Feature: Former Trek Exec Seeking New Ride as Wisconsin Governor

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Former Trek executive Mary Burke launched her Wisconsin gubernatorial campaign with a pair of bikes in the background. Was the choice of one mountain and one road bike a subliminal call for bipartisan peace? Time will tell. Photo Credit: Burke for Wisconsin Campaign.

Touting job growth, economic development, and a spirit of pragmatic cooperation, former Trek Bicycle Corporation executive Mary Burke officially threw her helmet in the ring for the 2014 Wisconsin governor’s race, announcing her candidacy Monday in an online video. Burke is seeking the Democratic nomination in hopes of ultimately unseating Republican incumbent Scott Walker who made national headlines in 2011 for pushing controversial legislation stripping public-employee collective-bargaining rights, and surviving a subsequent recall attempt.

A Harvard MBA and daughter of Trek founder Dick Burke, Mary Burke served a variety of roles at the company, ultimately opening and directing European business operations. In 2005 she left Trek to accept an appointment as state commerce secretary under then-Governor Jim Doyle.

The family business figures large in her video announcement while the cabinet position, though touted, takes a back seat. It mirrors her apparent strategy, casting herself as a moderate, job-growing businesswoman, rather than a career politician. Indeed, Burke’s only political experience comes in the form of a board seat for the Madison Municipal School District which she won last year.

“Helping to turn my family’s business into a global company has been a big part of my life,” says Burke with a pair of Trek bikes–one mountain, and one road–framing her in the launch video. “Now I’d like to help make the great state of Wisconsin even better as your governor.”

Mary Burke (center) led Trek’s global expansion which started in the late 1980’s and held a variety of strategic positions within the company. Photo Credit: Burke for Wisconsin Campaign.

Democrats are hopeful Burke’s “informed outsider” persona will play well with voters, whose discontent with politicians continues to grow over political gridlock and the government shutdown, according to polls.

Despite the grousing, defeating an incumbent like Walker is a tall order. After prevailing in the 2012 recall bid, Walker was elevated to hero status among conservatives and is being groomed as a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate. The stakes–and the spending–will be high, which favors a proven fundraiser like Walker. What remains to be seen is Burke’s fundraising ability, the level at which national-level Democrats will contribute, and how much of her own fortune she’s willing to kick in.

With presidential aspirations in the balance and an evenly polarized electorate, however, Walker is unlikely to take Burke’s challenge lightly. Democrats meanwhile are still smarting from the failed recall attempt, and party officials will likely approach the election with caution. While there are other potential strong Democratic candidates–most notably state Senator Kathleen Vinehout–Burke’s early announcement may dissuade more contenders from coming out. The prospect of diminishing campaign coffers in a prolonged primary, not to mention the potential for intra-party mudslinging, would only benefit Walker in the general election.

No Wisconsin campaign in complete without the obligatory Green Bay Packer’s tailgate photo. Here Mary (center in red) is flanked by family, including her brother John (far left), current Trek president. Photo Credit: Burke for Wisconsin Campaign.

Burke Family Politically Active Behind the Scenes

Mary Burke’s brother, and Trek president, John Burke has never held office but has been politically active for years on business and cycling issues. He’s a former chairman and current board member of People for Bikes (formerly Bikes Belong), an industry organization fundamental to guiding, promoting and advocating national bicycle infrastructure funding and policy.

Other Bike Industry People in Politics

If elected, Burke has company from the bike industry in the political arena. Former professional bike mechanic Peter DeFazio is a US Congressman from Oregon; Vitesse Cycle Shop Owner Chris Koos is mayor of Normal, Ill. (and a Trek dealer); and race promoter and trail advocate Cimarron Chicon, is a Utah State Representative.

To see Burke’s entire launch video go to burkeforwisconsin.com.

About the author: Don Palermini

Chicago-born editorial director Don Palermini became a cycling-based life-form in the sixth grade after completing a family road bike tour of his home state. Three years later he bought his first mountain bike to help mitigate the city's pothole-strewn streets, and began exploring the region's unpaved roads and trails. Those rides sparked a much larger journey which includes all manner of bike racing, commuting, on- and off-road bike advocacy, and a 20-plus-year marketing career in the cycling industry. Now residing in the San Francisco Bay Area and pedaling for Mtbr, his four favorite words in the English language are "breakfast served all day," together in that order.

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  • Ed says:

    Let’s see, the Burkes have off shored manufacturing just about everything except their high end frames, made the world’s biggest dope cheat richer, shut down the LeMond brand because Greg telling the truth might hurt their profits. She’ll make a fine politician!

  • John says:

    How many bicycles are you manufacturing in the U.S., Ed?

    Trek may not be perfect but they are a generally responsible company that has done a lot of good things for the industry.

  • Flitedoc says:

    Yep.. She’ll get along just great with the likes of Nancy P and her husband for sending business where it doesn’t belong (way out yonder) and raising taxes, then getting folks enrolled into a health plan where you vote on things before you read them … while sending the profits who knows where? Funny thing about this “shut down”… The signs were made up before the shut down happened… Hmmm???

  • RWT says:

    Trek has become a classic story of money buying good public relations and good public relations hiding a lot of not so good behavior. The Burke’s don’t have a civic bone in their bodies, they a coin focused only. We need to shed a bit more light on how John pushed LeMond out of business, we all know the why it is the how that reveals the character of John Burke.

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