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Monday, June 18, 2012 - Page updated at 08:00 p.m.
Darcy Burner comes out swinging in bid for 1st District seat
By Jonathan Martin
Seattle Times staff reporter
To win in 2012, says Darcy Burner, Democrats must go on offense.
Her game plan, in a recent speech at a convention of progressives, includes "suing the bejesus" out of corporations for wage discrimination, targeted boycotts against conservative funders and a campaign to "cast off the shame and embarrassment" of women who've had an abortion.
She asked women at the speech who previously had an abortion to stand up. "We need to make it OK for women to come out about the choices that we've made," she said, after encouraging the crowd to applaud.
"It's long past time we stopped playing defense," Burner said as part of a panel titled "The War on Women" at the Netroots Nation convention in Rhode Island.
The politics — rabble-rousing, populist liberalism — are vintage Burner from two failed runs for Congress in 2006 and 2008.
But now in her third campaign for Congress, Burner's message is sharper. It was honed by the 2 ½ years she spent in Washington, D.C., as a consultant, organizer and de facto spokesman for Congress' progressive caucus.
Burner doesn't advertise her stint on the other Capitol Hill, but it deepened her ties with the political left and her working knowledge of Congress. It also left a broad paper trail for opponents seeking to portray her as out of the political mainstream.
Her message appeals to some voters in the newly redrawn 1st Congressional District, an inland swath from Redmond to Canada. Polls establish her as the clear front-runner in the Aug. 7 primary among the five Democrats running to face Republican John Koster.
But Burner's odds in the general election in the 1st District, drawn to be a down-the-middle swing electorate, give some Democrats heartburn. So does her style. She provoked an unusual rebuke from state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz when she bucked his request to not run in a special election concurrent with the general election.
"I think the fear that a lot of people have about Darcy is that she's an iconoclast," said Seattle political consultant Christian Sinderman, who is not affiliated with a 1st District candidate.
"Darcy makes a lot of people nervous because you never know what's coming next with her."
"Built from nothing"
In late 2008, a group of progressive leaders, emboldened by President Obama's victory, decided it needed someone, for the first time, to act as a "bridge" between the then-83-member Congressional Progressive Caucus and the broader community of like-minded activists and think tanks.
Burner, fresh from a second loss to Rep. Dave Reichert, knew many of the progressive leaders, including Robert Borosage, who runs one of the think tanks. The board of the American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation — which Borosage chairs and included the founders of Moveon.org and the website Daily Kos — was impressed by Burner's energy, tech savvy and willingness to fundraise her own salary, Borosage said.
"She basically built it from nothing," said Borosage. "It had all the perils of a startup and entrepreneurial venture."
Burner, who as executive director renamed the group Progressivecongress.org, raised $390,535 and was paid $134,084 in 2010, the most recent year that the group's tax statements are available. Donors aren't on file, but Burner said big funders included George Soros' Open Society Institute; the Stewart R. Mott Foundation; and The Arca Foundation.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation and a board member, said Burner acted as a counterweight to conservatives such as anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.
The Progressive Caucus doesn't have its own staff, and tended to be "fragmented," vanden Heuvel said. Burner urged the Congress members to focus on just a few core issues. "Darcy has a good strategic mind about the fights that need to be focused on," vanden Heuvel said.
First up was progressives' demand for a public option in the health-care overhaul. Burner and her organization helped frame the argument for a public option with a memo recommending that supporters avoid phases such as "Canadian-style health care" or "universal health care" in favor of "An American solution," according to memos on the group's website.
In an interview on MSNBC, Burner described Sen. Joe Lieberman's opposition to a public option as "a national disaster." As congressional support for a public option faded, Burner advocated killing the bill entirely.
On the campaign trail now, Burner describes the Affordable Care Act as "imperfect" while claiming to help pass it. "It's a really good partial solution to the problem," she said in a recent interview.
In the Netroots Nation speech this month, Burner said winning in politics is more about using raw power than crafting the best policy statements. "If we want to win, we need to play the game that is really being played," she said.
That means exercising "moral power," such as having innocents be victims of police force at protests, and legal power, like lawsuits against corporations, she said. "Virtually every Fortune 500 corporation is discriminating economically against women," she said.
She used similarly barbed rhetoric at times at Progessivecongress.org. In fighting Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's proposal to make fundamental changes to Medicare, Burner wrote on Twitter, "Real choice is between insurance companies and government. Insurance companies kill people when it's profitable."
Burner often also worked on behind-the-scenes messaging.
As Congress debated whether to end the Bush-era tax cuts in 2010, Burner's group circulated memos that suggested avoiding "tax cuts" and "tax breaks" because "these words immediately win the sympathy of most audiences." Instead, the memos suggested phrases such as "Republican Bonus for Billionaires" and "greed, greedy, excessive wealth."
Burner's campaign speeches pack the same punch. While her Democratic opponents stress the need to help the middle class, Burner agrees, but also denounces policies "rigged for bankers and oil barons," and emphasizes prosecuting Wall Street malfeasance.
A crowded field
Burner, her eye on another run for Congress, quit and returned home last October with her husband and 9-year-old son. She said she had planned to return once her home, destroyed in a 2008 fire, was rebuilt. She maintained her voter registration here.
When Rep. Jay Inslee quit to run for governor, the open 1st District seat drew a crowd. Democrats Suzan DelBene, state Sen. Steve Hobbs, Darshan Rauniyar and Laura Ruderman and independent Larry Ishmael are jostling to challenge Koster, who held a 27-point lead in a May poll.
"There is no conventional wisdom" on the new district, said University of Washington political-science professor Matt Barreto. But Burner's high name recognition and appeal to progressives help make her "a great candidate," he said. That view is not shared by some Democratic supporters. DelBene, a former Microsoft vice president who is partially funding her campaign, has culled most big-name endorsements, in part because she's seen as the most electable.
"Darcy Burner would be a great match for the 7th District," which represents Seattle, said Heather Weiner, political director of the Teamsters Joint Council No. 28, which endorsed DelBene. "She is a progressive fighter, but we don't think that's a good match for the (1st) district."
Burner isn't running on her time in Washington, D.C., but said she learned a key lesson there.
"The biggest thing I learned was the degree to which Congress was in fact broken, and what it will take to fix it," she said.
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or email@example.com. On Twitter @jmartin206.
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