Is ‘Millionaire Mary’ Burke just another ‘cheap millionaire’?


By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Before Mary Burke officially jumped into Wisconsin’s highly watched race for governor last October, the Democratic Party establishment drooled over the prospect of “Millionaire Mary” taking on Republican incumbent Scott Walker.

No. 1: Burke wasn’t Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Not many establishment types, it seems, were interested in another run by Also-Ran Barrett, soundly beaten twice by Walker in less than two years — in the 2010 run for governor and the Big Labor-led recall election in the spring of 2012.

No. 2: Money, money, money, money … money! The former executive with Trek Bicycle Corp., the Wisconsin company her dad built from the garage up, had a net income north of $6.8 million from 2008 to 2012, according to an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

LIEN ON MARY: BMO Harris Bank in October filed a lien on Mary Burke’s property in connection with a loan the Democratic candidate for governor took out. The lien, filed within days of Burke’s $279,000 loan to her campaign, uses her stock in her family’s Trek Bicycle Corp. as collateral.

What made Burke so tantalizing as a candidate to establishment Dems wasn’t her political resume, which featured a win on the Madison School Board in 2012, a race in which she wrote her campaign a $129,000 check.

While the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s Mike Tate called Burke a “proven leader,” pointing to her days as Commerce secretary under Walker’s Democrat predecessor Jim Doyle, it was really Burke’s ability to self-fund her campaign — maybe, some speculated, to the tune of $5 million or more — that made Tate and the establishment types simply giddy about their girl.

“Burke has another advantage, which is that she’s personally wealthy and could self-fund, though (as is typically the case with rich candidates) she hasn’t committed to any specific dollar figure,” raved the liberal site, Daily Kos, after Burke announced her candidacy.

At first, Burke obliged, dumping in $400,000 soon after launching her campaign. She’s kept her pocketbook locked ever since.

As one political insider put it, Democrats at the state and national levels went to great lengths to clear the field for Burke’s candidacy on the promise that she could or would make a substantial investment, a belief that pushed other Dems out of the running.

But financial information obtained by Wisconsin Reporter may raise some questions about Burke’s wealth, or at least her ability or willingness to self-fund her run for governor.

BMO Harris Bank, based in Chicago, filed a Uniform Commercial Code lien on Oct. 10, 2013, which uses Burke’s stock in Trek as collateral for a loan she had secured. The size of the loan is not known, but the lien was filed just six days before Burke dumped $279,303.86 into her campaign, and three days after she announced her candidacy.

The lien, according to the document, covers all “right, title, and interest of the Debtor in (i) all shares of the capital stock of Trek Bicycle Corporation, a Wisconsin corporation, now owned or hereafter acquired by the Debtor, (ii) all substitutions and additions to such shares, (iii) all dividends, distributions and sums distributable or payable from, upon or in respect shares, (iv) all other rights or privileges incident to such shares and (v) all other rights or privileges incident to such shares and (v) all proceeds and products of any of the foregoing.”

An agent with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions confirmed the lien, but said that there wasn’t any more information included.

If the bank was used to seed Burke’s campaign, what does that mean for Burke’s financial status, and what does it mean for her ability to assist her war chest?

Burke’s campaign did not answer Wisconsin Reporter’s requests for comment.

Asked about the lien and the potential funding stream, Joe Fadness, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, reiterated one of the GOP’s biggest knocks on Burke: That the company she helped lead, the company the Democratic candidate points to as her model for business development, has outsourced a lot of jobs overseas.

“It is more clear than ever that Mary Burke is fueling her campaign with money made by outsourcing Wisconsin jobs to China,” Fadness said of the lien and the accompanying collateral statement.

Perhaps “Millionaire Mary” isn’t as flush with cash as commonly believed. Or maybe, as Burke’s opponent in the August Democratic Party primary asserts, Burke’s not as giving to her campaign as she has been to her philanthropic causes.

“(Democrats) thought they were buying themselves another Herb Kohl. What they’ve found themselves with is another cheap millionaire,” said state Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, who sees himself as the David to Burke’s Goliath in a contest in which Hulsey has become persona non grata in the Democratic Party establishment.

Burke’s campaign in recent months has really backed off the self-funding narrative that party elites had been selling. The candidate has been mostly noncommittal from the start.

Milwaukee television journalist Mike Gousha early on asked Burke if her personal wealth was a deciding factor in her decision to run.

“Well, I’ll certainly put into it what I can of my own resources, but it’s really going to be about the people of Wisconsin and them supporting a different type of leadership here in Wisconsin … ,“ Burke said, balking, as she has done so many times over the course of the campaign, at a pointed question.

In May, Burke told the Daily Beast that Republicans were “just using” the “Millionaire Mary” moniker to denigrate her wealth, and she disabused anyone of the notion that she would make self-funding a routine matter.

“I have been very clear that what I can put in is a fraction of what’s needed,” Burke said.

But the big players on the left have yet to chip in to Burke’s campaign at a substantial level, and some political insiders suggest the big guns are waiting to see how financially committed Burke is to the contest.

As Real Clear Politics pointed out late last month, neither the Democratic Governors Association nor EMILY’s List, the pro-abortion rights group working to elect Democrat women to public office, had rolled out ads on behalf of Burke.

“This lack of air cover from outside groups has been particularly noticeable in light of the Republican Governors Association’s seven-figure ad buy on Walker’s behalf, which it launched last February, and the nearly $900,000 Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity ad campaign that began airing last month,” the Real Clear Politics piece asserts.

“Private conversations with allies of the Burke campaign and national Democrats suggest that there may be a misunderstanding between the two entities over how much of her own money the candidate is willing to chip in,” the story continues.

Officials from the DGA and EMILY’s List did not return calls seeking comment.

No worries, said David Heller, president of Washington, D.C-based Main Street Communications and one of the top political media consultants and campaign strategists in the Democratic Party.

“They’ll be there. The cavalry is coming,” he said of national money to Burke’s campaign, in a race that will be settled in less than three and a half months.

Heller said national groups will always let the polling rather than the pocketbook drive decisions. As long as Burke’s numbers show her within striking distance, big-money groups like EMILY’s List will be there.

And the latest Marquette Law School Poll shows Walker locked in a razor-thin race with Burke, with the Republican governor leading 46 percent to 45 percent among registered voters, with 8 percent undecided and 1 percent preferring another candidate.

Heller said those numbers, if they hold, will drive a lot more national money to Burke’s coffers after Labor Day.

But there’s much at stake for both parties, and Walker, seen as very viable presidential candidate in 2016 if he wins in Wisconsin in November, has a lot of support from his fellow Republicans at home and nationwide.

“Republicans look ahead and see this guy is the most principled, outspoken, take-no-prisoners candidate in the field. (They say) ‘We have to make sure he wins the race (in 2014),’” Heller said. “The stakes couldn’t be higher.”

“The challenge for Walker and his allies is, ‘How do I utterly discredit Mary Burke so that people who don’t like me will vote for me because they hate her,’” Heller said. “And for challenger Mary Burke, it’s, ‘How do I keep this a referendum on Scott Walker, because as long as the conversation is on Walker and he’s polling sub-50 percent, I’m going to be in good shape.’

“If Walker does win re-election, he has a message and a profile that would play extremely well right next door in Iowa,” the strategist added, referring to the state with the opening partisan presidential contest in 2016.