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Thursday, May 18, 2006 - Page updated at 07:07 PM

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Information in this article, originally published May 15, 2006, was corrected May 18, 2006. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Rep. Adam Smith's position on a Democratic political action committee(PAC). He is the chair of the New Democrat Coalition's PAC, not the Democratic Leadership Council's PAC. The Democratic Leadership Council does not have a PAC.

Political novice takes on GOP's Reichert

Seattle Times staff reporter

Darcy Burner clasped her hands and beamed as the second-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House gave her a glowing endorsement to a room of wealthy donors sipping French wine in Belltown.

A year ago, who would have thought she'd be the toast of such a swanky fundraiser? The former Microsoft manager and law-school student had never run for anything bigger than her neighborhood association.

She was unknown even in her own precinct.

But here she was last month, being introduced by U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democratic whip, in her campaign to unseat freshman Congressman Dave Reichert.

Asked by a potential contributor about her stand on stem-cell research, Burner, who talks with her hands, cupped her palms as if she were holding an egg and explained her support of the controversial technology.

Then she added a line you wouldn't expect: "I have two frozen embryos in storage myself."

At 35, Burner has emerged from obscurity in the past four months to become a darling of the Democratic Party.

Darcy Burner


Democratic challenger

Age: 35

Professional experience: Program manager and group program manager, Microsoft, 2000-04.

Also worked at Asymetrix Learning Systems in Bellevue, Centerline Software and Lotus Development.

Political experience: Never held public office. Worked in Sen. Maria Cantwell's office while in law school, 2004. Chair of Hoppers, Microsoft women's organization. President of the Ames Lake Neighborhood Association.

Her campaign profile — Harvard graduate, Microsoft techie, military brat and mother — first caught fire with liberal bloggers, then with the national party.

The office she seeks, the 8th Congressional District seat held by Reichert, is routinely listed by national observers as one of the most tightly contested in the country.

The district rolls across the eastern suburbs and woods of King and Pierce counties. It went for Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi and Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry on the same 2004 ballot.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, D.C., says the GOP should worry about the race, which he lists as a "toss-up" because of discontent with President Bush and Congress. But Burner, whom he recently met, has work to do, he said.

"She seemed like she was trying to act older than she is," Rothenberg said. "There was not a relaxed or likable quality to her. She was wearing pearls and seemed like she was trying to say, 'I can be a member of Congress.' "

Only political junkies are paying close attention to a race still six months off. And who knows if voters will punish Reichert for Bush's poll ratings, or if those ratings will remain at historic lows come November.

But Burner has two advantages. She is adept at raising money, pulling in $335,000 in the first three months of this year. And she is the only Democrat in the race.

Bruce Boram, a political consultant for Reichert's campaign, said neither advantage is impressive. Burner picked off the "low-hanging fruit" of donors, and the Democrats failed to recruit better-known candidates, he said.

"Dave is one of those candidates who matches well with any candidate. He has 55 years living in the district and 35 years in public service. It was probably hard to find someone who would want to run against him," Boram said.

Dave Reichert


Republican incumbent

Age: 55

Professional experience: U.S. Air Force Reserve, 1971-76. King County sheriff's deputy, 1972-1990; sergeant, 1990-93; lieutenant, 1993-95; captain, 1995-96;

major, 1996-97.

Political experience: King County sheriff, 1997-2004. U.S. Congress, 2005-current.

The race is expected to cost at least $4.5 million total, not counting spending by the national parties and independent groups. To keep pace with expenses, Burner must raise, on average, at least $7,000 per day, seven days a week for the next six months.

Several attendees of the Belltown fundraiser said later they came simply to check out the buzz about Burner, who seems to relish the details of public policy.

"It's true I've never held public office," she said in an interview. "But it's the professional politicians who've gotten us into this mess we're in."

Candidate boot camp

As late as January this year, Burner remained an underdog even among Democrats.

Attorney Randy Gordon was actively campaigning. Better-known or richer Democrats — State Rep. Ross Hunter of Medina and Menno Van Wyk, founder of the Montrail shoe company, among others — considered running.

But Burner has worked to compensate for her inexperience. Last year, after she quit Microsoft, she went to a boot camp for candidates founded by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. She made the rounds in Washington, D.C. She hired an experienced campaign staff and got an early endorsement from former Gov. Gary Locke.

Then Burner met with Gordon and other prospective opponents to argue why she had a better shot at beating Reichert. One of the state's congressmen lobbied for Burner behind the scenes.

It worked. Gordon quit, and the others never entered the race. With the field cleared, the state's Democrat-heavy congressional delegation rallied behind Burner with a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., in January.

Gordon said he wanted to ensure there would be no heated Democratic primary, as occurred in 2004 when talk-show host Dave Ross beat two other candidates.

"Darcy's greatest strength and weakness are the same: She's a young, fresh person without D.C. experience/baggage," Gordon said. "She's never worked in government. Is that a liability or a strength?"

She's positioned herself as a business-friendly Democrat, endorsing trade agreements and health-care changes that ease the burden on business. She also supports rollback of some Bush tax cuts.

She casts herself as green and pro-choice, endorsed by prominent Seattle environmentalists and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Strong sense of justice

Burner grew up in a Republican household in Nebraska farm country. She was adopted at birth. Her father, Ralph Gibbons, spent 20 years as an Air Force radio operator before settling with his wife and five kids in Fremont, Neb., a town of 25,000 on the Platte River.

The household was not very political, Gibbons said, but Burner developed a finely tuned sense of justice — a trait that later drove her decision to run for Congress. As a middle-schooler, she organized a three-hour strike of volunteer library aides when the librarian refused to accommodate carpooling schedules.

"Darcy does not like injustice, to see people that play by the rules get shafted," he said.

Her college-board math scores earned her a National Merit Scholarship and entry into Harvard in 1989.

Gibbons said he did not worry that his daughter was in over her head. "It's always been our family's philosophy: None's better than you, and you're no better than they are," he said.

Burner did not stumble in the transition. She chaired the science-fiction club and collected concert recordings of the hippie band Phish. She formed a rock band of her own, playing keyboards.

Her political awakening occurred her sophomore year, in the run-up to the first Gulf War.

She co-founded an anti-war group and papered the campus with fliers. But she stopped her protests when the shooting started, saying it was time to support troops like her brother, Jason Gibbons, who had joined the Army by then.

He fought in the Iraq war in 2003, entering Baghdad with the first wave of troops. On the campaign trail, Burner describes the war as "very personal to me" because of her brother's service.

"She realizes we're there, and she's very interested in how we can get out of there in the quickest amount of time," said Staff Sgt. Gibbons, a Republican like his father and a donor to his sister's campaign.

"A fairly simple idea"

By the time she graduated from Harvard in 1996, Burner had married Mike Burner, a former Army intelligence officer and boss at Harvard's computer lab. They both found work in Boston's high-tech field.

He got a job at Microsoft in 1998, and they settled outside of Carnation. Darcy Burner joined the company in 2000.

During her final two years at Microsoft, from 2003-04, she was a "software evangelist," trying to persuade small tech firms to write software for Microsoft products. In an online diary, Burner said Microsoft succeeded because it excelled at marketing.

If other software firms tried to market a fork, Burner wrote, they would describe it as a potential weapon, a comb, even as a musical instrument. Good marketing is simpler, she wrote. It's a lesson she has incorporated into her campaign.

"You need a fairly simple idea that they can keep in their heads," she said recently. "You've got to start simple: I'm a mother and businesswoman who wants to take the country in a different direction."

Burner took maternity leave in 2004 and, due to medical complications that had led to one miscarriage, was put on 20 weeks of bed rest. She says that gave her time to mull the struggle of the middle class — and how she could help.

She considered running for the Legislature but saw a different opportunity when Reichert beat Ross.

After giving birth to a son, Henry, and spending a year at the University of Washington law school, Burner entered the 8th District race in June 2005. She spent $46,000 of her own money to kick-start the campaign.

She's raised nearly $540,000 so far, one-seventh of it from Microsoft and its employees. Reichert has brought in $1.4 million.

Burner now has no time for golf with her husband and says she rarely cooks dinner. Mike Burner, 45, has cut back his work load to take on more parenting. He plans to stay here with Henry if Burner wins.

Mike Burner said he fully expected his wife, whom he described as an "action-oriented idealist," to one day run for office. "From the first I met her, I thought definitely she'd go into politics," he said.

A repeat of 1994?

Burner portrays Reichert in lock step with the GOP national leadership. Reichert, for his part, must remind voters he has bucked his party on some issues, such as whether or not to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, said Rothenberg, the political handicapper.

"It's up to Reichert to localize the race," Rothenberg said. "He has to say, 'It's not about George Bush, it's not about high gas prices, not about spending out of control, not about domestic surveillance. It's about me and my opponent.' "

Democrats are betting that voters will return to the throw-the-bums-out mood that gave the GOP control of Congress in 1994 after many years of Democrats in power.

"I think the voters of the 8th District are going to make a national decision — that the scales of power are off in D.C. — and will elect Darcy," said Rep. Adam Smith, chair of the pro-trade New Democrat Coalition's PAC.

That confidence is what drew Rep. Hoyer out west to Burner's fundraiser in Belltown. He gave her $2,500, encouraged the crowd to do the same, and then turned to Burner.

She took a deep breath, stepped forward and smiled. "I know there's a few people who don't know much about me," Burner said. "I came from a military family in rural Nebraska.... "

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605

or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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