Mary Burke’s Machine Politics

A brief parable:

Mike Tate and a small group of other men in suits – the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and his core operatives – sat hunched over, brooding and deep in thought.  Tom Barrett had just lost to Scott Walker, the Milwaukee County executive. The year was 2010, a very bad year for Democrats all around the nation. They dedicated themselves to bringing down Walker that day.

They knew that Walker wouldn’t trod lightly, and they were right. So after a series of reforms that dramatically undercut the state’s public employee unions – and with it a key client group, a key source of money and political power for the Democratic Party – they joined with their union allies in a recall effort. All were dismayed when that effort, the result of work that began the day Walker put his hand on the bible, failed miserably. Their candidate in the recall, the same as in 2010, emerged from a competitive primary process, but he was horribly uninspiring and ran a C-minus campaign.

Tate and his lieutenants began making phone calls, redoubling their efforts to beat Walker, this time the usual way, in a regular election. They resented the primary that produced Barrett, they resented their woefully thin bench, and they resented their status as a second-rate party with second-rate legislators and a losing record. Their party’s last governor was despised around the state.

For Tate, it was personal. His ultimate goal became to ascend from a statewide nobody running a party not long ago fronted by Graeme Zielinski, a flame-throwing drunk driver now disgraced, to a bona fide party boss with direct and unlimited access to the governor’s mansion. Their governor.

That’s why he and his team created Mary Burke. Tate and his apparatchiks decided to come up with the ideal candidate on paper and find her in person – the result was a business woman with some government experience, very deep pockets, and virtually no record to assail.

When approached, Burke was agape. She didn’t regard her own life’s experience as being all that remarkable. After all, she was asked to leave her own family’s company when sales in her region, Europe, began taking off with no one competent at the helm. She spent years on vacation, only to return and leave the company again. Burke was later asked to serve, then asked to leave, as commerce secretary by Jim Doyle’s chief of staff; even her predecessor in the job described her as a “disaster.” Burke put down the phone both conflicted and excited.

The premonition Tate sold her was one of a savior of the state’s Democratic Party, a savior named Mary Burke. Who would turn that down? Granted, she’d mostly watched the party flail in recent years from the sideline. Uninvolved as she’d been, her mouth watered at the prospect of wielding the power of being governor, especially at this point in her life, long past what she’d thought was her lifetime’s pinnacle. Perhaps the best is yet to come for me, she thought.

They told her she had to run for something to establish some credibility as having been elected to something, but she couldn’t lose. The stakes were high, so she dumped more than $100,000 into a run for Madison School Board to ensure a win. She won the race. Events were coming to a confluence; at this point, most knew the recall would sputter out. Barrett was a dud. She might have a chance.

When the recall did fail Burke was no longer the bench warmer, but the starting pitcher. After her election to the school board a gaggle of liberals flooded her life, telling her how to think, how to act, what to do, redoing her hair and makeup and wardrobe and applying makeup and telling her one-liners she could use and introducing her to the staff that was being brought in and what tactics the nascent campaign would be using. It was a whirlpool; Burke was thankful to have such competent handlers.

With Burke being taken care of, the string pullers at the DPW began working on the other side of the equation – stopping Walker’s supporters and coming up with a plan to impugn the apparently popular governor. Their challenge was how to shut down the outside money they knew was standing by to help Walker, buttress the money standing by for them, and keep their base frothed up over a lackluster candidate they’d never heard of. They decided to do everything in their power to avert a primary so their base wouldn’t get a glimpse of a candidate other than the one of their creation.

They made more calls and came to understand what must be done to thwart Walker’s deep-pocketed supporters. Working with Milwaukee County’s district attorney, John Chisholm, a known Democrat whose wife was a union steward deeply affected by Walker’s reforms, a series of anonymous investigations were planned under a strange methodology known as the John Doe process that would essentially grant them unlimited ability to raid, probe, and seize, allege and charge, and maybe even get a few favorable judgements to shut down Walker’s supporters. The process also allowed gag orders to be issued, threatening those being investigated with criminal charges. What a dumb, flawed process that is, Tate thought. But he was glad it was available. He was no longer willing to let decorum interfere with his plans.

The prosecutions unfolded nicely. Some missteps a few years ago by Walker’s staff were uncovered, and some of those staff paid the price. Who doesn’t make mistakes, Burke thought, mostly oblivious to the reality of what was happening behind the scenes of the John Doe Show. She was told it was important, but really nothing she needed to know anything about. Tate and the team kept her in the dark, which Burke was okay with.

Walker’s supporters were raided, dragged before probes and depositions, forced to turn over sensitive documents and reveal private information unrelated to the investigation. Due to gag orders imposed by Tate’s allies on the bench, these groups and individuals were unable to defend themselves. They couldn’t speak to the media, and they sure couldn’t put out ads. Anecdotally, to Tate’s great satisfaction, it was heard that some conservative groups and top donors were starting to get skittish. Equally satisfying, money was flowing in and he’d secured the support of the top donors and groups on The Left, groups like those funded by George Soros and EMILY’s List.

At the very least, they knew one thing for certain about the tactic: it would shut down Walker’s donors and scare away a lot of conservative money. Conservatives are just that, they thought. And in the recall, there was plenty of activity to scrutinize. The legal aspect of the campaign could conclude one way or another after the political aspect of it, so long as plenty of headlines were generated and material created for their ads against Walker. They had set up a propaganda machine; knowing the media had been kept in the dark about their tactics, and that some were as strongly anti-Walker as any Dem flack behind closed doors, they had a blank check from the state’s prominent news outlets.

The battle was joined and the campaigns got rolling. The first of the polls showed their challenge of introducing an entirely new candidate to the state. But their money kept flowing, Walker’s money was successfully slowed down thanks to the efforts of Chisholm. And while their candidate’s favorables remained low, that never mattered. Their base of voters was kept whipped to stiff peaks by the constantly running propaganda machine. Their rank and file – whom they despised as a hoard of fickle whiners who were never satisfied with Burke – nonetheless hated Walker with a white hot rage more than ever before.

It was working. The polls tightened, and the rage stoked by the propaganda machine buoyed their voter turnout operation that would otherwise have flailed on the rocks of a miserably uninspiring synthesized candidate.

With less than a week before the election, Tate savored the thought of returning to power – and eagerly anticipated the unlimited access he would have to the painted ear of his own Frankenstein candidate.

To be continued…


George Will wrote a great analysis of the tactics of Wisconsin’s Democrats in opposing Scott Walker in The Washington Post. In it he describes the deplorable propaganda machine, the visage of the raids of conservative activists, and the symphonic coordination of every step of the process – allegations, investigations, depositions, raids, gag orders, and quiet exonerations. Will writes:

But Chisholm’s aim — to have a chilling effect on conservative speech — has been achieved by bombarding Walker supporters with raids and subpoenas: Instead of raising money to disseminate their political speech, conservative individuals and groups, harassed and intimidated, have gone into a defensive crouch, raising little money and spending much money on defensive litigation. Liberal groups have not been targeted for their activities that are indistinguishable from those of their conservative counterparts.

Wisconsin Reporter also elaborates – albeit with anonymous sources – about allegations that Burke was in fact asked to leave Trek by her own family. In light of the odd circumstances around every job she’s left, and her protracted periods of unemployment, Reporter’s sources’ allegations are entirely plausible.

Burke is a phony, a synthesized candidate who is not only entirely unqualified to be governor, but whose campaign and allies are using some scary tactics as a crow bar to the door of the governorship.

The Left likes to compare Republicans to fascists like Hitler. But the tactics Will describes are, in fact, some of the same tools of intimidation, suppression, and character assassination utilized by totalitarian regimes throughout history.

There’s nothing new in politics about using past events to make specious allegations and mislead the public. But to set up a legal mechanism that creates those very events from which the allegations are made seems novel – it truly is the vertical integration of the misinformation supply chain. Who needs gulags in this day in age?

Utilizing the mechanisms of government, such as Milwaukee County DA John Chisholm’s office, to punish one’s political opponents is a slide back to the machine politics of the late 1800s, in which powerful party bosses pulled all the strings. Politicians owed their career to the bosses, and the bosses never left a favor uncashed. It was a client state where those who were owed favors lined up at the public trough expecting jobs, payouts, or favorable contracts and tax deals.

The party in power forced public employees to cut the party a check commensurate with their salary or risk losing their jobs. Political cash was cycled back through the system.

Today’s Democratic Party added a step to the process – the public employee’s union. Walker broke that cycle. The Democrats must restore it.

Wisconsin’s Democrat Party operatives lust for power, and they will quite literally do anything – including building an old fashioned political machine in Wisconsin – to have it back.

Update: Sputtering to a halt in a cloud of oily smoke, the Dems’ machine broke down on election day as Wisconsin voters, ever progressive in their own moralistic and inconsistent way, rejected the brand of politics that party peddled, along with their candidates up and down the ticket. Mary Burke, dejected from her loss, later stated she had no intention of returning to statewide politics.

About the writer: Chris Rochester is editor in chief of Morning Martini. He’s an armchair politico, veteran of several campaigns, and communications specialist. He's the communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.