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In the wake of 2022 losses, Suzan DelBene eyes a comeback for House Democrats

After the 2022 midterm elections, House Democrats were despondent.

While they did keep more seats than expected, they narrowly ceded the House majority to Republicans. It was a loss many House Democrats saw as avoidable, and they placed the blame directly with their campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Lawmakers lamented what they described as a top-down approach by then-DCCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney, who critics say failed to take advice on which districts to invest in and oversaw losses in key New York districts — including his own — that handed Republicans the majority.

House Democrats elected the DCCC chair by a caucus-wide vote, turning it into a de facto popularity contest that routinely attracted colleagues looking to rise in leadership. But now entering a new era under House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Democrats changed directions. They agreed to empower their new leader to pick the DCCC chair, selecting his own trusted ally to partner with in launching the organization into a new generation.

Enter Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.). Preferring to work under the radar, DelBene isn’t a household name and hadn’t sought the DCCC role when Jeffries chose her for it. But in her more than 10 years in office, she has gained a reputation among colleagues as a thoughtful lawmaker who strives to find common ground in advancing the Democratic agenda.

“I think that last cycle, many members — didn’t matter where you came from politically within the caucus — were unhappy with the DCCC operation from the leadership level,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who was one of several, ideologically varied members who with DelBene advocated to change the way the DCCC chair was chosen. “We just wanted to have the best person that leadership could work with in place so we didn’t have some of the problems repeated.”

Now in her second year leading the organization, DelBene’s success will be defined by whether she and a new generation of Democratic leaders can win back the House majority without the previous generation’s leadership. But DelBene also hopes their legacy will last beyond her term, establishing a solid foundation for an organization that has been mired by personal politics and often ignored by both the far-left and centrist flanks of the caucus in recent years.

She and the three top Democratic leaders — Minority Leader Jeffries (N.Y.), Minority Whip Katherine Clark (Mass.), and Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar (Calif.) — have also dispelled worries that the new leadership team couldn’t maintain the famed national fundraising prowess of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The DCCC raised $108.9 million in 2023 — nearly $25 million more than the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has admitted that its candidates didn’t do as well as expected in 2022 because it was overwhelmingly outraised by Democrats.

But what has been the most notable change, Democrats say, is how involved DelBene is with incorporating colleagues’ concerns and suggestions. Dozens of lawmakers and candidates said she or her team is reachable and receptive, and she listens to them, even if her eventual decision may not go completely their way.

The responsibility to overhaul and ready the DCCC for 2024 is a major one. But DelBene admits that leading the DCCC is less intimidating than when she first decided to run for elected office. After successful stints at three different tech companies over two decades, DelBene described the transition from working behind the scenes to becoming the face of an organization — in this case her 2010 campaign — as “very uncomfortable.”

“That piece of walking in, having the focus be on you, the person, was probably the hardest thing for me as a new candidate running,” DelBene said. “Running organizations is something that I’ve spent my career doing — being in organizations, starting up organizations — and the DCCC is kind of a combination. It’s a start-up in some ways, because every election cycle is a new cycle.”

Both members of the tightknit freshman class of 2012, Jeffries in a recent interview rattled off a few of DelBene’s critical attributes: her ability to understand the needs of vulnerable incumbents; the role she played as the chair of the New Democrat Coalition in negotiations that yielded significant legislation under President Biden, including the expansion of the child tax credit; and her experience managing complex organizations.

During her first year at the DCCC, DelBene built out a team of staff familiar to House Democrats whom she wanted to “challenge each other” and her opinions. She has routinely met with colleagues from all ideological backgrounds to better understand their districts and find commonalities among the caucus. And she has made some fundamental changes that have shifted resources internally.

Calling on her experience in the business world, she has leaned in on optimizing the use of digital organizing tools, establishing a robust analytics department to closely track best practices and trends that provide more targeted information for individual campaigns. The research team also has organized earlier than usual to help track Republican incumbents.

“It became clear to me that given her professional and political experience, as well as her personality, she would be a no-nonsense, get-stuff-done-kind of leader,” Jeffries said. “Suzan is both a great listener and someone who is committed to action as it relates to solving problems in a manner that moves the ball aggressively down the field.”

DelBene credits her upbringing in Washington and early career path for putting her in situations that taught her to make decisions rather than avoid them.

Her childhood was spent on the move as her stepfather, a pilot, and mother bounced around the country looking for steady income to propel their children’s future. DelBene eventually attended boarding school and college on scholarship before landing a job as a product manager at Microsoft. An avid football fan, DelBene spent her free time refereeing mostly high school games around Washington — a gig she credits with teaching her to quickly make decisions.

She honed that ability during her first decade at Microsoft, where she worked her way up in the organization at a time when women were sparse at tech companies. Frank Fite, who as a general manager at Microsoft worked with DelBene on embedding Windows 95 into office equipment, said what struck him was not just her smarts, but her empathic nature and collegiality — a major contrast to other leaders.

“She wasn’t afraid to make a decision. [As a manager] you couldn’t dilly dally on things. You had to take in information, make the decision and make people like the decision to some extent,” Fite said. “That’s why she was so successful, because she wasn’t the one pounding her chest, saying, ‘you have to do this.’”

DelBene said her executive experience taught her that forcing a decision onto people often breeds resentment and hinders progress. Unlike her time as a referee, DelBene wanted to hear out as many points of view as possible — and welcomed frank honesty.

“I’d rather people throw it all at me,” DelBene said. “You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken.”

After her decade at Microsoft, DelBene helped launch an online start-up and shepherded a tech company through an acquisition before returning to Microsoft as corporate vice president of mobile communications at the brink of the smartphone era. But realizing that younger generations were facing more hurdles to achieve the American Dream than she did, DelBene decided to challenge then-Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) in 2010. After she narrowly lost that race, she was immediately called upon by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) to serve as Washington’s director of revenue.

Gregoire had high expectations for DelBene as the country faced a deep recession, asking her to bring creativity to the job and describing DelBene as a “workhorse,” “not a show horse.” She said DelBene was able to command respect without bringing attention to herself or isolating colleagues.

“I think quite candidly, having observed her, she wins them over because she genuinely listens. She hears them,” she said. “So even if they end up disagreeing, they end disagreeing in a very respectful way.”

DelBene ultimately ran for office a second time, winning the open seat in 2012. She often uses that experience to encourage candidates who lost races in 2022 to run again this cycle when pledging her help.

After stunning Democrats in the 2022 midterms by flipping a district Donald Trump won in southwest Washington, Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez arrived at DCCC headquarters and was captivated by a map of the country dotted with the faces of candidates the organization had invested in.

Her face wasn’t on the display. And only one congressional Democrat had endorsed her in her primary: DelBene.

Glusenkamp Perez praised DelBene for understanding that “a strategic opportunity” existed to pick up a conservative-leaning district in their home state in part because Glusenkamp Perez’s moderate credentials stood out against her opponent’s far-right extremism. It was a welcome sign for Glusenkamp Perez and other Blue Dog Coalition Democrats who are hoping to recruit more pragmatic candidates who can compete in red districts.

“I’ve seen her sit in meetings with a broad array of frontliners and listen to the different perspectives we all have on different regional values. I think that’s novel from what I’ve seen before and is absolutely critical to winning,” Glusenkamp Perez said about fellow swing district Democrats.

DelBene also isn’t afraid to be direct with her critiques. In 2022, the DCCC had dedicated funds to running ads that propped up far-right candidates in swing district primaries, hoping it would give Democrats an advantage in the general election. It was successful in some races, but DelBene and others worried Republicans would use the same strategy against them. So she told Jeffries they should stop.

The DCCC incorporated her advice.

Pocan, the liberal Wisconsin Democrat, said the lack of focus by Maloney and his team last cycle felt “like getting a tooth extracted.” He accused the previous leadership of “ignorance” for not heeding his advice and investing heavily to defeat now-Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-Wis.). Van Orden attended the Jan. 6, 2021, rally on the National Mall and was running in a Trump-leaning Wisconsin district that Pocan believed was winnable for Democrats — echoing Glusenkamp Perez’s perspective. (After the midterms, Maloney defended his performance in an interview with the New York Times, saying, “Yes, I lost my race. Yes, we struggled in suburban New York on the same night we won 213 … seats when everybody … thought we were going to lose 40 or 50. So you tell me, was it a good night or a bad one?”)

Now Pocan says his experience with the DCCC is a “175 degree difference,” crediting DelBene, Jeffries and the organization’s staff. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus met with the chair to express some concerns last year, and Pocan credited DelBene for immediately “coming up with very clever approaches” to resolve the issue.

“I think in the past you’d have DCCC chairs who say it’s their way or the highway. Now, she’s including all members,” he said. “Literally I’m now, like, ‘I want to pay my dues! I want to pay my dues!’”

Applying a broad strategy to a majority of districts often led Democrats, particularly vulnerable incumbents, to throw DCCC talking points in the trash last cycle. Rep. Chris Deluzio, a freshman who recently welcomed DelBene to his Pennsylvania swing district, said this year he has “never felt anything heavy handed coming out of the DCCC. It’s the other way. It’s ‘Hey, how do you win in your district? How can we help lift up what you’re doing?’”

As the top House Democrat who worked over two decades in tandem with the DCCC, Pelosi acknowledged that being the chair of the organization is “a thankless task” because no matter what you do, members will always have strong feelings about what more could have been done. She credits members myriad opinions as a plus for the party, but noted that a successful chair must have the skills to find consensus — not unanimity.

“It’s about judgment. At the end of the day, everybody may say, ‘I wish we had done this’ or ‘we could have done that.’ But the fact is they know that a decision had to be made at a certain time, and [DelBene’s] willing to take that responsibility and run with it,” Pelosi said in an interview. “Her judgment is our excellence.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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