Possible female candidates add new dimension to governor race

Matt Pommer  Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Two women seem ready to seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014, adding a new element to Wisconsin politics.

Considering a run for the top state job are Madison School Board member Mary Burke and State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma. Burke holds a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University.

Vinehout has a doctorate degree in health services research from St. Louis University.

Old-time Democrats are restless that the women aren’t doing enough to get their names known in various parts of the state. They think it will be tough to win the support of independent voters if they are unfamiliar with the women.

Both Republicans and Democrats have stories of how their statewide candidates crisscrossed Wisconsin to get their names known to the public. They remember the visits of Democrat Tony Earl and Republican Tommy Thompson to large towns and tiny villages in the year preceding their gubernatorial victories.

The election buildup already has started with Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce buying television time to tout Gov. Scott Walker and the state’s economic condition. At issue, of course is Walker’s 2010 promise that Wisconsin would have an additional 250,000 jobs in four years. The WMC ads suggest things are in top shape.

Walker raised $3.6 million in the first six months of 2013, and polls repeatedly show he has the support of 47 percent of those questioned. In the last 48 years Wisconsin has given multiple terms to men elected as governor. Four won additional terms; one chose not to run, and only one has lost a re-election bid. But none had a female opponent.

Would the gender difference help or hurt a Democratic female candidate? There probably was a time when men may have thought that women couldn’t handle such an important job. Last year’s election of U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin over ex- Gov. Thompson may have put that prejudicial idea to rest.

Indeed, female voters may have thought it was time for Wisconsin to send a woman to the U. S. Senate. That sort of attitude could make for a close governor’s race in Wisconsin next year despite the history of multiple-term governors.

It’s worth noting the University of Wisconsin System has had a female president, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s south-central synod of Wisconsin recently elected its first woman bishop.

Having a female opponent could help Walker’s hopes of being on the national Republican ticket in 2016, with Hillary Clinton looming as the possible Democratic candidate for the White House. Speculation that he faces a close race would stir national media interest in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial election.

Republicans seem to think Burke will be their opponent next year. She spent years as an executive at Trek Bicycle and is best-known as a philanthropist. Republicans denounce her as a “Madison liberal millionaire.” Running against Madison and liberals is old stuff for Republicans, but criticizing her for being rich is novel.

Usually Wisconsin politics have Democrats criticizing Republican campaign funding by millionaires, especially those from out of state.

Burke also served as secretary of the Commerce Department under Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle. Republicans like to denounce Doyle because he raised taxes to cover the recession- era cost of government. Walker shifted key Commerce Department activities to a quasi-public government, but it ran into scandal.

Vinehout was elected to the State Senate in 2006 and re-elected in 2010. She would have to give up her seemingly safe State Senate seat to make the run for governor. Vinehout was among the 14 Democratic senators who left the state in early 2011 in the unsuccessful effort to stop Walker’s gutting of public employee unions.

Vinehout has been the operator of a dairy farm near Alma and has been active in the Farmers Union and the Farm Bureau. Strong agriculture ties have been good Wisconsin politics, but the percentage of voters in agriculture has dropped over the decades.

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