Ron Biendseil first threw gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke a softball: "When are you coming out with your book?" he asked, alluding to Gov. Scott Walker's recent Unintimidated: A Governor's Story and a Nation's Challenge.
"Believe it or not I'm focused on the people of Wisconsin," Burke told the approximately 30 members of the Middleton Action Team, who gathered Nov. 20 for a midday meeting at Sofra Family Bistro in downtown Middleton.
Then Biensdell got down to business. There are grassroots activists around the state, he told Burke, who are "concerned that you're the latest product of the Democratic Party trying to ordain the candidate."
"What is your relationship there and response to that kind of populist suspicion?" he asked.
Burke, at the moment the only declared Democratic challenger to Walker, rejected any suggestion of a preemptive move by the party establishment.
"The decision I made to get in this race is solely my own," she said. "It's not tied to anybody putting me forward. That couldn't be further from the truth."
Burke said she entered the race after determining that there was a path to victory. She said she conducted polling that showed she could win and spent a couple of months traveling around the state to see how people felt about her as a candidate. Then she made sure she could put together a strong campaign team and raise the necessary money.
"That's how I became a candidate for governor," Burke said firmly.
Middleton Action is one of several relatively new, progressive, community-based organizations in the Dane County area and around the state that grew out of President Barack Obama's 2008 Organizing for America campaign. Like many others, it kicked into high gear with the recall effort against Walker.
Gretchen Lowe, a retired public worker and longtime supporter of labor and Democratic causes, recently surveyed these groups to see what they focus on, how often they meet and whether they endorse candidates (none do as a group).
A member herself of the Eastside Progressives, she identified several groups in Madison as well as the neighboring communities of Oregon, Fitchburg, DeForest and Sun Prairie. Many, like the Middleton Action Team, bring candidates in for meet-and-greets.
The members of these groups form a crucial constituency for candidates, says Lowe.
"If you really touch their emotional trigger, these are the people who are willing to go out and do the canvass."
She's referring to the door-to-door work that many volunteers shy away from, opting instead to drop literature or make phone calls -- both of which are less personal and effective.
Volunteers who canvass in their own neighborhoods can be especially valuable, adds Lowe. "They see you, know you and trust you."
Heather DuBois Bourenane, one of the founders of the Sun Prairie Action Resource Coalition, agrees.
"For all the talk about how the grassroots are at odds with the Dems -- and there is some tension there -- when you're talking about Middleton Action or SPARC, they are the boots-on-the-ground local action teams. These are the people who are going to be knocking on the door, getting involved in the campaigns."
At this point, she adds, they just want to decide whom they're going to volunteer their time for.
"We're not particularly thrilled with our choices right now, but that will not stop people from volunteering," adds DuBois Bourenane, a blogger and Isthmus contributor. "Getting to know the people you're going to be devoting your time to is a priority for the core people in our group."
A public servant
Burke is the only official gubernatorial contender to meet with the Middleton Action Team, but a potential primary challenger made the rounds a few weeks before.
Eileen Breitweiser, a member of the group, says about 100 people turned out to hear from Kathleen Vinehout, the state senator from Alma who did not make it out of the Democratic primary for last year's recall election against Walker.
"She did extremely well," says Breitweiser. "She's an exceedingly competent woman with an alternative state budget that does very well in meeting the needs of Wisconsin workers without raising taxes."
Moreover, adds Breitweiser, she "promotes the rights of the poor and the struggling class."
At the meeting with Burke, Breitweiser wanted to know where the wealthy former Trek executive and philanthropist stood on class issues.
"One of the charges we're already hearing from the Republicans is that you're a member of the 1%, an elitist," Breitweiser said during the question-and-answer period. "How are you going to answer those charges in terms of the majority of people in Wisconsin?"
"I was brought up to believe the more you have, the more you should give," responded Burke, whose father founded Trek Bicycle Corp.
Burke said she left Trek nine years ago so she could concentrate on raising money for the local Boys and Girls Club, which was trying to build a second facility in Allied Drive. She said she decided she was needed more by the kids in that neighborhood than she was at Trek.
"I consider myself a public servant," Burke said. "It's not about the wealth you have, it's what's in your heart."
Rebecca Alwin pressed Burke on her plan to turn out rural and low-income voters in an off-year election, given her "Maple Bluff Country Club background."
Burke ignored the perhaps unintended slight but agreed that turnout would be key to a victory in 2014.
"Wisconsin has been blue for seven straight presidents," she said. "We know when we turn people out we win."
Burke said she would "work with activists in every area of the state" and, as Tammy Baldwin did in her recent statewide victory for U.S. Senate, make sure she connected with voters.
"That's how I will address misconceptions people have about me," she said.
Alwin said after the talk she would have liked more specifics from Burke on how she would connect with low-income voters: "I did not find her answer to be very reassuring."
Two good candidates
Burke, a Madison school board member since 2012, was also grilled on voting "no" on the Madison school board's amended 2013-14 budget.
Burke said that she was not comfortable raising taxes by 3.5% to cover $16 million in new spending.
"I felt people were struggling," she said.
Burke said she preferred to look at other ways to cut the budget total: "We should make sure we're being wise with our spending."
Burke was not asked about the recent U.S. Department of Labor ruling that determined 20 former Trek employees are eligible for federal aid since they lost their jobs due to the company's "increased reliance on imports."
But she'll have to come up with an answer since she touts her record as a job creator at Trek, says Lowe. "So far Mary's main issue has been jobs."
Burke was also not asked to detail her stance on reproductive rights, though she was supportive in her introduction.
Breitweiser says she believes both Burke and Vinehout would actively support reproductive rights, though her husband, Larry Landwehr, allows that Vinehout's support of a conscience clause for pharmacists is a "blemish" in an otherwise pro-choice record.
"We've got two good candidates," says Landwehr of Vinehout and Burke. "I like them both."
Alwin says it's hard to judge at this point where most members of Middleton Action are leaning. "People want to remain open-minded and follow events as they unfold."
DuBois Bourenane says the majority in her group, however, are Vinehout fans. But, she adds, "there's a real skepticism of whether she has a fair shot in the primary."
She says the Sun Prairie group likes to create small enough events that the candidates "can't just stump at us. So we can have actual conversations. And that's not easy to do. They don't really want to do that."And yet that's exactly what would win people over, adds DuBois Bourenane.
"To motivate people to volunteer for these candidates, they have to be able to trust them. I don't think they can trust them without breaking through the political rhetoric people are so tired of."