At right, Gov. Scott Walker takes a selfie with Jerrod Zeitlin, who receives services from ASPIRO, during his visit to ASPIRO Inc., in Green Bay, Wis., on Thursday, July 17, 2014. Gov. Walker visited ASPIRO to announce the Project SEARCH expansion. (AP Photo/Green Bay Press-Gazette, Evan Siegle)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks to Ernesto Gonzalez II at Milwaukee Area Technical College on Friday, July 18, 2014, in Oak Creek, Wis. Walker, whose call to scrap Common Core academic standards for Wisconsin schools is meeting resistance from Republican Senate leaders, said that whatever is adopted may not differ significantly from Common Core standards. (AP Photo/M.L. Johnson) (AP Photo/M.L. Johnson)
MADISON, Wisconsin — Trek Bicycle Corp., which makes bikes for everyone from children on training wheels to competitors in the Tour de France, has found itself in the middle of an entirely different kind of race — the one for Wisconsin governor.
Democratic challenger Mary Burke has proudly touted her ties to the company founded by her father and where she was once an executive. When she launched her campaign in October, she talked about the family's business starting "in a red barn in Waterloo," the 1,000 people it now employs in Wisconsin, the $100 million it generates for the state economy every year and the millions more it has given to charities over the years.
But Republican Gov. Scott Walker has focused on the company's decision to send jobs to China after receiving grants funded with Wisconsin taxpayers' money. He emphasizes that the company that made Burke a millionaire is building bikes in China, a country where Walker says women and children are paid as little as $2 an hour.
A television ad that Walker released last week switched the governor's race into high gear, with Burke's supporters rallying to her defense and Walker refusing to back down from his claims.
Walker took a "very calculated risk" by going after Trek, said Felicia Miller, a former Procter & Gamble brand manager who now teaches marketing at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
"I'm sure they've done some research and found that's going to play well with whatever constituency you're trying to reach," Miller said. "It's a tightrope and it can definitely backfire."
Trek, the world's second-largest bicycle maker, is known globally not just for manufacturing but for innovation and marketing, said Tom Schuler, a 1980 Olympic cyclist who runs an athlete management business in Milwaukee and organizes a series of professional cycling races in Wisconsin every June.
Even though it does some manufacturing overseas, Trek still makes more bikes in the United States than any other company, Schuler said.
"It just seems like most people in Wisconsin would think Trek is a great asset to the state of Wisconsin," he said.
Walker insisted he is just trying to give voters the facts.
"We're not criticizing Trek, we're pointing out that voters deserve to know the full record," Walker said Friday. "She personally profits from a company who took state taxpayers' money, sent jobs overseas and part of those jobs went to places like China where they make less than $2 an hour."
Walker's criticism amid the heat of the campaign comes just two years after his administration lauded Trek and made it one of five at the center of a marketing drive to attract other businesses to Wisconsin.
In 2012, Walker's administration described Trek as a "world-renowned manufacturer of bicycles and related products" and a company that embodies the state's "pioneering spirit and heritage of innovation, key attributes of our state's business climate." Trek was chosen for that marketing campaign even though it had already outsourced jobs overseas.
Now, with polls showing Walker and Burke in a tight race, Walker's campaign has released an ad accusing Trek of "making millions of dollars sending jobs overseas that could have been done in Wisconsin." The ad also implies that Trek employs Chinese children at wages as low as $2 an hour.
Mary Burke's brother, Trek president John Burke, called the ad false but did not provide specifics on how much the company pays or who it hires in China. He took out a full-page ad in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sunday noting that Trek has nearly 1,000 employees in Wisconsin and makes bikes in Wisconsin, Germany and Holland in addition to China.
In response, Walker's campaign tweeted, "A full page ad ran in the newspaper today. Nowhere in the letter did it dispute the facts of our television ad."
With one of Burke's key credentials — a job creator for an iconic Wisconsin brand — under attack, her supporters rushed to her defense.
"In a million years, I don't know why a governor of a state who has stated his goal is to create jobs would go after one of the finest companies in the state," said Kevin Conroy, chairman and CEO of Exact Sciences, a Madison-based biotechnology company that's grown from three to 300 employees in five years. "It doesn't help any of us who are out there fighting every day to add jobs to the Wisconsin economy every day."
Conroy helped Burke write her economic development plan for the campaign, and his wife works as Burke's campaign treasurer.
Walker's Trek ad also offended Richard Gallun, a prominent former Republican fundraiser who now calls himself an independent Burke supporter. Gallun, 78, of Milwaukee, said he knew Burke's father and was surprised Walker would attack such a well-known Wisconsin business.
"I think that's a bad strategy," Gallun said. "I can understand trying to tarnish Mary ... Tarnishing the company I think is a real error."