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Can a wealthy Medina Democrat win the 8th Congressional District?
A political newcomer captured the attention of some 40 people at a Bellevue pub Monday night as she announced her intention to oust Congressman Dave Reichert in 2010.
Medina Democrat Suzan DelBene kept her audience glued despite competition from Ken Griffey Jr.’s season-opening return to the Mariners and the NCAA Basketball Championship, both of which were showing on nearby televisions.
Most of the listeners were life-long Democrats meeting with the social group Drinking Liberally.
DelBene will have to reach well beyond that type of crowd to unseat Reichert, who has garnered overwhelming support in rural parts of the culturally mixed 8th Congressional District.
Her plan, she says, is to get an early start on making herself known in those areas.
“It’s about spending a lot of time in the southern and eastern parts of the district and listening to people,” DelBene said. “When you talk to people, they have a lot of great ideas about how to solve the problems they’re facing.”
Whether or not a Democrat from Bill Gates’ neighborhood can resonate with those voters is another story.
Darcy Burner tried to defeat Reichert twice with considerable financial backing from her party and the working-class pedigree of a military brat.
But Burner ran into trouble when opponents questioned her authenticity. She had called herself an ex-Microsoft executive and later claimed to have earned a business degree from Harvard, both of which proved to be stretches.
DelBene, like her predecessor, had a middle-class upbringing. Her parents were entrepreneurs whom she says "always thought they had the next great idea."
"My life was very much feast and famine," she said. "We had good times and bad times."
DelBene's parents hit a rough patch shortly after she graduated from college and ended up moving in with her for awhile.
"I know what it means to help people get back on their feet," she said.
DelBene is similar to Burner in that she worked for Microsoft.
The difference is that she truly was an executive, having served as vice president of the company's mobile communications business.
DelBene also founded a successful startup – Drugstore.com – and worked as CEO and president of the software company Nimble Technology.
Add to that the fact that DelBene refereed little-league and high school football games in the late 1980s, and it looks like this woman with the constant motherly smiles and polite demeanor can hold her own.
“You know, Microsoft was a great company to work for, but it’s not always a quiet, warm and fuzzy company,” she said.
DelBene wasted little time showing the Bellevue gathering that she could go on the offensive, attacking Reichert’s performance in Congress.
“We need someone who is proactive in bringing new ideas and solutions to the table,” she said. “You have to do more than just show up and vote.”
DelBene also touted her business experience as an asset that would help her lead during the current economic downturn.
“We need folks with real experience who know what it’s like to run large companies,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of that experience today.”
DelBene later told the crowd: "I have a good perspective of what it's like to be at a very large company and what it's like to work from scratch begging for money to get a startup off the ground."
Still, not every Democrat is convinced that a former businesswoman from Medina can reach voters beyond the urban Eastside.
Rob Sargent is a precinct committee officer for the 41st District Democrats. He says Burner was probably a better package for middle-class voters.
"She (Burner) packed a piece," he said. "She related more to the blue-collar vote than somebody who's part of the super-rich."
Sargent also questions whether DelBene is going to pass muster with staunch Democrats.
"I think she's going to have a harder time with the entrenched, hard-core party guys like me," he said. "She hasn't really been present on the grass roots level and hasn't really established any street cred there."
Reichert meanwhile has the backing of his party and a centrist formula that works in the 8th District. He sticks to the party line on issues like gun-control, fiscal policy, and national defense, while leaning left in areas like the environment.
The former King County Sheriff also gained hero status by helping capture the Green River Killer.
DelBene used her speech at the Bellevue gathering to establish job creation as a top priority, but listeners tried to press her on social issues.
"Socially, I'm very progressive," she said. "Fiscally, I'm probably more moderate."
DelBene made it clear that she's pro-choice when it comes to abortion.
"That's an easy one," she said.
DelBene also addressed questions about her stance on gun control.
"I don't own a gun," she said. "I support and believe in the Second Amendment and that people should have their guns.
"I also believe that not all Americans need to carry AK-47s. I think...there is some line that we draw."
DelBene is thought to have a considerable amount of wealth, which could give her an advantage in terms of financing a campaign.
“Not only can she raise money because she's well-connected, but she can always dip into her own pocket as deep as she needs to go," Sargent said. "That's protection against what happened in the last two cycles where the Republicans buried Darcy in the last couple weeks with lots of advertising."
"I hate that it's all about money, but it is."
If that's the case, DelBene's wealth could act as both a help and a hindrance.