Whose Kool-Aid Did Mary Burke Drink?

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AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a nationwide program designed to help “the least-served students in the academic middle,” according to the program’s website, through elective courses. Many students are minorities, from low-income families or are the first in their family to attend college. TOPS, or Teens of Promise, is a Boys and Girls Club of Dane County-designed program that coordinates college visits and internships and provides tutoring for the students.

Study: AVID/TOPS students show gains,” Wisconsin State Journal

On Tuesday, Mary Burke paraded her credentials as an innovative steward of educational reform on Facebook, pointing to an article in the Wisconsin State Journal that lauded incentive-based programs for improving the grades of struggling students.

Ms. Burke’s leadership helped establish TOPS. She has long been a supporter of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, where she has donated both her time, developing personal connections with its participants as a mentor, and resources, once donating $1 million to the organization and quarterbacking the effort to win a $1.6 million grant from her father’s foundation. When told she would receive their first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, she struggled with the idea of receiving it in front of a large crowd. But her philanthropy with the Boys and Girls Club isn’t a one-off, and certainly not one to gain political points.

Between her stints as Commerce Secretary and Madison School Board member, Ms. Burke proactively donated to local causes in Madison. In one case, she wrote a check for nearly half a million dollars for a non-profit that services Madison-area homeless. To finance the gift, she sold her house and bought a smaller one.

In October 2011, she pledged $2.5 million to Madison Prep, contingent on the school’s ability to match $500,000 in funds each year. Around the same time she pledged $300,000 toward South Madison Promise Zone, “a citywide initiative aimed at better coordinating the fight against poverty.”

These details come from a two-year-old profile of Ms. Burke in in Isthmus. The character references quoted pointed to Ms. Burke’s natural ability to be apolitical, bring together those with the best ideas, and develop a pragmatic solution.

“She doesn’t carry an agenda,” says Karen Ingwell, who’s known Burke personally for 15 years. “Mary is an extremely independent person. She really listens to all points of view, and because of that she’s really hard to stereotype.”

The real kicker comes here:

“Mary’s about accountability. She’s not looking to give, she’s looking to invest,” says Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club. “But with that investment you better know that she’s going to hold you accountable, she’s going to make sure you deliver results.”

As demonstrated by her matching gifts, and her apparent business prowess, and the promise that she’ll hold people accountable, Ms. Burke knows that people respond to incentives. That’s a law of economics, says renowned economist Gregory Mankiw, whose primer on macroeconomics is on every business undergrad’s bookshelf: Behavior changes when cost or benefits change.

Obviously Ms. Burke is passionate about learning and education, and not just for the cameras. She has a traceable and public record of giving to relevant causes, not for good press, but because she has considerable wealth that she feels compelled to share.

This pattern and philosophy makes her protection of collective bargaining for public employees indefensible.

Collective bargaining offers blanket incentives to those covered by a deal, and in terms of public employees, come regardless of performance on the job. In other words, through Mankiw’s lens, collective bargaining reduces the cost of unsatisfactory work (which without such controls would mean being fired, or not promoted, or receiving a pay cut) and improves the benefits (regardless of performance).

All signs point to Ms. Burke’s candidacy as one of being the next step in a privileged career rooted in nepotism. It was even acknowledged by her brother, current Trek President, that she flits between many projects; in fairness, he does point out that she aggressively sees them through to completion, that it’s part of her competitive streak. Her high-minded talk of, as governor, bringing together the best minds to solve problems, appears to be accurate, something she believes and isn’t saying to fill column inches with good press. As someone passionate about education, she held people accountable, created incentives, and demanded standards. Ms. Burke did not stand on a podium and rally for smaller class sizes, better-paid educators, or increased spending; she developed personal connections, all while staying out of the limelight. Her candor over painting Scott Walker as a failure and divisive figure seems untrue to her character. As someone outside the Madison Democrat establishment, she has certainly been coached and guided by the state party to conform to their messaging: Unions good, Walker bad. Does Mary Burke believe what she is saying, and will the platform she’ll put out conform to the party’s mission, not her own philosophy?

Such a tactic could help explain her quiet non-campaign campaign launch and boringly vague non-platform platform at the outset, then the hiring of OFA vets to help round out the message.

What will truly turn the governor’s race on its ear will be the talking point that Ms. Burke has spent time in business creating jobs, working with non-profits, and enjoying a diverse career while Mr. Walker has spent his career as a bureaucrat and politician. It will surely flip the typical job-creating Republican versus anti-business Democrat narrative that is typically spun.

While details on her platform remain vague, her spirit of personal responsibility and anti-victimhood, coupled with her histories of giving and entrepreneurialism, fundamentally do not jive with typical liberal policies. If she resorts to canned speeches penned by policy advisers, her message will appear gauche against Mr. Walker’s endearing charisma.

The problems facing Wisconsin will not be solved by undoing the progress of the first half of the Walker Administration. As someone who looks at realities and facts with an expert team, then draws conclusions, Ms. Burke must understand and acknowledge that. The other explanation would be that she is under the control of greater political powers, an inauthentic cog in a machine using her to unseat a governor the left so despises.

About the writer: Nik Nelson is publisher of MorningMartini.com and Founder/CEO of OpenBox Strategies, where he connects political candidates and small businesses with excellent digital marketing tools and strategies.
  • Carl Richter

    I vote that she is under the control of greater political powers.