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Originally published July 17, 2012 at 9:31 PM | Page modified July 17, 2012 at 11:24 PM

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DelBene faces tougher fight than expected in 1st District race

Suzan DelBene, a millionaire with a strong high-tech résumé, is the Democratic establishment's pick in the seven-way race for 1st Congressional District. Despite a huge fundraising edge, DelBene faces longer odds than anticipated and attacks on her business career.

Seattle Times staff reporter

1st congressional district

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Kevin Schaul and Dean Kramer / The Seattle Times

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Suzan DelBene, in a black suit and sensible flats, nodded knowingly and mostly listened as the mayor of Kirkland recently guided her through downtown stores — a jewelry store, an art gallery, a family-owned Mexican restaurant — muddling through the sluggish economy.

This is the image her congressional campaign wants to project: the quietly competent fixer for middle-class America.

A millionaire with a strong résumé in high-tech and a willingness to self-finance her campaign, DelBene was anointed by the Democratic establishment as the candidate of choice in the state's most-watched contest for Congress, the newly redrawn 1st District that stretches from Redmond to Canada.

But as ballots for the Aug. 7 top-two primary are mailed out this week, DelBene faces longer odds than anticipated. A group funded by the mother of one of her opponents, Laura Ruderman, has papered the 1st District with ads attacking DelBene's performance at money-losing tech startups — "She got rich, while workers lost their jobs," one ad reads. Polling shows DelBene continues to trail another Democratic opponent, rabble-rousing progressive Darcy Burner.

In debates, DelBene has seemed plodding and reluctant to veer off talking points. Asked in debates to name a theme song for her campaign, or list a single mistake, DelBene drew blanks.

Her campaign has the resources to fight back. It has spent more than $730,000 on TV airtime — including a big buy during NBC's upcoming coverage of the Olympics — to promote a message of economic fairness and what it describes as an up-from-the-bootstraps personal story. DelBene acknowledges that, after decades of work marketing high-tech products, politics is a different sell.

"You are the product. There are challenges to that," said DelBene, 50.

"Lost all their money"

DelBene was still a toddler in Selma, Ala., when her parents divorced and split their six kids into two new families. DelBene, second youngest, went with her mom, and rarely saw her father or older siblings again.

Her mother, Beth, married a pilot, Barry Oliver, and the family "moved and moved and moved" in pursuit of his work, said DelBene's brother, John Oliver, a TV director and producer in Vermont.

Her stepfather lost his pilot's job when DelBene was 9, and the family fell out of the middle class. "When they lost all their money, it changed the whole dynamic," John Oliver said.

The family settled near Vail, Colo., and her mother opened a toy store to support the family. That period is a central anecdote in DelBene's biographical TV ad.

But it doesn't mention that she grew up skiing in Vail, or attended at an elite Connecticut boarding school — Choate Rosemary Hall (President Kennedy attended Choate) — on scholarship when DelBene's stepfather found work as a pilot in Iran. For Christmas, DelBene got plane tickets to Iran.

After graduating from Reed College in Portland, she landed at Microsoft, where she eventually met her husband, Kurt DelBene. They married in 1997. He is now president of Microsoft's largest division, and they live in a $4.8 million Medina mansion.

Attacks on startup jobs

DelBene worked after college as a football referee, and credits it with training her to make quick decisions with limited information.

She put that skill to use after leaving Microsoft to join a pair of high-tech startups — Drugstore.com, in 1998, as marketing vice president; and Nimble Technology, in 2000, as CEO.

Neither startup turned an annual profit. Nimble was sold for less than $10 million after receiving $30 million in venture capital.

The attack ads funded by Ruderman's mother portray those ventures as failures and DelBene as escaping with a golden parachute.

Those claims infuriate venture capitalist Robert Nelsen, whose firm was a seed investor in Nimble. The startup, an innovator in Web database technology, was a victim of the 2000 bursting of the dot-com bubble, not bad management, Nelsen said.

"Microsoft, Amazon, they were all created by people like Suzan and funded by venture capital. (The ads) are attacking the same type of risk-taking that we really need," said Nelsen, who described DelBene as a skilled, creative executive.

Drugstore.com, which was sold to Walgreens for $429 million last year, employs about 240 at its Bellevue headquarters.

Smartphone effort

DelBene returned to Microsoft in 2004, spending the next three years in its mobile-phone division. As a corporate vice president for marketing, she was part of senior leadership, meeting with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, and helping shape Microsoft's strategy for the rapidly evolving smartphone market.

Market analysts, such as Sid Parakh of McAdams Wright Ragen, say that time period was "an absolute lost opportunity" for Microsoft to dominate the market, instead of falling behind Apple when it introduced the iPhone in early 2007. Today, Microsoft commands less than 5 percent of the smartphone market, and is pouring hundreds of millions into marketing to catch up.

Parakh said "a lack of focus" in DelBene's division at the time contributed to problem. "There was no vision where this thing was headed," said Parakh.

Former Microsoft President Robbie Bach acknowledges the company "missed a shift" in the market, but dismissed the idea that it was DelBene's failing.

"That's a product issue, not a marketing issue," said Bach, who donated $2,500 to DelBene's campaign. "If Suzan said she was going to do something, it got done. If I were to think about what I want in an elected official, that would be a good trend."

Self-funding

DelBene left business in 2007 for a brief stint at a nonprofit working on microfinance in Peru and Nicaragua, then entered politics in 2009 to run against U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert.

She felt "troubled that America has been going in the wrong direction," such as making college costs out of reach for many families. "We talk about the American dream, but I don't know if I were able to tell my same story if I were growing up today," DelBene said.

Her shift to politics took some past co-workers by surprise. She rarely talked politics, and didn't vote in nine elections in the five years before campaigning against Reichert. She describes it as "a mistake of my past, not my future."

Worth an estimated $53 million, according to a Seattle Times analysis of her financial-disclosure reports, DelBene donated just $3,500 to federal candidates between 1990 and 2006.

She spent nearly $2.3 million of her own money against Reichert, and has put $1 million into her current campaign. It gives her an edge, but isn't a sure path to victory.

In 2010, 47 of the 58 federal candidates who spent at least $500,000 of their own money — including DelBene — lost their elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The trend prompted headlines about the "myth of self-funded candidates."

After DelBene lost to Reichert, Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed her to lead the state Department of Revenue. Rep. Ross Hunter, a Medina Democrat who chaired the state House budget-writing committee, said he was impressed how well DelBene listened and grasped complex tax policy.

"She's very quick," said Hunter, who has endorsed DelBene, as has Gregoire and the state's major labor unions.

DelBene and her four Democratic rivals — Burner, Ruderman, state Sen. Steve Hobbs and Darshan Rauniyar — are battling in the top-two primary to likely face the sole Republican in the race, John Koster. Also running is independent Larry Ishmael.

DelBene's style — a technocrat in the mold of Sen. Maria Cantwell — may not be dynamic on a stage. She describes herself as a "workhorse, not a show horse."

"I lead by listening, and I've found it has been an effective strategy," said DelBene. "And it is who I am."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jmartin206.

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