most middle class families in Wisconsin,” she said. “I learned from my parents, it’s not what you have, it’s what you give that is important. I think those that know me best would say that what I give, and how I live, defines me a lot better than what I have.”

Indeed, Burke’s wealth will add little to her candidacy unless she’s willing to give generously to the campaign. And yet, even somebody who is pulling in over a million a year may very well have a hard time coming up with enough money to match Walker, who raised $3.5 million in just the first six months of 2013, a non-election year.

It is unlikely that spending on the 2014 election will reach the heights of last year's recall election, in which Walker smashed state records by spending nearly $40 million in the year before election day. But whatever he raises will likely be more than one wealthy individual can spend. 

That’s why Democrats repeatedly emphasize that a victory over Walker will take more than a rich candidate. It will mean a fundraising operation that brings in millions from donors around the state and country, similar to how Tammy Baldwin raised enough to beat Tommy Thompson in the 2012 U.S. Senate race. In that race, Baldwin spent over $15 million.


Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.