Burner campaign re-brands candidate
Congressional candidate Darcy Burner, who is challenging Congressman Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, in the 8th Congressional District, is using personal stories of her family and childhood to try to connect with middle-class and rural voters.
Seattle Times staff reporter
One in a series of stories exploring the candidates and issues in the 8th Congressional District race.
Congressional candidate Darcy Burner seldom speaks about the war in Iraq without mentioning her oldest brother, Jason Gibbons, who marched into that country with the initial invading force.
Ask her about health insurance and Burner, 37, details the complications in her sister's third pregnancy.
The economic problems facing Americans? Burner can relate to those, too, she says, launching into a story about her parents' struggle to raise five children on a teacher's salary and the hospital bills that eventually forced them to file for bankruptcy.
And then there's her dad's quadruple bypass, her disabled nephew, her little sister's struggle to pay for community college and the complications in her own pregnancy with her son.
Part of it is her nature. She's chatty. But it's also part of her campaign to shed an image as a Harvard-educated Microsoftie and appeal to more middle-class voters in the 8th Congressional District, where she is again challenging Congressman Dave Reichert.
"There's a bit of a rebranding effort going on," said Ron Dotzauer, a local Democratic political consultant who is not affiliated with the Burner campaign.
In 2006, Burner easily won many of the more urban and affluent portions of the district, which includes much of the Eastside and eastern Pierce County.
But she struggled to garner support in middle-class and rural parts of the district, where more conservative voters leaned toward Reichert, a Republican and the former King County sheriff.
Her reputation as a computer geek was highlighted two weeks ago when she escaped a fire that destroyed her home near Carnation. News reports showed her wearing a T-shirt emblazoned in computer code with an anti-war message.
Across the country, bloggers hailed her shirt as proof that she was "family" to techies like themselves. They raised nearly $100,000 for her campaign in a few days through "netroots" online-fundraising sites.
In 2006, Burner's online biography detailed her experience in the high-tech sector and advertised that she had been an "executive at Microsoft." But this year, the biography on her campaign Web site plays up her hardscrabble roots.
"She experienced first hand what it means to hold a family together as you struggle to make ends meet in the face of unexpected setbacks," it says. And at another point: "Times were tough but Darcy was tougher."
Her campaign staff has been upfront about the strategy. Voters need to know that Burner can relate to them, they say.
Political consultant Christian Sinderman said as long as candidates are truthful, "there's really no downside" to sharing personal information with voters.
"Voters want to support someone who is like them, and so they're looking for shared values, shared experiences, and a sense that the politician who gets their vote has a connection with their life experience," he said.
In his 2006 campaign against Sen. Maria Cantwell, former Safeco Insurance CEO Mike McGavick made a concerted effort to be completely transparent with voters about everything — a strategy that went beyond just talking about his family, as Burner is doing.
At one point, he issued a broad confession of his past mistakes, including his divorce and a 1993 drunken-driving charge.
"Mike really set out to change the tone of politics in a traditional campaign," said Elliott Bundy, a member of McGavick's campaign staff. "He thought that part of that was creating a transparent campaign at all levels."
By some accounts, his candor backfired when his account of the drunken-driving incident didn't match the arrest report. But Bundy said that was a bigger deal to the press than it was to voters, who appreciated his sincerity.
Across the country, Bundy said, campaigns are trying to set a more personal tone, often by using social-networking Web sites where candidates list their hobbies and favorite movies along with campaign announcements.
Burner was the middle of five children growing up in a Roman Catholic military family. In a recent interview, she described wearing hand-me-downs and being aware that her parents were living on a budget. Family vacations were to national parks, she said, not theme parks.
Burner and a brother, Tim Gibbons, were adopted. Her dad retired from the Air Force when she was in elementary school and supported the family by working as a teacher in Nebraska's farm country.
She paid her own way through Harvard University, working weekends at the Little Peach convenience store, delivering campus newspapers and taking two years off to save up tuition money.
At 22, she married Mike Burner, whom she met when she worked for him at a Harvard computer lab. They moved to Washington state when he took at job at Microsoft in 1998. She went to work there as a manager two years later.
Currently, neither Burner nor her husband has a paying job. They decided to live on their savings during the campaign so Mike could be a stay-at-home dad to their 5-year-old son.
Burner's financial-disclosure forms show she and her husband own several stocks and mutual funds worth somewhere between $360,000 and $835,000. (The disclosure form provides ranges for the account values, not exact figures.)
She's open about the fact that she has helped her family financially on occasion. She helped her sister pay for nursing school. And when her brother Tim struggled with drug addiction, she paid for his treatment and, for a time, the motel he was living in.
Both Burner and her family say she hasn't lost her blue-collar roots.
"She knows the right clothes to wear, she knows the right words to say, she knows some people, but she's still the same person she ever was," brother Tim Gibbons said. "She is us — with a lot of money."
Burner's family is tight-knit, but not particularly political, her brothers said. Before her first campaign, she warned them about the critical ads and personal family stories that likely would come out.
"They're used to it, at this point," Burner said.
Jason Gibbons, the brother who went to Iraq, is a Republican. He's a private and quiet person, retired from the Army. He opposes abortion and Burner is pro-choice.
He suspects that he and his sister disagree about the war — but he hasn't read her plan to end it, even though it has been a major part of her campaign this year.
Despite all that, he said he doesn't mind being cited in her campaign stump speeches.
"It gives some kind of validity that she understands it, to an extent," he said.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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