Suzan DelBene Brings Business Experience, Money To Congressional Race

Oct 23, 2012

On the campaign trail, Suzan DelBene tells the story of how her family struggled when she was a kid. Her father was laid off from his job when she was nine, and the family moved all over the country as her parents looked for work. “They never got back to a situation where they were financially stable,” she explains.

She recounts that despite her family's financial difficulties, she was able to go to college on student loans. “I was in a position to take care of my family,” she says. “I’m not sure I could tell that story today.”

It’s a tightly drawn personal narrative, and DelBene repeats it often in conversations, interviews and debates as she tries to introduce herself to voters in the sprawling 1st Congressional District.

Moving Up The Corporate Ladder

DelBene has spent much of her life in the business world, and is not well-known on the political stage. She started her career as a research associate at Seattle-based ZymoGenetics. In the late 1980s, after earning an MBA from the University of Washington, she went to work for Microsoft.

State Representative Ross Hunter is a former Microsoft program manager and a friend of DelBene’s. He describes that era in the company’s history as rough and tumble. It wasn’t unusual for people to shout at each other.

“The only way you thrive in that culture is by being smart and having people respect your ideas,” he says.

But Hunter describes DelBene as someone who did not shout or pound the table. “Suzan is someone who can get a bunch of people in a room and figure out how to move forward and how to make something happen in a more collaborative way.”

In 1998, DelBene left Microsoft to become vice president of marketing for drugstore.com. Two years later, she was recruited to be the CEO of Nimble Technology, a company spun off from research being done at the computer science department of the University of Washington.

Nimble survived the dot-com bust of 2001, but it was not a success. The company was sold in 2003 to a California firm for less than its initial investment. 

Still, DelBene’s performance as CEO earned praise from several of the company’s original investors.

“I think what she really did is not panic and just, in a systematic way, try to figure out, OK, what can we could do to save the company,” says Robert Nelsen, head of Arch Venture Partners. “In our business, that’s the kind of thing that we say, yeah, we would back that person again.”

Nelsen says he is a life-long Republican, and he doesn’t always agree with DelBene’s politics. But he is a major contributor to her campaign. "I support candidates on both sides of the aisle who understand innovation," he says.

A Latecomer To Politics

After Nimble was sold, DelBene returned to Microsoft as vice president of the mobile division. She spent another three years at the company.

DelBene says it wasn’t until about 2008 that she started to consider running for political office. “A couple of people had suggested that I run for office,” she says. “My first response was, you know, I guess.”

At the time, DelBene was consulting with Global Partnerships, a nonprofit that provides micro-financing to poor people in developing countries. But she began to focus on helping closer to home “because more and more families were struggling right here in the United States,” she explains.

Before she decided to enter politics, DelBene had a spotty voting record.  From 2004 to 2008, she missed voting in nine separate elections. “I should have become an absentee voter earlier,” she says. “But I think it’s a mistake of my past, not a mistake of my future.”

Campaign Cash

In her first run for public office, DelBene challenged Republican Dave Reichert in the 8th Congressional District. She put more than $2 million dollars of her own money into that race, but lost.

She then spent a year heading the state’s Department of Revenue before jumping into this race, in the new 1st Congressional District.

DelBene has also spent heavily on this campaign, contributing more than $2.3 million of her own money thus far. During the primary, two of her Democratic opponents criticized her, saying she was trying to buy the race.

DelBene’s opponent in the general election, Republican John Koster, is also making an issue of Delbene’s wealth, even though he had said earlier that he was opposed to “class warfare” in campaigns.

Koster is currently running an ad on cable TV that refers to DelBene as a multimillionaire and features photographs of her waterfront home, which is currently assessed at $4.8 million.

According to DelBene's financial disclosure reports (PDF), she and her husband have a net worth of between $23 and $83 million (candidates are not required to report the exact amount of their assets). DelBene’s husband Kurt DelBene is president of Microsoft’s Office division. Securities and Exchange Commission filings show Kurt DelBene owns 635,693 shares of Microsoft stock.

Suzan DelBene and her supporters insist that her personal wealth has not been an issue for voters in this campaign.

“Every single one of our members, including me, would love to be a millionaire,” says Heather Weiner, state political director for the Teamsters Union, which has endorsed DelBene. “Congratulations to Suzan for working really hard and living that American dream.”

A Close Race

In terms of her politics, DelBene says she doesn’t like labels, although her campaign literature describes her as “the progressive choice.”

She generally supports the policies of the Obama administration, although she differs on the issue of financial reform. She wants to see tighter regulation of Wall Street.

On the campaign trail, DelBene comes across as earnest and soft-spoken. Some Democrats complain that she is not particularly charismatic. But according to state Representative Ross Hunter, that’s not such a bad thing.

“She’s not a fist pumper, and if all we are going to elect to Congress is fist pumpers, you get people who can only shout at each other, and you get people who aren’t as smart,” he says. “Let’s send someone to DC who can put a good idea up on the whiteboard and convince other people it’s a good idea.”

But Hunter says DelBene’s biggest challenge is that she is not as well known as John Koster, a conservative Republican who has been in politics in the region for more than two decades. DelBene has been more visible on television, with two separate SuperPAC's running negative ads against Koster, mostly attacking his opposition to abortion.

The latest KING 5/SurveyUSA poll shows DelBene now leading in the race, by a slender 47 to 44 percent. That is a reversal from the last KING 5 poll in September, which showed Koster with a narrow lead. Both results are within the poll’s margin of error, so it continues to be a very close race.