Interview with Darcy Burner
Darcy Burner, candidate for U.S. House of Representatives in the 8th Congressional District, met me for an interview over coffee at a neighborhood Starbucks last week. The topic of the hour was marketing.
Darcy's career in the high-tech industry has included years of experience in strategic marketing and product development and management as well as in programming. During this past year, as she has been building support among politically active Democrats and progressives, I have heard her emphasize that she is an electable candidate.
I happen to be a bit touchy on the subject of marketing and public opinion polling. In many ways, it seems to me that politics is becoming ever less relevant to real people and daily concerns and that a increasingly marketing-driven campaign culture contributes to this. Supporting candidates because they are perceived to be electable seems discouragingly circular to me. I want to vote for candidates on their merits. Darcy graciously agreed to meet with me to discuss my concerns. Based on our conversation, I am willing to concede that, used with the proper intention and care, marketing tools can help make politics more relevant to our lives.
It was a Monday morning and we were surrounded by the normal Starbucks hubbub - people on line for their pre-workday coffee fix, a few people sitting at the tables near us including a homeless man named Ben, whom I often see on the street.
Darcy gives an impression in person of being both reserved and warm. She has natural composure and speaks quickly but deliberately, sometimes holding out both hands, palms up, as she talks, as if she is weighing ideas or options. She is young, probably in her thirties, but her eyes have an old-fashioned kindly twinkle.
After some initial pleasantries we got to the main topic quickly. What follows is a good-faith effort to accurately represent our conversation, not an exact transcript.
Noemie: The reason I became involved in grassroots politics is that I believe we're in a national emergency. So many people have withdrawn from political involvement that we're not paying enough attention to what's going on. We've blinked and now we have a reckless group of people in national office. I'm sure you're familiar with the famous declaration of some Bush administration higher-up that he considers most of us to be behind the times because we're living in the reality-based community. Well I am in the reality-based community - and I want us to get back to a reality-based politics. I see a marketing approach as part of the problem.
Darcy: You and I are both members of the reality-based community. Part of our reality, unfortunately, is that our country is headed in the wrong direction. Clearly it is the case that Reichert is part of the problem. Our shared reality is that we must win this race to take back the House and help us get back on track.
At the national level, if we want to change the direction of the country, we need to win back 15 seats in the United States House of Representatives. On every list that I have seen, the 8th Congressional District race is listed among those 15. The race in our district is of national significance. In order for a Democrat to win in the 8th, we must pay attention to public perception and to the reasons that voters have for making their decisions. We can't ignore these factors. We must look at the makeup of the district and the expectations of the voters.
I looked at my qualifications and who I am, a young mother from a working class background with the education and professional experience that I have had in life. I looked at what my values are in relation to the values that many people in this district hold. And I saw that I am a good match for this district.
There aren't many people who are a good match for this district and who are also able to devote the amount of time and resources I am able to devote to this race. This campaigning is crazy; it's incredibly time-consuming. I have had to calculate what the maximum number of hours I can put into the campaign is and I have come up with 60 to 70 per week.
I would be surprised if you and I were not on the same page on most political issues. We all are looking at what we are able to do, what we are suited for, in order to address the problems we face.
Noemie: Wow, 60-70 hours, that's about what a grad student puts in, no?
Darcy: It's more than I was putting in when I was getting my degree at Harvard.
Noemie: I'm glad that you think strategically. It's better than not thinking strategically. And I don't blame all of our political ills on marketing. Of course, we need to use all the tools we have. But I would like to understand how your perspective differs from what I associate with some of the negative aspects of basing campaign decisions around public opinion.
Darcy: I'll tell you a little bit about how I have thought about marketing as a programmer and as a marketer in the software industry. I was a programmer for Lotus. Lotus makes terrific, terrific software. But it lost and continues to lose market share. I was curious about this. I wanted to understand what was operating, why this was the case.
There's a perception among programmers that if you write the best software you'll win in the market.
Noemie: I would think that quality would be a necessary precondition to success...
Darcy: Yes, the software has to be good, that's a prerequisite. Pricing is important too. But you can create the best quality software in the world and price it well and still not have market success. I spent several years in Silicon Valley, trying to figure this out. In fact, I have been exploring this question about what people base their decisions on for a good part of my adult life. It's a matter of intellectual interest to me. I'm very curious person. When I was a child I would pull things apart - machines and equipment, tape recorders, things like that - to figure out how they worked. This market dynamic was similar, something I wanted to pull apart in order to understand it.
I figured out while I was at Lotus that, although quality and price are important, they are not the complete answer. I also quickly figured out that sales aren't the answer. I was a record-breaking sales person. But there are only so many people that a sales person can talk with. It just doesn't scale.
Then I became a product manager at Asymetrix in Bellevue. I wrote what went on the software boxes and brochures and the web page and so on. But I found that wasn't the answer either.
Finally I went to work at Microsoft. I spent about five years doing strategic marketing there. Microsoft looks at its business holistically. If they're going to continue to thrive, they need to understand all the factors operating on a holistic basis.
What I learned from my experience there is to look at all of the factors that affect the decision-making process, and to figure out which ones matter the most and which ones we can affect. Rather than simply trying to sell to every person one at a time, look at the things that you can do that will help huge numbers of people decide to use your software - and prioritize doing those things.
In the case of operating systems, it turns out that it is not the features of the operating system that most matter to purchasers - but the number of applications that they can use on those systems. That is what matters to people in their daily lives. Microsoft has been so successful because it takes a hard look at what people are really using as their criteria. It was an incredibly educational experience for me to work at Microsoft and to explore this issue from a marketing standpoint.
Noemie: There are differences between the consumer market and the political market. Politics is not a product. You are not a product. I see the political realm and our efforts in it as spiritually significant - we are working collectively to make a better world for everyone.
Darcy: Yes, that is true, that marketing and political campaigns are not the same. But there are important lessons that carry over from one arena to the other. This lesson of looking closely at what people, as individuals, use as a basis for their decisions is a very important lesson.
There has been a tendency for candidates to think like programmers do, to think that it is the quality of their positions and their personal ethics and qualifications that determine who wins. Democrats, in particular, tend to focus on what a candidate's positions are and how virtuous they are. Those things are essential. But they're not enough. There are other factors that lead people to make political decisions. How people react emotionally to a candidate and to the mix of issues that are important to that candidate is also a big part of it.
Noemie: What are some of these factors in the 8th?
Darcy: When we look at voters in the 8th, we see that they are willing to vote for Democrats. We see that integrity matters to them. We see that fiscal responsibility is important to them. People question the vast debt that we have built up during the Bush administration, regardless of their politics. It is not responsible to create all this debt. It makes no sense that Henry and Quixote (the names of our sons) will have to shoulder this debt when they grow up. We see that environment matters to people in this district. And we see that jobs and education matter. These are all issues that I care about.
I believe that many of the voters in the 8th will also be able to identify with who I am and the kind of life I have led, that they will understand the kind of background I come from.
My family's story is one that shows what people can do in this country if they have access to opportunity. Both my parents grew up in homes with dirt floors. My mom was from Nebraska and my father was from Montana and then Rochester, Washington. My father enlisted in the Air Force right after high school and, while he worked in the Air Force, he also worked his way through a college degree through correspondence courses. After he retired from the Air Force, he became a school teacher. He instilled in me an ethic of hard work.
I grew up poor. But by dint of my parents giving me good values and my willingness to work hard I found a way to earn a good living. This is the kind of opportunity that everyone should have. But this administration clearly wants an aristocracy in this country. The people who are in power want a permanent upper class to which all wealth accrues - while all the rest of us get poorer and poorer.
All the basic elements of our social safety net are at risk. Someone who gets laid off from Boeing shouldn't as a consequence lose everything. Our social contracts are not being met in this country.
Noemie: You grew up poor, but you attended Harvard.
Darcy: When I went to Harvard, I was always on the edge financially. At one point, I didn't have a place to live and I spent two weeks sleeping in the basement of one of the buildings.
Noemie: Did anyone know you were there?
Noemie: Did you ever sleep on a dirt floor?
Darcy: Actually, yes.
Noemie: I was homeless as a teen for several months and found myself sleeping in parks. Your story is much more interesting, though, homeless at Harvard, secretly sleeping on a floor in a basement.
At this point, I became aware again of the presence of Ben, who was a few tables away from us. I know he sleeps outside most nights.
Darcy: Well, that sounds more grueling than my experience.
It's amazing what a college education can cost. I left Harvard with $70,000 of loans to repay. Going into high tech was my solution, my way to earn a living and to pay off that debt. And I did pay it off.
I have spent the last five years growing increasingly furious at the direction his country is going in. We have all been watching while this current administration and Congress has been destroying what is best about this country. My father taught me the importance of public service. He taught me that one person can make a difference. Leaving high tech for public service feels right to me. It feels like coming home.
I'm a big believer in civil liberties and civil rights. These are under unbelievable attack. I'm not referring only to the wiretaps.
The Alito hearings are starting now. Samuel Alito is a person who has said that Congress exceeded its authority in passing civil rights laws. He may end up on our Supreme Court. We are likely to see further rollbacks of our liberties under this administration before it ends. It is essential that we get a Democratic majority back in the house in 2006.
This campaigning is not easy. I have left a comfortable life and good job to spend two years doing this. It is a constant uphill battle. And I have given up everything during this time except for my husband and my son. I keep the husband and child and everything else goes - the job, the savings. She laughs. When you look at the total cost of a campaign like this in terms of money and time and commitment it really is something. I am doing this only because I care so deeply about the challenges that face us and because I believe that I am in a unique position to serve in this way, that I am committed to doing the right things and that at the same time people will vote for me.
Noemie: I think that many of us are doing what we do because we are furious at the direction this country has taken. I feel heartbroken over our situation. There is so much I find difficult to believe. The fact that the national leadership in this country is defending torture, this is something that never occurred to me could be possible.
Darcy: People in this district have their own understanding of who Dave Reichert is. I can't create new understandings for people. But I can help people connect what they already know to what their own experiences tell them is the reality in their lives.
Noemie: You have talked about the emotional aspect of political decisions, how you see your life history and values and the reasons you have entered this race to be in line with what is important to the people of this district. One of the most important things to me - and I know many other people share this perspective - is that the people we elect to national office in 2006 will be courageous, will be truth-tellers, will not be afraid to confront the lies.
Darcy: I am willing to go toe to toe with the bad guys. The most important message I think that can be given to people is that we need to change the direction we are headed in order to defend our core American values of opportunity, of equality, and liberty. It is true that our political leaders must understand what is important to people. But our leaders should also help people figure out what is important to all of us.
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