Mary Burke, the only declared Democratic candidate for governor, is holding back from prescribing specific policy solutions to the state's problems at this point in her campaign. Instead, a year away from the 2014 election, the Madison School Board member and former Trek executive is emphasizing her leadership in the business and nonprofit worlds as well as her ability to broach compromise across ideological lines.
During an interview with the Cap Times last week, she highlighted these qualities in describing why she believed others had urged her to run.
“I think people felt I was the type of candidate who (could attract voters) from the middle, has a strong emphasis on private sector job creation,” she said. “And (they) know what my leadership is in the city in regards to education. They thought that I would be a great governor.”
In response to specific questions on policy, Burke above all stressed her commitment to developing solutions based on empirical analysis. She nevertheless avoided proposing specific alternatives to many of Gov. Scott Walker's policies.
For example, did she support the $650 million tax cut signed into law by Walker earlier this year?
“I'd have to see whether it put the state in a strong financial position going forward,” she responded. “You've seen where we're now going from a $700 million surplus to getting into the next biennium with almost a $750 million deficit. I'd love to be able to do tax cuts, but they have to be done in a way that is benefiting the state and is setting us up for fiscal responsibility in the long term.”
Notably, in the first weeks of her campaign, Burke, unlike many candidates challenging incumbents, has generally avoided attacks against Walker. Although there is little question to whom she attributes the state’s political division and economic anxiety that she decries, she has largely eschewed the incendiary jabs that have become common among Democratic legislators and party leaders.
As she has on other occasions, Burke, a longtime education advocate, noted the historic nature of Walker's deep cuts to school funding and expressed concern that the state was making an economic blunder by failing to invest enough in public education.
“I think we have to make sure that we're adequately funding our public schools and that overall is something that I believe is important because our schools are the foundation of the our economy,” she said.
However, when pressed on what she would have preferred the state do to avoid cuts to education, she avoided specific proposals and did not say whether she would support raising taxes instead.
“I would look at everything in terms of, first of all, our spending,” she said. “There's a lot of other things with a budget that's $65 billion. There's a lot to look at there.”
When asked what she thought about the $1 billion the state spends on prisons — due to an incarceration rate that far exceeds that of some states with similar crime rates, such as Minnesota, Rhode Island and Maine — Burke also expressed an interest in investigating more effective alternatives to prisons.
“I just think we have to look at all the options. I think it's a really good comparison to make and to say, are there other ways to make sure our communities are safe but also that we're being effective in terms of the money we're spending?” she said, noting Wisconsin's high rate of recidivism. “I think there are states that are looking at things differently, understanding that if you want to be able to fund the priorities that are driving economies, you have to look at the things that aren't funding job creation and see if there's better ways to be doing it.”
Asked what she thought about voters legalizing marijuana in Washington State and Colorado, she responded, “I don't think that's where the people of Wisconsin are at.”
In response to concerns voiced by some progressives about a statement she made suggesting she was open to the controversial iron mine in northern Wisconsin, Burke said she’s opposed to the environmental deregulation bill supported by the mining company, Gogebic Taconite, and that she would only support iron mining under the framework established by an alternative bill proposed by Democrats and moderate Republican Sen. Dale Schultz.
“The only way I would support the mine in northern Wisconsin is if it is protecting our natural resources, and I think the bill that Sens. Cullen, Jauch and Schultz had put forth had the processes that would be able to safeguard our natural resources while still being able to create jobs,” she said.
In response to a question about the proposed casino that the Menominee Indian Tribe seeks to build in Kenosha, which has been fiercely opposed by the Potawatomi tribe, which runs a nearby casino in Milwaukee, Burke again stressed the importance of assessing the market for gaming in the area to determine whether the project would result in a net addition of jobs.
“It's not just something that we talk about and look at in isolation,” she said. “Neighboring states also have gambling operations. Is this an opportunity to increase jobs overall in the state?”
She did not reject out-of-hand the possibility of raising taxes on the wealthy in future budgets. Unlike Republicans, who have repeatedly bemoaned tax rates which they say put Wisconsin at a competitive disadvantage, Burke said that Wisconsin's progressive tax structure is not abnormal.
“I think if you look at Wisconsin ... that our highest tax rates are certainly in line with other states, certainly higher than some and lower than others,” she said. “I think it's not only the tax rate but other types of deductions and things. But I believe in people paying their fair share.”
Finally, when she was pressed on the fact that she has largely held back from proposing specific policies and so far does not describe any issue positions on her website, Burke said the campaign is still in its development stages and that she plans be more specific in the coming months.
“Three-and-a-half weeks into the election, it's a lot to build up an organization from scratch,” she said. “There's no doubt that during the course of this campaign, over the next year, I want to make sure people understand where I stand on issues, what values I hold and the type of governor I will be.”