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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Overcast
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Mary Burke for Wisconsin governor?
The Madison school board member could change the dynamics of the race
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The most interesting news so far about the looming 2014 governor's race was Associated Press reporter Scott Bauer's scoop that Wisconsin Democrats have been poll-testing a run by Madison's Mary Burke. Within a day of the Dems' telephone poll, Bauer reports, someone registered six Internet domain names with different combinations of the words "governor" and "Mary Burke."

Sounds like a plan.

A Burke run could dramatically change the dynamics of the governor's race.

For one thing, Burke, unlike Gov. Scott Walker, is an actual job creator. A Harvard MBA with deep roots in Wisconsin, Burke has years of business experience as an executive at Trek Bicycle -- the Wisconsin company founded by her father, Richard Burke, in 1976. Mary Burke oversaw Trek's operations in seven countries before she was tapped by Gov. Doyle to serve as Commerce secretary.

While Walker has been busy burning down what's left of our state, leaving Wisconsin trailing the region in job creation, trashing the environment, taking away health care and voucherizing the entire statewide system of public schools, Burke has become well known locally for her philanthropy.

A Madison school board member and the president for nine years of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, Burke helped found the district's very successful AVID/TOPS program. AVID/TOPS works to improve high school graduation and college enrollment rates for low-income kids, students of color, and students who are the first in their families to attend college. She put $2.6 million into the program.

In part, Burke's name has caused a stir because of her money. Her ability to put millions into her own campaign gives her a jumpstart, and will likely attract groups like EMILY's List, which supports pro-choice women candidates who have a real chance to win.

That becomes a bigger deal the longer we don't know who else might run against Walker. Anyone who has to start raising money has no time to waste.

And despite Walker's abysmal record and deep divisiveness, the Democrats have seemed alarmingly unprepared to challenge him. Worn out after the recall loss, lacking an exciting prospective candidate, Wisconsin Dems are looking like they might get run over again.

Walker could win reelection, with the help of his network of out-of-state billionaires, and then run for president -- a Wisconsin version of Rick Perry.

Which brings me to the exciting thing about Mary Burke.

This is a particularly auspicious moment for a woman to run for governor. The Republicans have overreached badly with their attacks on women's health. Look at the massive outpouring of support for Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, whose filibuster of an anti-choice bill in Texas went viral, as did Perry's contemptuous response.

Wisconsin is looking more and more like Texas lately. Take the ramming through of the controversial and insulting ultrasound requirement in the recent legislative session. Yup, Wisconsin now has vaginal probes. The problems that dogged the Republicans nationally in 2012 could hurt Walker in 2014.

Republicans already have their attacks on Burke all laid out.

"As Democrats desperately work to defeat Scott Walker, they have recruited an out-of-touch Madison activist to wage an attack against the reforms that have put Wisconsin back on solid financial ground," said Joe Fadness, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

"Out of touch Madison liberal" is a macro-key on state Republicans' keyboards. They used it so much in the Tammy Baldwin/Tommy Thompson Senate race, they almost wore it out.

But it didn't work against Baldwin, and it is even less likely to work against Burke. If anything, Burke might have more of a Mitt Romney problem. The telephone poll included a question about a sabbatical she once took to go snowboarding.

While Baldwin did, in fact, have "the most liberal voting record in Congress," as Thompson repeatedly pointed out, Burke is from a conservative, business-minded family and is viewed with suspicion by some Dane County progressives for her support for Madison Prep. Burke's proposed gift of $2.5 million to help start the charter school for African American and Latino kids put her at the center of the major controversy over Madison's achievement gap and whether Madison Prep was the answer. But Burke withdrew her support when the Urban League rejected school board oversight.

How does Burke regard the Republican drive to voucherize public education? She denounces it. However, she doesn't regard school "reform" as a dirty word -- which makes some public school advocates very nervous.

When she ran for school board, the progressive blog Forward Lookout asked "Who Will Mary Burke Fire?" in a post noting that Burke provided financial support for a study of cost-savings measures in the Milwaukee Public Schools that included firing teachers.

Burke does not reject the idea that outside-the-box ideas might improve public education. She has her own ideas, which some people might not like, but she is no tool of the school choice lobby.

And her timing might just be perfect.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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