It sounds like Darcy Burner 2.0: Over in the Eastside's 8th Congressional District, a former Microsoft manager with no previous political experience has announced she's running for Congress as a Democrat. Her name is Suzan DelBene, and she arrives on the political scene less than six months after Burner, also a former Microsoft manager with no previous political experience, failed in her second attempt to push out Republican congressman Dave Reichert.
"I'm a different person, so things will be a little bit different," DelBene said in a recent phone interview from her Bellevue office. Indeed, while the two have some broad-brush similarities in their résumés, DelBene, 47, is older and worked at a much higher level at Microsoft, serving as a vice president at a time when only 15 women held executive titles (Burner, 38, was a midlevel manager). Born in Selma, Alabama, DelBene went to college at Reed in Oregon and received an MBA from the University of Washington before landing high-level roles at tech startups and, later, supervising marketing for Microsoft's mobile-communications arm. She was against the Iraq war, is pro-choice, and says she is "supportive of gay unions and having equal rights for gay couples under the law."
DelBene said her lack of political experience won't be a liability and could be a plus given the recession and Reichert's recent vote against President Obama's stimulus package. "Political experience alone does not prepare folks for understanding how our economy works and what it actually takes to make a business," she said. Given the Democrats' history of failed attempts at grabbing the 8th District seat—which has been in Republican hands since its creation in 1982—this will be a tough fight. Still, Dwight Pelz, chair of the Washington State Democrats, said DelBene is a "very impressive" candidate.
An Interview with 8th District Congressional Candidate Suzan DelBene
Eli Sanders: You're running for Congress in the 8th Congressional District, a seat that has never been won by a Democrat. And you're running on the heels of two tough, back-to-back losses by Democratic challenger Darcy Burner. What lessons did you learn from watching Burner's two failed campaigns?
Suzan DelBene: I filed to run in February, and I've been going around the district listening over the last couple of months. The key things that I hear are people really want to make sure that time is spent not only in northern King County but also in south King County and Pierce County. It's a big district, and it's important for the campaign that we spend a lot of time throughout the district, and so that's one key issue. [Also,] I think that the economic issues we face are really the overwhelming ones and encompass all the different issues that are on people's minds today. The conversation in this race will be different because it really is about the economy and jobs and education. Not just the economy and how we fix it tomorrow, but what do we do to set up our district for long-term financial strength, economic strength, prosperity for the folks in the district over the next 10 or 20 years?
Do you plan on courting bloggers and using national Netroots money in the same ways that Burner did?
Well, I think I'm a different person, so things will be a little bit different. But, definitely, national support is important for a congressional campaign anywhere. But in the end, the people who can vote for you are the people in the district, and so, really, it's about making sure that you spend time there and raising money to support the campaign. We've done the first quarter of raising money, and we're in the process of filing those numbers right now—I think we're doing pretty well and started out with a lot of strong numbers to report.
Can you provide a preview of those numbers?
We don't have the final numbers right now, but we should have them before the end of the week.
You're a woman. You're a former Microsoft manager. You're new to politics. To the average person, you may come off as Darcy Burner 2.0.
I am a woman [laughs]. I was a Microsoft executive. Out of 80,000 people, there are only about 120 Microsoft executives out there, and about 15 of those—at the time I was there—were woman, so I was one of those 15 women. I have been CEO of a company, I've helped start up companies before... I worked in biotechnology before that. I have a pretty broad business background. I've worked a lot with folks who are trying to get back on their feet, both with the YWCA in King and Snohomish counties, and work that I've done with Global Partnership, an organization that does microfinance in Latin America. And something that's been very important to me has been to help people get back on track. Right now we need to spend a lot of time helping people get back on track, because the economic situation has been hard—people have lost jobs and are struggling to provide for themselves and their families.
What was your exact position at Microsoft?
I was a corporate vice president, and I was at Microsoft for just under 14 years.
Do you think it's an asset or a liability to have some broad overlap between your résumé and Burner's?
I think people are looking for someone to help solve the problems they're facing today, and who's available and can hear their issue and come up with solutions. That's what I've done throughout my career, that's what my résumé says, and that's what I think what people are looking for.
Like Burner, you don't have any previous political experience. Republicans have shown that they will try to make this into a vulnerability. How will you protect yourself from this?
I don't have legislative experience, and I haven't run for elected office before. When I talk to folks about what we need in Congress today—really, and based on the issues we're facing, we need folks who have strong business experience. We're trying to figure out how to save banks and car companies and set up a plan that creates jobs for the future, and we need people who have experience in doing that. That's the experience that I have. And when I talk to folks throughout the district, they agree that we need people with that experience, because political experience alone does not prepare folks for understanding how our economy works and what it actually takes to make a business.
Okay, but given that politics is often about sound bites, what is your sound-bite response to the inevitable inexperience charge?
I think the quick answer is that this race is not going to be lost by résumé. It might be won by a résumé, and I think that the strength of my résumé speaks for itself. I also think that the real issue at hand is having someone who will bring new ideas to the table and get things done. My résumé is about getting things done, and I think that [Republican congressman Dave] Reichert needs to stand on his congressional record so far and what he's accomplished. And I don't think he's done a lot given that he's been there as long as he has. Bringing new ideas to the table and initiating legislation is not about showing up; it's about being active in leading.
The election is still a long way off, but given what you know now, what recent actions by Reichert will you be highlighting in your campaign?
Well, he voted against stimulus. And to my earlier point, if you're going to vote against something then bring a new idea to the table, an alternative idea to the table. Don't just say, "I didn't have time to read it." These are critical issues. You stay up all night and you read the bill.
Did Reichert say that he didn't have time to read the stimulus bill?
That was the general Republican response. That there wasn't time to review the bill before they had to vote for it. Separately, he voted against Planned Parenthood, against Lily Ledbetter—just social issues that I think are important, women's issues. And he's voted against those, and he hasn't been initiating legislation that is critical for our district, and critical in Congress. This is his third term: He should be leading at this point, and I haven't seen that leadership.
Let's talk about a couple of issues. Where are you on abortion and gay marriage?
I am pro-choice. I'm supportive of gay unions and having equal rights for gay couples under the law as married couples do today. I support what I think the federal government supports, which is letting people have equal legal rights under the law. I think there is separation of church and state, and so churches have to decide what they want to support and anoint, that's their decision. But legally we should make sure that gay couples have equal rights to married couples.
You're talking about protecting church and state, but are you aware that even states that allow gay marriage, such as Massachusetts, don't force churches to perform gay marriages if they don't want to?
Yes, and I think that's correct. I just want to be clear that the government has a particular role that it plays, and we've tended to blur the line these days.
Speaking of blurriness, I'm still a bit blurry on whether you support gay marriage or civil unions.
I support equal rights under the law.
Where were you on the Iraq war before it began, and where are you on the war now?
I think that we had no right to invade Iraq—and obviously I even have more of the benefit of the information that has come out since then, which says that it was wrong to do the thing in the first place. But I never felt like it was ever a good thing to do. Now I am supportive of President Obama's plan to withdraw, but obviously we need to make sure we leave a stable country behind, and so we have a responsibility as we withdraw to help support them in that process.
Why is it that Barack Obama can rack up a double-digit margin of victory in the 8th District but Democratic Congressional candidates can't?
I don't know that a Democratic congressional candidate can't. I think that one hasn't. It's a combination of a lot of things, but in the end it comes down to who shows up to vote and how they feel about the candidate in front of them at that point in time. And so the numbers are what they were on that particular day, but as I talk to folks and as I look at all the data, etc., this is definitely a district that is Democratic and I think is very open to having Democratic representation.
So what will you be doing differently than past Democratic congressional challengers?
A couple things. One, making sure that we spend a lot of time talking and listening to folks and understanding their issues. Working throughout the district, like I said earlier. I think it's very important that south King County and Pierce County feel represented in the district. I've spent a bunch of time there, and I'll continue to do that. Second, I think the district is a very diverse district socially and fiscally. And so it's really about coming up with ideas and solutions for policies that address not only the social issues that are important to people but the fiscal issues that are important to people. My experience on the fiscal side I think is very critical. I've worked with small business and big business, and I feel like I can have the conversation on both sides and that's very important, because the district is represented by people across the board.
Were you born in the 8th District?
I was not. I was born in Alabama. In Selma, Alabama. But I did go to kindergarten and first grade on Mercer Island before we moved away again... Then I came back to go to college—I came back to the Northwest to go to college in Oregon, and then was in Oregon for about eight years and then moved up here... I lived in Seattle for the first few years, and I've lived in the district for about the past 13 years.
What is your religious background?
I am an Episcopalian. I currently am Episcopalian.
And how old are you?
I'm 47. I have two kids. An 18-year-old daughter who is heading off to college this fall, amazingly enough, and a 16-year-old son. My husband, Kurt, is a vice president at Microsoft.
The campaign is still pretty young, but what's your immediate plan going forward?
We closed the first quarter, so fundraising is always a part of what needs to happen in the early stages of the campaign—spending a lot of time meeting with folks. That's what I'll be doing over the next few months... meeting with people throughout the district and talking to various other people from different issue organizations, political organizations, labor leaders, etc....a lot of that will happen over the next couple months, especially after the current state legislative session ends.
Burner put some of her own money into her campaign. Are you going to be doing the same?
Yes, I will support my campaign, too. I feel like I need to do my part if I'm going to ask others to also support me. I have put some personal money in already, and that will come out as part of the filing for the first quarter. It will be out by the end of this week.
Are you in a position where you could finance this run on your own?
No, and I do not intend to. I think it's important that a campaign is represented by people who support the person running, and if you aren't getting support from a broad set of people then that probably doesn't speak well for the long-term success of the campaign.
Transcribed by Stranger intern Aaron Pickus.