It was back in the prehistoric days of yore when candidates could sometimes hope to be elected without spending absolutely ridiculous amounts of money, either their own or somebody else’s.
The possibility of a millionaire buying an election is back in the news as Democrat Mary Burke, with a background as a business executive, philanthropist and former state secretary of commerce, considers running against Republican Gov. Scott Walker next year.
Wisconsin has a checkered record with self-funded, wealthy candidates entering politics, ranging from highly successful to total public embarrassments.
Wisconsin millionaire Herb Kohl demonstrated how buying an election with your own money could not only be respectable, but desirable.
When professional politicians attacked Kohl in 1988 for trying to buy the U.S. Senate election, he turned it into a virtue.
Kohl pointed out he didn’t need to accept any money from corporations and lobbyists who gave millions to professional politicians in exchange for political favors that weren’t in the public interest. So Kohl would be “Nobody’s Senator But Yours.”
It worked brilliantly. Kohl, an intelligent, low-key Democratic senator, won four terms and regularly polled as the most popular politician in Wisconsin.
The history of other state millionaires buying elections wasn’t so pretty. Republican Ron Johnson, a little-known Oshkosh plastics company executive, defeated Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold during the tea party wave election of 2010.
Johnson spent his millions to flood Wisconsin television with slickly produced biographical ads presenting himself as a kindly, gray-haired business leader who knew how to create jobs during the second worst economic crisis in the last 100 years in America.
It wasn’t until Johnson arrived in Washington that Wisconsin found out who he really was—a mean-spirited, right-wing extremist who’s voted consistently against job creation, health care and anything to improve the lives of anyone other than millionaires.
Perhaps the most transparent attempt by a millionaire to buy an election was that of hedge fund manager Eric Hovde, whose spending had him briefly rising in Republican polls last summer as a possible successor to Kohl.
Hovde hadn’t even lived in the state for 24 years before moving back to run. After Republican voters saw through him, he immediately disappeared again.
Jobs, Education and Women’s Rights
So, who is Mary Burke—a person of substance with the resources to seriously challenge a governor who stirs strong opposition, or just another rich, fly-by-night candidate?
It might just be wishful thinking, but she could be closer to Kohl than to those two recent unknown Republican millionaires who ran as pigs in a poke and turned out to be mostly pig.
Burke has expertise and experience in dealing with the critical issue on which Walker is most vulnerable—jobs. As state secretary of commerce, she fought to create jobs in Wisconsin during the historic Republican recession created by the economic policies of President George W. Bush.
An economic novice, Walker promised to create 250,000 jobs in his first term without a clue how to accomplish it. Well into Walker’s third year, Wisconsin’s created only a dismal 80,000 jobs, one of the worst jobs records in the nation.
It’s not difficult to see why. Walker replaced Burke’s Department of Commerce with his own disastrous, partly privatized Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. passing out millions of dollars to corporations supporting his election without bothering even to keep track of loans or whether any jobs were created.
Burke’s other strength, like Kohl’s, is her record of philanthropy, using the fortune from her family’s success in building Trek Bicycle Corp. in Waterloo to assist nonprofit organizations improving communities throughout the state.
Oh, yeah. She’s also won an election. It was to the Madison School Board, which puts her squarely on the side of education at a time when nothing is more important to the future success of Wisconsin’s citizens and businesses.
It’s also a time when Walker has totally devastated education with the largest cuts in state history, alienating parents and school districts throughout Wisconsin.
You also may have noticed she’s a woman at a time when Republican males in the Legislature are crudely warring on women’s health care and rights.
So, yeah, you may not know Burke yet, but you can see why she could turn out to be a very strong candidate. And Burke and her Wisconsin supporters should have plenty of money to inform every voter in the state who she is and why she would be a better governor.
Don’t worry about a millionaire buying the election. Millionaires will buy the next election no matter who wins.
Right-wing millionaires all over the country who care nothing about Wisconsin already are building up an enormous re-election fund to try to buy the election for Walker.
At least Burke, like Kohl, would be nobody’s governor but yours.