Meet the Mary Burke you may not know

January 15, 2014


While Mary Burke is a gubernatorial candidate, she is not a run-of-the-mill politician.
Most politicians spend years, even decades, crafting an image for themselves through political posturing and making the right friends behind the scenes. Dreams of higher office often eclipse good ideas and positive fundamental change.
That’s not Mary Burke. While some know her as a former Trek executive and Commerce secretary for Governor Jim Doyle, it’s less known that Burke has spent the last 15 years as a leader in her community who has not only talked the talk, but walked the walk.
The Madison-based businesswoman believes that everyone should have the opportunity to succeed and has become a force for influencing change on the minority student achievement gap and poverty in her community.
Burke, a longtime supporter of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, began her relationship with the organization as a mentor and tutor for two young boys in 1998 while still an executive at Trek Bicycle. She was quickly tapped to join the Board of Directors and was unanimously elected President by her fellow board members in 2002.
Her commitment to the club is unwavering. She resigned from Trek in 2004 to lead the organization’s $6.25 million fundraising effort for a state-of-the-art facility in one of Madison’s struggling neighborhoods. In her role as Director, she led the club’s expansion from a bare bones community organization to one that drives significant change in Dane County. Under her leadership, the organization created a partnership with the Madison School District to build a nationally acclaimed college prep program that includes all four of the city’s high schools.
Partnership and accountability are key components of Burke’s philosophy. While others seem content to simply write checks and take advantage of photo opportunities, Burke works to bring everyone to the table to ensure that investments generate the greatest positive impact. Her approach earned her a reputation of not being overtly political; instead, she’s known as a pragmatic leader who prefers to weigh ideas on their merit instead of their politics.
Burke’s approach has been successful. In the past decade the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County has increased the number of children it serves from 300 to 3,000 and swelled its operating budget fourteen times over, growing from $250,000 to $3.5 million.
Burke’s focus on partnership and her passion for educational opportunity led to the creation of the AVID/TOPS student achievement partnership with the Madison school district. The AVID/TOPS college prep curriculum is aimed at low-income and underrepresented students, many of whom would be the first in their families to graduate from college. The program is entering its fourth year, and high school students enrolled in the program continue to show stronger academic progress than students in similar academic standing and demographics.
No, you haven’t missed any of these headlines of Mary Burke promoting her efforts in a chestbeating fashion—she simply doesn’t welcome the fanfare.
A few years back, Burke quietly gave $450,000 to Road Home, a nonprofit agency serving homeless families in Dane County, when they fell short of their fundraising goal to build 15 apartment homes for the homeless.
It is rare to see someone who has done so much for their community without also self-promoting their efforts.
To peg Mary Burke as just another wealthy politician would be to overlook all of the selfless work she’s done to benefit her community. She’s simply cut from a different cloth, willing to bring people together to craft fresh, bold solutions to our state’s toughest problems.
In a time of deeply partisan bickering, she may very well be exactly what Wisconsin needs to get back on track.