Exclusive: Interview with Walker Challenger Mary Burke

“I don’t think you have to make this choice about being on one side or the other side. My feeling is that when we are committed to growing the economy and making sure that our public employees have a place at the table through collective bargaining, everyone wins.” -- Mary Burke
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A week after she released the video announcing that she will challenge Scott Walker for governor in 2014, I sat down with former Trek Bicycle executive and current Madison school board member Mary Burke at her campaign headquarters directly across the street from the State Capitol building.

Burke’s campaign was a hot topic in Madison for months before she announced.

She is either the perfect candidate:

*A business executive who can self-finance a campaign against the biggest-spending governor in state history and his rightwing billionaire backers,

*A real job-creator running against a governor who has presided over a steady stream of job losses while handing out public money to his corporate cronies

*A real public servant who volunteered in the classroom, ran the Boys and Girls Club, and helped create a successful program to help low-income, minority students go to college before serving on the school board

*Potentially Wisconsin’s first woman governor—and a pro-choice candidate running against the governor who has closed Planned Parenthood clinics and rolled back access to abortion, birth control, and even sex ed.

Or...

*A millionaire who is being shoved down our throats by a state party that is trying to put the kibosh on more progressive primary challengers

*Former executive of a nonunion company that has outsourced production to China.

*A school reformer who backed a controversial charter school in Madison and can’t be trusted to defend the public schools.

*A rich lady who once took a year off to go snowboarding, and is out of touch with ordinary folks—including those who took part in the massive public uprising against Scott Walker.

Love her or hate her, Mary Burke is the only candidate who has announced so far against Walker and she is putting together a formidable campaign. Obama’s 2012 communications director for Wisconsin, Joe Zepecki is her press guy. Maggie Brickerman, former executive director of the state Democratic Party is her campaign director. EMILY’s List appears to be about to get on board.

In her first week as a candidate, she held events in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, and Appleton. Next week she will be in Wausau, La Crosse and the western part of the state.

“I look forward to getting out around the state,” she told me. “I always ask, ‘When can I go on my RV tour?’”

“At the Department of Commerce, [as Democratic Governor Jim Doyle’s Commerce Secretary] the first summer that I was there, I think I had seven or eight straight weeks of putting a thousand miles a week on my car--because I just wanted to get out and talk to people throughout the state an understand and create those relationships.”

The Progressive: What motivated you to run?

Burke: I just love Wisconsin. I’m a fourth-generation Wisconsinite,and my great grandparents were farmers. My grandfather delivered the mail. My mom was the first in her family to go to college. My dad started this business that becomes an international success. And I just believe very strongly in Wisconsin and who we are and the potential that this state has. And I’m really concerned about the direction that we’re headed.

And I believe that we do deserve better jobs and a better economy. I look right next door to Minnesota and they have a 5.1% unemployment rate while ours is 6.7% . They’ve got back not only all the jobs they lost since 2008, but more.

And we’re still struggling to even get back those jobs.

So I think that we certainly can do better on our economy, and I think that we deserve better leadership, too.

The leadership that we have has divided us and has weakened us.

I believe that we deserve better and we can do better if we have leadership that brings people together, that puts problem-solving ahead of the politics.

So that’s why I decided to get in this, and I’m excited to be in it.

The Progressive: Of course Gov. Walker says that things are looking up, there’s the news this morning that the surplus is bigger than expected, and he is offering a property tax cut. What do you make of that?

Burke: I look at this latest budget and basically it spends more money than any other budget. It’s $4.6 billion higher—it’s increased since he’s been governor. It has record-high debt levels and we’re going into the next biennium with a $545 million deficit that could get larger.

I’m all in favor of tax cuts as long as their done in a way that is fiscally responsible and is balancing the budget and is not done in a way that’s setting us up for deficits down the road.

The Progressive: How significant were Walker’s cuts to public education?

Burke: As I travel around the state and talk to people all over, the cuts have certainly had their impact in terms of larger class sizes.

I’ve been an advocate for public education for a long time. I believe it is the foundation of our economy. It’s also the way people are able to improve their lives. It’s how we move forward as a state.

As you get to more rural areas of the state where a district has less than 1,000 students in it, it’s really difficult for those districts to absorb the cuts and to still be able to provide the quality education that’s going to mean that our students graduate college and career ready. And there certainly is more that’s being asked of our schools every day.

I’m surprised to find throughout the state districts that have quite high poverty rates, and it’s certainly an issue whether they’re getting the resources to be able to prepare kids.

The Progressive: What did you make of the mass protests in Wisconsin. Did you feel you were part of that cause? Did it spark your interest in running? And how important is the issue of public employees’ collective bargaining rights that was at the center of the protests?

Burke: I think Act 10 divided our state. And it left us weakened.

Every organization I’ve been a part of, whether it’s Trek Bicycle or the Boys and Girls Club or the school district, I know that we do our best work when we work together. It makes common sense. And being divided is not something that moves us forward.

As governor I would have made sure that I bargained fairly but firmly, been able to get the changes that were needed to balance the budget, but done that through collective bargaining and making sure that our public employees had a voice at the table.

I think that it’s incredibly important that we have a public sector that’s able to attract and retain a qualified and committed workforce. That’s how we get our work done. That’s how we move forward. Whether it’s our schools or our police departments or fire departments. All of that is really important.

I learned that at Trek. Trek is incredibly successful because it has a great workforce and people who are really committed and are part of the mission of what Trek wants to become—a great organization. And I see we have to do the same thing in our public sector. People have to feel part of the mission and have that voice.

The Progressive: Trek is a nonunion company, though.

Burke: Yes.

The Progressive: And there are labor leaders in the state who are worried about your commitment to labor rights.

Burke: Sure.

The Progressive: So what do you say to them? You oversaw Trek’s overseas operations. How do you answer the criticism that the company wasn’t creating jobs in Wisconsin, but was actually creating jobs outside the state.

Burke: I’m really proud of Trek’s record for the Wisconsin economy. Trek employs more than 1,000 people in the state. Its payroll has more than doubled over the last twenty years. And on top of that, they buy goods and services in excess of $40 million from Wisconsin companies. So that means even more jobs.

I think that’s something that is not always talked about.

The other thing is that Trek is the largest manufacturer of bicycles in the United States. And the work that I did when I led the international division in 1990 to 1993 was selling Wisconsin products overseas, and that did create jobs here in Wisconsin. That’s something we have to understand. Opportunities for Wisconsin companies to grow their businesses, whether it’s selling their goods and services in other states or whether it’s outside of the country, we should be helping support this.

My emphasis would be making sure we are helping create Wisconsin jobs--particularly good paying jobs.

The Progressive: So what about labor folks who are nervous about whether you are their candidate? What’s your position on collective bargaining rights and unions’ role in our state?

Burke: I think what people want—and when I talk to labor leaders—people want good paying jobs. That’s something I believe in. Our whole economy benefits when people have good paying jobs and we have a growing economy.

So we have to make sure that’s happening. We do have to make sure that Wisconsin companies are competitive. That’s how they grow their jobs. But having a great workforce and having a great climate that people can work in is all part of that.

No organization is going to be successful unless it places a high value on its employees and engages them in the work that it’s doing. Some of the best work that Trek did and continues to do is through processes that engage workers in how we can always do better.

So I don’t think you have to make this choice about being on one side or the other side.

My feeling is that when we are committed to growing the economy and making sure that our public employees have a place at the table through collective bargaining, everyone wins.

The Progressive: So what would you do to restore those rights?

Burke: Obviously the legislature is a big part of that. And as I said I want to make sure that in the public sector we are able to have a qualified and committed workforce where we are able to attract and retain great people.

I see it in the teaching profession, how that’s being undermined now. So I would have to work with the legislature to see what we could put in place to make sure that we’re able to do that and so workers have a voice at the table.

The Progressive: The school choice lobby in Wisconsin is almost as powerful as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. What do you make of the bills that reflect that: the voucher expansion, the sale of the Milwaukee public school buildings, the statewide charter school district?

Burke: I think we have to put our student’s learning first and foremost. That’s so important and I do not believe that expanding vouchers, or taking away the chartering authority from school districts does that.

We have to look at what research shows is going to move education forward. We have great public education here. There certainly are issues and challenges we need to address. We are working on those in Madison. But I think that the direction that this is headed undermines those efforts. And it is draining resources from our public schools. And I think it was Dale Schultz, a Republican, who said, “I don’t know how we think we can finance a whole second school system when we are not adequately financing our public schools.”

So I think this is an important issue for the state. We have to make sure we have strong public education. That’s how we’re going to move our economy forward. We have to make sure our kids are graduating from high school college-and-career ready. And we have to focus on what’s going to work. And we have to also make sure that any organizations that are taking public funds for education are accountable for using those funds wisely for improving student learning.

The Progressive: What do you think about the grumpiness among progressives in Dane County about the suggestion that there ought not to be a primary?

Burke: I respect everyone’s choice to decide whether they run for elective office or not and I admire people who do. That’s giving yourself to your community and to your state. I got into this because I do want to be governor and I love Wisconsin and I believe we need a change in leadership. But what I’m focused on is winning overall and whether there’s a primary or not I’m going to be focused on that same goal.

The Progressive: So you don’t have a position one way or another on the primary.

Burke: No.

The Progressive: You would be the first woman governor of Wisconsin. We now rank with Texas in the level of assault on women’s reproductive rights. How important is it that four Planned Parenthood clinics have closed in the last year, and what do you make of what’s going on legislatively on those issues?

Burke: I just believe very firmly that women should have the freedom to make their own health choices, with their spouse, their physician, and according to their religious beliefs. And taking away that freedom is an assault on that choice.

The Progressive: Are you talking to people around the state and are you hearing that that’s an important issue for voters?

Burke: Oh yeah, absolutely.

The Progressive: I saw that you are headlining the Eleanor Roosevelt awards this week.

Burke: I’m looking forward to it, and I think we have to make sure that the freedoms that women have enjoyed are ones that they are able to enjoy in the future. This is just standing up for what that I think is right.

The Progressive: How significant is it that you would be the first woman?

Burke: Well, I think there are a lot of women who have gone before me and who have contributed so much. I think back to my mom being the first in her family to graduate from college. She actually met my dad when they both went to Marquette University. They were both in the business program. He went on to be in a management trainee program, and the only jobs offered that were open to her at that time were as an administrative assistant or a secretary in business.

I think about all those that have gone before me and blazed the path, so I hope I do that for other women who come after me.

But also my belief is I’m running because I’m the best person to run the state and I’ll win this race based on that.

The Progressive: Have you been up to the Bad River and do you have thoughts about the mining controversy there?

Burke: Oh, absolutely, there’s no doubt that creating jobs is really important, especially in that part of the state where they need more jobs. But we also have to protect our natural resources. This is a great asset of the state.

We had bipartisan legislation on the table that would have balanced those two, and unfortunately that wasn’t what was passed and unfortunately what was passed greatly weakened the safeguards.

What I hear from people in that part of the state is that it wasn’t handled in a way that balanced those two.

We do have such a strong tradition of great natural resources.

Whether it’s just enjoying the fall colors, or whether it’s hunting or fishing, I mean these are all things that we value here in Wisconsin and are part of our tradition

But I do firmly believe that we can have a balance between protecting those natural resources for many generations to come and making sure that people have opportunities to have good paying jobs.

The Progressive: A lot of people are really excited about your campaign. But I do hear this real nervousness especially from labor. So I guess the main thing I want to get from you is what you say to Dane County progressives who are not sure if they can commit.

Burke: Part of my homework was really getting out around the state and talking to people. I wanted to make sure that there was really the support from the base. I know that is important to winning.

And whether I was talking to local elected officials or activists, when I was able to sit down with people and they got to know me, there was great enthusiasm and support.

And so I am really—I think that’s what I want to do is make sure people get the opportunity to know me and what I stand for and that’s what’s going to motivate people to support me.

The Progressive: And the fact that you took a year off to go snowboarding?

Burke: I don ‘t know if it was quite a year, but you know what? I have a career that has spanned a long, long time and I’m proud of how hard I’ve worked throughout my life. And after starting not only my own business in New York but opening up seven offices for Trek in Europe and getting that business started from the ground up, I needed a break.