Miscalculating Mary Burke

I’ve been wrong about Mary Burke.

When she quietly launched her candidacy just over a year ago, the rare media attention she received focused on eliminating the recognition gap. The whole time her candidacy has just been odd — from trying to define the circumstances that impelled her candidacy to the ongoing choo-choo train of faux pas committed by her, her campaign, and its army of staff, consultants, and volunteers.

My first mistake was thinking she would pose no threat to Governor Walker. Admittedly, my interest in writing about her was to learn about her, though not from the deluded perspective of moderate fence-sitter ignorant to the realities of party politics. I wanted to understand why everything about her seemed so misaligned. At first, the confusion came from inherent philosophical contradictions between her business credentials and the anti-business tenets of Democrat policy:

  • While usually trumpeting the vuvuzela of “standing up for the little guy,” suddenly the Democrat favorite was a woman who worked in an international company her father started. It’s asinine to equate understanding the needs of a modern small business with being handed a job in daddy’s bike company.
  • Her philanthropic efforts are now legend, especially following the first debate. But what struck me as odd was how her generous contributions were often tied to future success. That’s obviously contradictory to the economic equality dogma of Democrats today. Although, come to think of it, much like Democrats, she was spending someone else’s money in all of her giving — so perhaps I’m off point.

Soon, two themes emerged that have carried through since. One, she wasn’t Scott Walker. Two, each and every one of her moves were based purely on politics and not on principle. That’s why her campaign failed to launch a cohesive and well-articulated agenda early on. Either that, or the copy-and-paste function in their versions of Microsoft Word was glitchy.

When she did launch her jobs plan, the first scandal was not that it was plagiarized liberal malarkey — it was that the word “union” never appears in the document, as I reported at the time. Democrats argue that union rights and collective bargaining are tentpoles of a stable economy. She could not make that an explicit part of her agenda because of the politics involved. Democrats ran against public sector union reform twice and lost both times. The issue is certainly divisive, and as a candidate running on the vague notion of unity for the state, inserting herself into that fray head-on would be counter to her carefully-crafted personal image. All this came alongside her comments that “of course” public sector union employees should have to contribute to their benefits packages.

Statements like those were the root of my ultimate confusion — by most business accounts she seemed pragmatic and conservative. It seemed bizarre for her to juggle the idea that she could have reaped the economic benefits of an amended labor agreement without causing the kerfuffle of legislators leaving the state or having sobbing unionistas bawl on the front lawn of the Capitol in Madison, declaring the death of democracy.

It became clear that she was a phony, running as an independent synthesizer of great ideas who can unite the state, who transcends the humdrum realities of politics-as-usual, while really being beholden to the establishment powers of the Democrat party who are desperate to topple the Walker juggernaut. What have never been clear are the circumstances under which she decided to run. Most of these folks only take a stab at a major office like this one if they think they have a fighting chance, especially one as polished and clean as hers was from the start in terms of the traditional branding elements (website, logo, list building, email collection, etc.).

Mary Burke was in it to win, with the right resources and encouragement. Her handlers created for her a polished veneer of business prowess and cometogetheritude, just enough to make her likable. And that’s the story they stuck with until the primaries.

MONDAY: Vinehout, Hulsey, and how Mary Ordinary became Mary Contrary.

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.