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Mary Burke

Madison School Board member Mary Burke would be the frontrunner and could clear the field, according to state Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate.

State Journal archives

Should Madison School Board member Mary Burke run for governor in 2014, she would be the Democratic Party’s frontrunner and could clear all other credible candidates from the field, state party chairman Mike Tate said Wednesday.

“If (Burke) were to run she’d be an instant frontrunner and an exceedingly difficult opponent for Scott Walker,” Tate said, adding that she has put in more work than other potential candidates by traveling the state talking with local activists, business leaders and voters.

Burke, a former state Commerce secretary and Trek bicycle executive, declined to comment Wednesday. But she has said she is seriously considering a run.

Burke is a multimillionaire who in 2012 won elective office for the first time to the Madison School Board.

Whether her potential candidacy would clear the field of serious contenders faces its first test Friday when Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris said he plans to announce his decision about a potential challenge to Republican Gov. Walker.

Harris said Tate told him Wednesday that he would prefer not to have a contested primary so that the top Democratic candidate could start raising money as soon as possible. But Tate didn’t put any pressure on him to stay out of the race, Harris said.

Burke made a similar argument to Harris when they recently met for the first time, he said.

Other leading Democrats, however, have told Harris there should be a meaningful primary to help build name recognition for the eventual winning candidate and to make sure the candidates air their views publicly.

“I know I would like to run, I know I have things to say, but I don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt the Democrats,” Harris said.

Harris said as part of his decision he’s assuming Burke will run, and he’ll have to decide whether a primary will help or hurt the eventual nominee.

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, is also considering a run. She didn’t immediately respond to an interview request Wednesday, but she has said she won’t make a decision until next year.

Tate made his comments Wednesday during a telephone press conference focused on Walker’s promise during the 2010 campaign to create 250,000 jobs in his first term. Projections suggest he won’t meet that goal.

In response to Tate, Republican Party of Wisconsin executive director Joe Fadness hammered again on Burke’s background.

“As expected, Democratic Party bosses continue to rally around handpicked millionaire Mary Burke,” Fadness said.

“We can’t afford to go backward, and Scott Walker continues to move Wisconsin forward by improving the economy and lowering taxes on middle class families.”

Burke made her fortune through her ownership stake in her father’s bicycle company.

She spent two years as head of the company’s European operations and nine years in charge of global sales forecasting, but also took time off to go snowboarding and had a hard time finding investors for a New York company she started.

She served as president of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County for nine years, taking it from a small neighborhood club to a citywide organization.

In 2005 she was tabbed by then-Gov. Jim Doyle as Commerce secretary, a post she held for 2 1/2 years.

Tate and other Democrats say Burke would be a strong candidate for governor because of her executive experience in the private, nonprofit and government sectors.


Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.