DelBene tries to convince 8th District that Congress needs her business skills
Suzan DelBene, challenger to U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, is trying to parlay an extensive career in business and technology into a congressional seat.
Seattle Times Eastside reporter
For the past 20 years, Suzan DelBene has built a résumé brimming with business and high-tech accomplishments: She led a startup technology company, worked at Microsoft twice — most recently as a corporate vice president — and ventured into nonprofits and microfinance.
She believes that experience has prepared her for yet another role: as a member of Congress.
DelBene, a Democrat, is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, in the 8th Congressional District, which covers east King and Pierce counties. With voters focused on the economy, DelBene is touting her business acumen as a reason to send her to Washington, D.C.
"People who have experience, who know what it takes to create a job, create a company, know how a big corporation works, that's what we need in office," DelBene said in an interview.
But with no political experience and a poor voting record — she did not vote in nine elections over the past five years — DelBene, 48, must persuade voters to trust an unknown businesswoman over incumbent Reichert, who was King County sheriff for seven years before he ran for Congress.
Based on primary-election results in August, with Reichert winning 47 percent of the vote to DelBene's 27 percent, she has an uphill battle.
Former colleagues and employees say DelBene has the experience and temperament for politics, and call her smart, creative and goal-oriented.
"I would put my money on her ability to be a very serious candidate," said Linden Rhoads, who was interim CEO of the software firm Nimble Technologies before DelBene was hired to run it 10 years ago.
Democratic state Rep. Ross Hunter, a longtime friend of DelBene's, said her executive positions at local tech firms demonstrates just how good a businesswoman she is.
"In an environment where there's lots of high-tech people, you don't get to be the CEO of a company like Nimble without having some substance," he said. "You don't get to the position she had at Microsoft without having a serious level of confidence."
Reichert's campaign counters that despite her background, DelBene's policies are anti-business, citing her support for letting the top 3 percent of tax cuts established by the Bush administration expire. The Reichert campaign argues that would raise taxes on small-business owners.
"If you take a look at the policies and the issues, they're clearly not pro-business," Reichert spokesman Darren Littell said. "They are job-killing taxes."
Started in biotech
DelBene moved around a lot as a kid, and her mom and stepdad struggled to find stability after he lost his job as a pilot. The family wound up for a time in Colorado, where her stepdad opened a welding shop.
Her high-school life was erratic, and she spent her sophomore year on scholarship at a boarding school in Connecticut while her parents were in Tehran, Iran, where her stepdad was a flight instructor for Iran Air. In her junior year, DelBene returned to Colorado and lived with a friend, then went back to boarding school in Connecticut her senior year.
Her childhood made her crave stability, she said.
"I was a pretty serious kid," she said. "I was pretty focused even when I was young. There wasn't time to goof around."
DelBene graduated from Reed College in Portland with a bachelor's degree in biology, and her early career focused on immunology research. She and her then-husband made their way to Seattle in 1987, when DelBene got a job at Zymo Genetics, then a biotech startup.
While researching antibodies, she grew interested in biotech's business side and got her master's in business administration at the University of Washington. She interned at Microsoft while in school and joined the company after graduation, working on marketing for Windows 95, among other projects.
In 1998, she helped found drugstore.com as vice president of marketing and store development, then moved in 2000 to a job as CEO of Nimble Technologies, a software firm that helped big corporations merge data.
Nimble did not fare well in the economic downturn in the early 2000s, DelBene said, and the company, at 100 employees at its height, shrank to about 30 by the time it was sold in 2003.
She returned to Microsoft in 2004 as a corporate vice president and ran marketing for the mobile division. In 2008, she took on microfinance as a consultant for the nonprofit Global Partnerships.
Sizing up skills
Colleagues who have worked with DelBene said she has many strengths as a boss, including an ability to get both tech and creative types to work as a team. She can parse complicated spreadsheets quickly, and often asked unexpected questions in meetings.
Her management style was collaborative, but she was always clear about her goals, said Eric Morris, who worked with her at Microsoft and followed her to drugstore.com.
"She's never been afraid to go take on a fight, but does it in a more humane way," he said. "It's not about yelling and screaming and swearing. At Microsoft and at drugstore.com, that environment, their culture is really one of combat. Suzan sort of bucked that."
Rhoads called DelBene's demeanor "firm but gentle." She sometimes made it easy to forget how smart and well-informed she is, said Rhoads, who was on Nimble's board when DelBene was CEO. DelBene synthesizes information quickly, Rhoads said, and knows how to prioritize and delegate.
"I have never met someone who you can just show her a business model with 16 links to Excel spreadsheets, can take a quick gander and find the one cell that doesn't tie to the rest," Rhoads said.
Rhoads said DelBene comes from an environment where the best ideas win. She questioned whether DelBene could be as partisan and cutthroat as she imagines Washington, D.C., to be.
"I saw her as someone, if she presented ideas that made so much inherent sense she could win people to them," Rhoads said. "I just don't know if that works in Washington."
But Hunter, who also worked for Microsoft, said the big corporation is an excellent training ground for the intense collaboration needed to pass legislation. He compared getting a bill passed to launching a product. In both cases, you need people to trust and believe in what you're working on.
"That kind of business experience helps you build those relationships, and it's valuable," he said.
Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or email@example.com
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