The tables along the side of the Aromas Café on San Rafael’s busy noontime Fourth Street are particularly narrow. Thus, you could say that new 2nd District Congressional candidate, Stacey Lawson, and I are cheek to jowl. That would be her cheek and my jowl, by the way.
There is nothing cheeky about Lawson, a San Rafael resident. Up close, you can almost feel the steely “we’re going to do some good” force field that surrounds, say, a Bill and Melinda Gates, a John D. Rockefeller, or perhaps, less welcome, a Meg Whitman.
“It’s important for me to run for Congress,” Lawson says, “because I really, really care about the welfare of people.”
Trained as a chemical engineer, Lawson went on to Harvard Business School for an MBA. She subsequently launched several companies that made her rich during the 1990s tech boom. That enabled her to do the kind of philanthropy work that, perhaps inevitably, has led her to the race for the California 2nd.
Now 40, Lawson’s charitable work in the field known as “Socially Conscious Enterprise” is earnest and real. She co-founded the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology at UC Berkeley as well as helping create a series of “Boys and Girls Towns,” for young victims of the 2006 South Asian tsunami.
Not only does this make her something like the Father Flanagan of Chennai, but she is also responsible for creating more than a dozen “Hope Towns” and “Hope Learning Centers” in southern India and Southeast Asia. These are entire villages arranged into community clusters that give residents a chance to collectively learn life and job skills, working together, with the effect, Lawson notes, “of building local communities so that hundreds of families can come out of poverty together.”
These are principles that Lawson believes can be applied on the home front as well. “I’m the only candidate who has created thousands of jobs,” she notes.
Lawson says she can apply many of the principles that have guided her business career to a campaign she likens to a new corporation. In the campaign and in Congress, if she gets there, Lawson proposes to take the same business-like approach to governing, engaging “in a functional dialog to find a mutually agreed-upon solution.”
She also plans to apply a fiscal approach to governance because, she says, government like business, “must be financially sound.”
You get a real sense of Lawson’s belief in a business-like approach to life by looking at Berkeley’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, which she co-founded in 1995. The CET with its Venture Lab, Institute for Engineering Leadership and other similar programs takes an approach to small business incubation, venture and seed capital that again reflects her work in the developing world.
Thrilled, she says with, the recent redistricting, Lawson is using her Washington state upbringing as the means to lay electoral claim to California’s North Coast, soon to be a part of the redistricted 2nd. She was raised in a town that survived on fishing, logging and milling, and her father started a small, successful regional trucking company.
She already has some ideas about utilizing technology for the North Coast, pointing out that Humboldt County has only a single fiber-optic cable, and that public health and safety were jeopardized when it broke down. Her pledge is to help build “the basic digital infrastructure needed by local public facilities and businesses.”
Lawson is joining a crowded slate of five announced Democrats and two not-quite-yet announced Republicans. The list will likely grow because open Congressional seats are as rare as unforced similes. Nor do Democrats seem worried that the new election set-up — a November 2012 runoff between the top two vote getters in the June primary — could dilute votes enough to vault two Republicans into the finals.
It probably won't happen. Conventional wisdom suggests that even a five- or six-way dilution of the vote will mean a Democratic slam-dunk.
Don’t be so sure. Certainly it is true that between John Burton, Barbara Boxer and Lynn Woolsey, the 2nd has remained in progressive hands since 1975, a geologic epoch in politics. But we are living in an era of seismic political change, a new generation is bidding for power, and Republicans have a nasty habit of vexing Democratic plans by simply changing the rules.
How does this all effect Lawson? How, for example, does she convince woman-oriented fundraising groups like EMILY’s List that she, rather than Susan Adams or Tiffany Renee, should carry the 22-year tradition of a women representing the 2nd?
Will Lawson have to fight it out with Norman Solomon for the “unconventional progressive candidate” vote?”
Is Lawson getting into a race already out the gate?
Confronted by the latter, she somewhat bemusedly points out that there are still 15 months to go, a political lifetime.
But there is also the troubling question of whether Lawson can beat what seems to be a curse in California against CEO types like Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina running for office?
At Café Aromas, at least, Lawson does not appear to be worried, seemingly content to build political seed capital that she says will be sufficient for what could be a $2 million race. At the moment, she is organizing her staff and traveling quietly around the district “while Huffman and Solomon beat each other's brains out.”