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Political newcomer drawing attention, cash

Democrat Stacey Lawson of San Rafael campaigns in Terra Linda for signatures to qualify her for the ballot in her bid for Congress. She is talking to Bill Werstler of San Rafael; in the background is Joe Diver, Lawson's field coordinator.

KENT PORTER/The Press Democrat
Published: Sunday, February 12, 2012 at 9:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 12, 2012 at 9:30 a.m.

A self-made millionaire before she turned 30, Stacey Lawson sees herself as living the American dream.

The idea that hard work and initiative pay off proved true for her father, a truck driver who built his own trucking company and replaced his family's used mobile home with a new three-bedroom house near Port Angeles, Wash.

Lawson parlayed her Harvard Business School idea into a software company that she sold after two years for $60 million, keeping $6 million and going on to hold corporate executive jobs paying as much as $300,000 a year.

Now Lawson, 41, who's lived quietly and privately in San Francisco and San Rafael for 20 years, is engaged in her first-ever political campaign, bidding for the most sought-after political post on the North Coast. She's running as a pro-business Democrat with liberal values, intent on lifting the middle class out of an economic funk.

“I come from those roots. I had the benefit of living the American dream,” Lawson said. “I see that slipping away.”

She has made the progression from entrepreneur to congressional candidate — Lawson calls it an “evolutionary path” — aided by an Indian guru who kindled her spiritual quest and a San Francisco political maven who cultivated her political inclinations.

Lawson, who is single and has been a San Rafael resident for the past three years, has bolted into a wide-open race for the Congressional seat being vacated after 20 years by Democrat Lynn Woolsey, the liberal Petaluma Democrat best known for her steadfast opposition to the Middle East wars.

She is now out meeting voters in the district that stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border, seeking the 3,000 signatures needed to qualify for the June 5 ballot without paying a $1,740 filing fee.

She's already grabbed attention by raising more than $450,000 for her campaign, and intends to pull in a total of $2million, money she will need to overcome a near zero in name recognition.

Lawson's fundraising has eclipsed one of her leading opponents, activist Norman Solomon, who has spent decades cultivating relations with the North Coast's most liberal Democrats. And she's betting on a November runoff against Democratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman, who has represented the North Bay in Sacramento for five years, has the largest campaign warchest and a long list of endorsements.

On Wednesday night, seven Democratic candidates, including Lawson, Solomon and Huffman, are expected to participate in a public forum at the Petaluma Boys and Girls Club.

Lawson is unknown to most of the district's 400,000 registered voters, but two Democratic heavyweights are already in her corner.

Doug Bosco, a Santa Rosa attorney and former North Coast Democratic congressman, said he is quietly introducing Lawson to his friends.

“Everyone is enthusiastic about Stacey,” said Bosco, who lives in a McDonald Avenue mansion in Santa Rosa and has closed ties to monied Democrats. “She has a charisma and a sense of purpose about her that is appealing to people.”

Pointing to Lawson's business record, Bosco said: “She can take ideas and make jobs out of them.”

Susie Tompkins Buell, who lives in a penthouse apartment in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood, is among the Democratic Party's most prolific donors and is on Lawson's campaign finance committee.

“She's a great breath of fresh air. What we really need in politics,” said Buell, a co-founder of the Esprit clothing company.

Buell and Lawson met in 2007, when Lawson participated in Emerge California, a political candidate training program for Democratic women and worked together on Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. Buell co-founded Emerge and serves on its advisory board with Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

Buell, who said her passion is the environment, declined to say how much money she would raise for Lawson. She already has donated the $5,000 maximum personally.

“I'm inviting people to meet her,” Buell said. “Stacey really sells herself. I don't ask for favors.”

Lawson's fresh face and fundraising adds “an element of sizzle” to the congressional race, said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.

The money makes her “instantly credible,” and Lawson's jobs-first campaign pitch could resonate in a district where unemployment runs as high as 18 percent in rural Trinity County, he said.

“In the primary, you're buying visibility,” he said.

About eight Democratic and Republican candidates are expected to be on the June ballot, and unless someone gets a majority the top two vote-getters will advance to the November election.

If two Democrats make it to the runoff, Lawson's pro-business credentials could appeal to Republicans and independents, who make up 44 percent of the district's registered voters, compared with 50 percent Democrats.

Lawson hopes to follow in Woolsey's footsteps.

Woolsey a former welfare mother, started her own personnel agency in Petaluma, got elected to the city council, then pulled a stunning upset in 1992, the “year of the woman” in California politics. She won a crowded primary with a $62,000 campaign against better-known and far better-funded male candidates.

Woolsey's personal appeal and a cadre of women backers propelled her into Congress, and her liberal politics — in perfect tune with prevailing North Bay sentiments — cemented her two-decade run in office.

Lawson claims the same liberal credentials: abortion rights, marriage equality, open space preservation and clean energy. She is “100 percent on board,” she said, with expanding marine sanctuaries to protect the coast from oil drilling, a legislative goal that Woolsey has pursued for years and hopes to achieve in the 2012 session.

Lawson's campaign mantra, “restoring middle class prosperity,” derives from her upbringing in Port Angeles, Wash., a blue-collar town supported by logging, fishing and lumber mills.

Her truck-driving father prospered by dint of “hard work and handshakes,” she said, enjoying an upward mobility that Lawson intends to rekindle. Her 49-page campaign report, released last week, aims to revive manufacturing and promote technology. Her policy recommendations include repealing the Bush tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 and implementing the Buffett rule, which says millionaires should pay the same tax rate as working people.

But her campaign says nothing about the mantras she learned at an ashram in India in 2004.

That was a pivotal year for Lawson, who wound up walking away from the work that made her rich. “I've always been an entrepreneur,” she said. “I never identified with business per se.”

She earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Washington in 1992 and worked at IBM in San Jose for two years. At Harvard Business School she hatched an idea for industrial design software, and after graduating with a master's degree in 1996 launched her first company, InPart Design, to produce it.

At Parametric Technology Corp., which bought InPart for $60 million in 1998, Lawson helped build a new division into a $300 million a year business. At Siebel Systems, she developed a $100 million a year business from 2001 to 2004.

Stepping away from corporate boardrooms in 2004, Lawson co-founded the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology at UC Berkeley, a program that has graduated more than 3,000 engineers and scientists and developed 18 companies with more than 1,000 jobs in Northern California.

In 2004, she made her first trip to India, where she met Baskaran Pillai, a guru who teaches that repeated sounds, or mantras, can cultivate a “spiritual awakening.”

In an hourlong audiotape at the Sacred Awakenings Series website, Lawson described her first meeting with Pillai, saying he “touched my third eye” and enabled her to “see the light bodies of all the people in the meditation hall.”

She called it a “turning point” in her life, and has worked with Pillai ever since, combating poverty in India and Southeast Asia. She meditates for two hours every morning, or at least as often as her schedule allows.

In an interview with The Press Democrat, Lawson described Pillai as a “close friend,” humanitarian and “spiritual leader.”

Pillai contributed $5,000 to her campaign, as did Vish Iyer, who serves with Lawson on the board of Pillai's Tripura Foundation, and Iyer's wife, Akila.

Lawson also serves on the board of the Petaluma-based Institute of Noetic Sciences, along with George Zimmer, chairman of the Men's Wearhouse, who joined his wife, Lorri, in giving Lawson a total of $10,000.

The institute, dedicated to exploring the bounds of consciousness, describes Lawson as “equal parts entrepreneur and spiritual leader” on its website.

“I believe in helping make people's lives better,” she said.

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