JANESVILLE, Wis. — Only a few years ago, Wisconsin was the scene of huge protest rallies that shut down the state Capitol, a failed attempt to recall the new Republican governor and an outpouring of end-times rhetoric by Democratic loyalists about the stunning loss of their government power.
That turbulent history is hardly in evidence as Mary Burke makes her way around the state these days, introducing herself to voters as a Democratic candidate for governor. In fact, she seems to be ignoring it, even though she is aiming to oust Republican Scott Walker and end his conservative revolution in Madison.
Whether mingling on small-town streets, giving radio interviews or appearing at union hall rallies, Burke speaks in measured tones, saying little that stirs the old partisan passions.
“I come at this from a business perspective,” she told voters in Janesville last month, “and you better have a detailed plan, and a plan that’s going to work.”
Burke is the Wisconsin Democrats’ attempt at a reboot after their worst losses in recent history. They lost to Walker in the 2010 governor’s race, again to him in the recall and to Walker’s Republican allies in the Legislature as they stripped the Democrat-leaning public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights, triggering the protests. The latest polls peg the race as a dead heat, and groups on both sides are investing millions of dollars in the contest.
While populist slogans, union rights and anti-elite insults are the traditional red meat of Democratic rallies, Burke — a former top executive at Wisconsin’s Trek Bicycles — is trying to win as an experienced business professional with a plan for improving the state’s underperforming economy. The idea is to attract more people concerned about Wisconsin’s fiscal health than labor issues.
It’s a test Democrats in other Midwestern states with similarly shrinking union bases will be watching.
As a Harvard graduate, the daughter of Trek founder Richard Burke and the former director of the company’s European operations, Burke, 55, would be an unlikely scourge of the 1-percenters anyway, since she’s one of them — worth millions, not billions.
Her campaign speech is heavy on detailing her time expanding the company’s brand overseas and her work as its senior analyst.
Burke’s campaign plan calls for investing in key industries by region, such as paper in the Fox River Valley near Appleton, manufacturing in more populous southeast Wisconsin, and medical technology around Madison. Her economic blueprint borrows from a 2010 a strategy drafted by a Wisconsin business group.
“We are lagging,” in new job growth, she said. “When I see something like this, you’ve got to be doing something differently.” Eight of the other nine Midwestern states have recorded more job growth since the recession.
Although aides say Burke has worked to overcome some of her boardroom woodenness, it also serves to distance her from the more street-level style of her Democratic predecessors, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker last time around.
The shift in message has been noticed.
“Some of us weren’t too sure at first. We’re a pretty strong union town,” said Jacki Gackstatter, a Janesville Democrat and candidate for Rock County clerk of courts, after Burke addressed 400 at a union hall. Burke supports restoring the public employees’ collective bargaining rights, but believes workers should pay more for some benefits.
Earlier that day, Burke chatted up a group of men in Beloit, a recovering manufacturing town of about 35,000, and described herself as a “business-friendly, fiscal conservative.”
“You sound like a Republican,” Rick Holmin of Beloit shot back.
Walker’s allies scoff at Burke’s argument. They point to her opposition to several of his business-backed measures, including phasing out the manufacturing tax and easing regulation to benefit an open-pit mine project.
Walker is also running on the economy, citing the state’s 5.7 percent unemployment compared to the 6.2 percent national level in July.
He points to rising confidence among employers, evidenced in surveys by the pro-business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce, or WMC, as a sign his conservative policies are working.
“That’s what can happen in a few short years when you put Republicans in charge of state government,” he said at a Republican National Committee reception in Chicago on Friday.
Much of Burke’s broader record is distinctly Democratic progressive. A former school board member in Madison, the state’s most liberal bastion, she supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage and raising the minimum wage.
If nothing else, though, her economic blueprint has turned some heads among those who put fiscal issues first.
“This is the best, most coherent strategy document” proposed by a candidate, said John Torinus, a longtime Wisconsin business analyst and board member of WMC, which has never backed a Democrat for governor.