By touting her business background, former Microsoft executive Suzan DelBene, a Democrat, beat former Republican state legislator John Koster in an unpredictable race for Washington’s newly redrawn 1st District. She won a separate special election held on the same day to fill the remainder of the term of Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee, who resigned to run for governor.
DelBene was born in Selma, Ala., the fifth of six children. When she was a toddler, her parents divorced and divided the children between them. DelBene lived with her mother, who married an airline pilot, and the family moved often. She went to kindergarten and first grade in Washington state and later lived in Ohio, Minnesota, and Hawaii. Her high school years were just as geographically scattered as her childhood. She spent time in Colorado and attended a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut with financial aid. DelBene’s stepfather got a job with Iran Air during her sophomore year and her parents relocated overseas. “When I was in one place, I played softball and soccer. I was always a math and science person,” she said in an interview.
DelBene majored in biology at Reed College in Oregon, originally hoping to become a veterinarian. Undergraduate research changed her career interests and her first job after college was with a biotechnology firm in Seattle. She went back to school to get her master’s degree in business administration and interned at Microsoft. She eventually landed a full-time job there and met and married her husband, Kurt, president of Microsoft’s Office division.
DelBene left Microsoft in 1998 and was involved with two high-tech startups. DelBene later did microfinance work with an international nonprofit, a job that she said taught her the ways in which policy could create opportunities for families. She was inspired to run for Congress. After spending more than $2 million of her own money in 2010, she lost a challenge to Rep. Dave Reichert for Washington’s 8th District. Shortly after the election, DelBene was appointed director of the state Department of Revenue by Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire.
This year, DelBene was one of five Democrats running in a crowded open primary for the newly drawn 1st District. With a net worth of more than $50 million, her personal wealth was a highlighted topic throughout the race. She appealed to the Democratic establishment for her ability to self-fund and received endorsements from Gregoire and Rep. Rick Larsen. Her Democratic opponents cast her as just another millionaire running for Congress. DelBene’s campaign aired a series of biographical ads that talked about the financial struggles of her youth. Her platform spotlighted support for new economic-stimulus spending, as well as for President Obama’s plan to allow the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy to expire.
DelBene’s chief rival in the primary was liberal Darcy Burner, also a Microsoft executive. The only Republican candidate in the all-party primary, Koster, led in the polls, with the Democrats battling for the second slot and the right to advance to the general election. Koster finished first with 44 percent of vote and DelBene with 22 percent; Burner finished a disappointing third with 15 percent.
In the general election, Koster was endorsed by notable conservatives such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Despite Koster’s name recognition, DelBene led in the polls most of the way and won. Her one-month special-election term will give her a bit more seniority than her freshman peers in Congress.
DelBene hopes to compete in the Marine Corps Marathon, which would be her third marathon.