Microsoft Alums Compete In Congressional Battleground | KUOW News and Information

Microsoft Alums Compete In Congressional Battleground

Oct 17, 2014

Voters in Washington’s 1st Congressional District will decide whether to return their freshman member of Congress to Washington, D.C. or replace her with a political unknown.

Incumbent Democrat Suzan DelBene is being challenged by Republican Pedro Celis. The two are facing off in the state’s only true partisan battleground.

The 1st District, which runs from the suburbs of Seattle to the Canadian border, was redrawn in 2012 to be evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

DelBene is running on her record of bipartisan achievement. Celis is hoping to capitalize on voter discontent over the Obama administration.

Below are profiles of the two candidates.

Clarification 10/20/2014: The web audio has been edited for clarity and differs slightly from the broadcast audio.

For more KUOW elections coverage, visit the Election Connection page.  

Incumbent Democrat Suzan DelBene calling voters at her campaign headquarters in Bothell, Wash.
Credit KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang

Suzan DelBene

When DelBene ran for office in 2012, she was not well known in the 1st Congressional District.

She was initially one of a crowded field of seven candidates, and unlike several of her opponents, she had had no previous experience in elected office.

Knowing that name recognition might be a problem for her, her campaign produced a television ad designed to make her name stick in voters’ minds. It featured groups of supporters cheerfully repeating “Suzan DelBene!” over and over to the camera.

These days, when DelBene calls voters in the district, she said they are likely to want to chat and ask her questions about policy or issues they care about. And, she added, “They know who I am.”

At least that is the hope as DelBene is faces her first re-election campaign. 

She has had no shortage of challenges in her two year term of office.

She was there for the partisan battles that led to last year's two-week government shutdown, and she was present for the bungled launch of Obamacare. Her husband, Kurt DelBene, was tapped by President Obama to fix the federal health care exchange website.  

There were also two major disasters that hit the district during her term: the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River and the massive mudslide in the town of Oso, which killed 43 people.

DelBene happened to be in the district when the mudslide hit and was there within hours. What she saw was “truly heartbreaking,” she said.

Her presence and desire to help was noted by Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington.

“She showed up with us from the very beginning and she actually did not leave my side. She was running to get water, sandwiches, making inquiries and using that political clout for the right reasons,” he said.

DelBene worked with the rest of the state’s Congressional delegation to get emergency federal money for both the I-5 bridge and Oso.

During her first term, DelBene also boasts she worked successfully with leaders of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on legislation critical to her district.

She serves on the House Agriculture Committee, which earlier this year passed a $1 trillion farm bill.

She calls it “probably the best farm bill we have ever had for Washington state farmers” because it provided more support than ever before for specialty crops, like fruits and vegetables, dairy farmers and organic producers.

She also was successful in including $200 million in funds for job training for people who receive food stamps.

“That was an important piece of legislation that has passed in this Congress,” she said.

DelBene also joined forces with conservative Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner on a bill to reign in government surveillance of American citizens. The bill passed the House, although not before it was severely watered down on the House floor. She ended up voting against it, but is hoping for Senate action on a better bill.

Although DelBene has made her ability to cross the aisle a centerpiece of her campaign, Republicans say her bipartisan efforts are just window dressing.

They say she is a reliable supporter of the Democratic leadership, voting with her party 94 percent of the time.

And they question whether she really does have all that much name recognition or support in the 1st District. Twenty-two percent of voters they surveyed did not know her name.

According to Gray Delany, communications director for Republican challenger Pedro Celis, DelBene is vulnerable because the district is so evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and because voters are fed up with Congress and the Obama administration in general.

“People are very antsy about the state of the economy, the national debt; the real unemployment is over 12 percent,” he said. “People are looking for a different direction.”

In fact, even the Democratic Party acknowledges that DelBene is vulnerable. The Democratic National Campaign Committee has placed her in its Frontline Program, which provides support for vulnerable incumbents.

DelBene’s campaign strategist, Sandeep Kaushik, said there is always the concern that she might suffer from a general voter backlash at Congress. But her track record of specific accomplishments “despite the hyperpartisanship” might soften that sentiment.

“We have a story to tell about her performance and what she’s done over last two years that help differentiate and take us out of context of negative perception of what is going on in D.C.,” Kaushik said.

Republican challenger Pedro Celis chats with a supporter at a recent campaign event in Sultan, Wash.
Credit KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang

Pedro Celis

DelBene’s campaign is also banking on the fact that this year’s challenger is even more of an unknown than she once was.

Republican Pedro Celis is a first time candidate. He is a Mexican-American immigrant who was an assistant professor of computer science at Indiana University.

He spent 14 years at Microsoft, rising to the role of chief technology officer of the SQL server division. He also held the title of distinguished engineer. He retired two years ago.

If this were a contest based on their accomplishments at the Redmond software company, Celis said he would win, hands down.

“I hate to brag, but I worked in some of the most successful products in the company, she didn’t,” he said.

DelBene served as vice president of marketing at Window’s mobile.

Celis is running for Congress as a fiscal conservative. He says he wants smaller government and less regulation. He wants to tackle the nation’s $18 trillion debt and believes Congress should pass a balanced budget amendment.

“I believe the government needs to live within its means. There is all kinds of spending that the government has had a hard time figuring out what not to spend. Pretty much for every argument there is a compelling argument that the government should invest in that. But there is no forcing function to say, OK instead of what?” he said.

Celis and DelBene are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to social issues. He voted against the same-sex marriage initiative in Washington state.

He opposes abortion and federal funding for abortion.  He applauded the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allowed Hobby Lobby to deny contraceptive coverage in its health care plans. He called that a victory for the First Amendment.

But one of the biggest issues in this campaign has been the question of immigration reform.

“Everywhere I go, it comes up, because of this charming accent that I have,” he joked.

Celis, who calls himself an immigrant success story, was an advocate for the REAL Hope Act, the state’s version of the DREAM Act. It extends financial aid to undocumented immigrant students.

But nationally, he hews closely to the Republican party’s position on immigration. He says no discussion of immigration reform should happen before the nation’s borders are first secured, and he opposes giving citizenship to the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

“You don’t want to reward that behavior and give them citizenship. You don’t want to put them in the carpool lane. They get ahead of everybody else who has been following the rules,” Celis said.

But DelBene’s campaign says that’s a reversal from what Celis once believed. Back in 2006, when he was chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, he was quoted as supporting comprehensive immigration reform. That is legislation which includes what the Republicans call "amnesty" and what the Democrats call "a path to citizenship."

“He’s done a 180 on immigration in this campaign.  He’s using that hot conservative language about amnesty this and that. Total reversal, total flip,” said Kaushik, DelBene’s campaign strategist.

Kaushik said the change comes courtesy of Celis’ new campaign team: campaign manager Zachary Werrell and communications director Gray Delany, who joined the team in September.

Earlier this year, they orchestrated the surprise defeat of Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia. Cantor lost his primary race to Tea Party candidate David Brat. 

Kaushik said Werrell and Delany were brought in to make Celis more palatable to the right wing of the Republican party. Werrell called that claim "offensive."

“My reaction is, I was brought in to win, I was not brought in to change who Pedro is or what he believes in, it’s absolutely ridiculous. So I hope the voters can see through that,” said Werrell.

Celis may need all the help he can get. He barely made it through the primary, winning just 16  percent of the vote. But a recent poll done by his campaign found Celis within 9 percentage points of DelBene.

Celis also lags far behind incumbent DelBene in campaign cash. He’s raised $609,910. DelBene has raised close to $2.2 million. DelBene is one of the wealthiest members of Congress. In 2012, she put $2.8 million of her own money into the campaign.

Celis’ campaign team pointed out that a fundraising gap can be overcome. David Brat defeated Eric Cantor with just a fraction of his funds.  

And Celis has embraced the idea of the underdog.

His campaign slogan, “Vote For Pedro,” comes straight from the movie "Napoleon Dynamite," which features a hapless Mexican-American student running for high school student body president. In the movie, his platform is: “If you vote for me, all of your wildest dreams will come true.”

Celis says the idea came about when he wore a Vote For Pedro t-shirt to a parade.

“People were like, ‘Yeah! Pedro! My wildest dreams come true!' And so a lot of people in the campaign started buying the t-shirts from Amazon and wearing them, and it’s been a lot of fun, actually,” Celis said.

Celis’ campaign strategists say in these final days of the campaign, they will focus their efforts on the ground game -- grassroots organizing to get out the vote. They plan to run radio ads, but will buy television airtime only as their budget allows.

For more KUOW elections coverage, visit the Election Connection page.  

Clarification 10/20/2014: The web audio has been edited for clarity and differs slightly from the broadcast audio.