DelBene stands with her party on many issues
As Democrat Suzan DelBene faces Republican Snohomish County Councilmember John Koster in the Nov. 6 election, DelBene has to convince voters that her winding but successful career path prepares her to help working families in a troubled economy — people whose tough times remind her of her own childhood.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Education: Bachelor's degree, Reed College; MBA, University of Washington
Professional: CEO, Nimble Technology; vice president, Microsoft; director, state Department of Revenue
Family: Husband Kurt DelBene, one daughter, one son
During the Olympics this year, Democratic congressional candidate Suzan DelBene ran a television ad that, like a catchy jingle, got her name stuck in people's heads. The voice-over rattled off progressive positions in a call and response. The answer to every question from various groups of voters was always, "Suzan DelBene!"
The spot helped DelBene distinguish herself from better-known Democratic primary candidates — some to her political left — to advance to the general election in the 1st Congressional District, a newly drawn swing district that reaches from Redmond to the Canadian border.
Now, as she faces Republican Snohomish County Councilmember John Koster in the Nov. 6 election, DelBene has to convince voters that her winding but successful career path prepares her to help working families in a troubled economy — people whose tough times remind her of her own childhood.
DelBene is hard to read; she speaks in generalities about why she is running for Congress and says she decided to run for office to help the middle class. She has no public voting record.
She is a business-oriented Democrat who touts many of the same issues as the national Democratic Party.
On policy matters, she favors extending the Bush-era tax cuts, except for those earning more than $250,000. She is pro-abortion rights, pro-gay marriage and believes government plays an important role in education and job creation.
She argues that her thoughtful approach and her experience in business and state government would help solve the puzzles that stymie Congress.
"To get the results and impact we want to see in the real world, you've got to know how the real world works," she said at a recent forum in Burlington.
After a childhood of bouncing around the country as her parents sought work, DelBene, 50, decided to raise her own family in the Seattle area. The uncertainty of her upbringing had a deep effect on her.
After her parents divorced when she was a toddler, they split the family in half, each parent taking three children. DelBene's mom and stepdad struggled to find work and moved constantly, including a short stint on Mercer Island, several years in Vail, Colo., and Iran. DelBene visited Iran, but mostly attended high school, on a scholarship, at an East Coast boarding school.
DelBene headed to Reed College in Oregon, determined to find stability. She moved to Seattle, where she ended up getting an MBA and a job at Microsoft, where she worked from 1989-1998 and again from 2004-2007. She met Kurt Delbene at Microsoft, and they married in 1997.
Kurt DelBene is now president of Microsoft's Office division, and they live in a $4.8 million Medina mansion. Suzan rose to the position of vice president at Microsoft, overseeing marketing for mobile communications.
DelBene has been well-liked by her co-workers, who say she is intense, but also thoughtful. "My temperament is to listen first," she said. "I want people to feel like they can talk to me and tell me what they think."
After her work at Microsoft, and top jobs at two online startups, drugstore.com and Nimble Technology, she contemplated nonprofit work. She wanted to find a job that helped people.
She started working in microfinance in 2008, providing low-interest business loans to women in Latin America. But as she looked around, she said, she saw people struggling in the U.S. The first time someone suggested she run for office, she shrugged it off.
She believed government could do more to help, but she hadn't been involved in politics. She had not even been a regular voter, skipping nine elections in the five years before running for Congress.
The idea, however, stayed with her.
"At some point, I said, 'why not?' " she said. DelBene was willing and able to finance her own campaign.
She took on 8th District Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, in 2010. She lost, but Gov. Chris Gregoire, whom she met while campaigning, appointed her to head the state Department of Revenue.
It was a U-turn into a new kind of career, but to DelBene, part of a path she's been on toward reconciling the ups-and-downs of her early years.
DelBene found some stability. She was looking for a way to repay her debt to a system that helped make her success possible.
B&O tax debacle
Gregoire assigned DelBene a difficult task: streamlining the state's confusing and redundant business tax system. New business owners must contact multiple departments and fill out duplicative forms before opening. DelBene started by listening — a common tactic for her — on a tour of individual businesses, small-business associations and city taxing offices.
As a result, she rolled out a proposal for the state to take over tax collection, creating "a single online portal" for small businesses.
Almost immediately, the idea blew up in her face.
Leaders in big cities like Seattle and Tacoma fought the takeover, saying the state was trying to ram through a pet project of business lobbyists that would cost cities money and power.
"Cities were alarmed," said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who sponsored the bill in the House. "Her report and her analysis, which was very thoughtfully done, also struggled under the weight of the fact that the proposal would have gone for the jugular of those five cities' independence and their governance, and north of 40 percent of their revenues."
No one, he said, including DelBene, anticipated such a debacle.
The bill never got out of committee.
"Everybody knew full well that the cities were not going to like this bill," said Amber Carter, director of tax policy for the Association of Washington Business. Carter supported the bill and was "extremely pleased" DelBene took on the business-and-occupation tax issue, but she said the proposal was poorly timed.
Still, DelBene points out a few successes of her work, like moving business licensing from the Department of Licensing to the Department of Revenue, saving small companies an extra stop. And her listening tour of small businesses now occupies a permanent place in her stump speech.
DelBene was still a relative political newcomer when she quit her state job to run for office this year. She faced a field of well-connected and experienced Democrats.
Right away, big-name Democrats started lining up behind her: U.S. Reps. Rick Larsen and Adam Smith, state House budget writer Ross Hunter, and Gregoire all endorsed her in the primary.
That's because she was most electable, said Dwight Pelz, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "Her success in business moderates her views and made her more palatable than the other candidates," he said.
Maybe, said state Sen. Steve Hobbs, one of DelBene's opponents who was considered the most moderate candidate in the primary. But it also helped that DelBene had money, he said. She spent $2.3 million of her own money, emerging with 22.5 percent of the vote.
Pelz acknowledged that her mild-mannered personality could be her biggest hurdle.
"She really doesn't stand out in a crowd the way we're used to a more gregarious politician," said Pelz, "but it's sad to think that being a normal, nice, kind person is a liability."
Her moderate views might look dull in comparison to Koster's conservative zeal, added Hobbs.
"That's the problem when you're a moderate," he said. "You're going to talk about things that are not as exciting. ... The center is not very motivating, but that's where the majority of people are at."
No "putting on airs"
As a co-worker and boss, DelBene was known as someone who rarely made decisions without a thorough understanding.
"She never goes with her gut," said Erik Moris, who worked with her at Microsoft. "She wants you to back up what you're recommending. Whenever she concedes a point to you, her line is, 'that's fair.' "
But she could also be very firm, he said.
Personally, friends say that despite her wealth, she is not a conspicuous consumer.
When Jay Manning, former chief of staff to Gregoire, threw a party for colleagues at his Olympia home last year, DelBene and her husband were first to arrive. Manning said he didn't know her well. He was unsure how she would handle being at his house, with his kid, his dog, and his last-minute party preparations. His discomfort was misplaced, he said.
"They (DelBene and her husband) immediately said, 'OK, what can we do?' ... like we were long-lost friends," he said. "Putting on airs is ... not going to be an issue."
DelBene's daughter, Rebecca Fine, said she was surprised at first that her mom would run for office. To her, she was a sarcastic jokester, a huge football fan, and the kind of working mom who could check her serious, business side at the door when she got home.
But Fine, 22, a college student in Pennsylvania, has come to understand DelBene's political aspirations as part of her goal-oriented personality.
"Looking back on it," she said, "she's always had that, striving for something huge that you don't really think of, and she's going to get there, no matter what."
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or email@example.com. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.