Tuesday, September 26, 2006 at 10:05 am by Darryl
I first met Darcy Burner some nine months ago at the Seattle Chapter of Drinking Liberally. It was clear to me from that first meeting that Ms. Burner was an extraordinary individual–she struck me as smart, well-informed, articulate, disciplined, confident, and full of energy. I had no idea whether these attributes could translate into success in campaigning and politics, but I thought that Darcy exhibited many of the good attributes that I wanted in a political leader, and she didn’t seem afflicted with the negative attributes found in so many political leaders.
Eventually I came across an on-line biography of Darcy Burner where I learned that she had spent her teen years in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), and had been awarded the National Cadet of the Year in 1989. I knew a little about the Civil Air Patrol, their training opportunities for young people, as well as CAP’s search and rescue function in aviation.
Darcy’s connections to and achievements within the Civil Air Patrol helped explain some of her strenghts. At the same time, there was a paradox. The Civil Air Patrol is the official civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force. This was not the background I expected from a Harvard graduate who went into the software industry and later decided to run for office as a progressive Democrat.
In early August, I asked the Burner campaign for a brief interview with Darcy about her CAP experience. The request was motivated as much by genuine curiosity about Darcy’s CAP experience as it was to provide readers with an original interview.
On August 21st the interveiw happened. Darcy had just returned from making a speech at the DNC convention in Chicago. As we spoke on the phone, Darcy was being driven across Lake Washington to an event in Seattle. Her answers were punctuated with driving instructions and advice for the out-of-town driver….
Darryl: You became interested in flying at a young age?
Darcy: I did. I actually thought I wanted to be an astronautâ€¦And I think pretty much everyone in my generation thought at one point that they wanted to be an astronaut.
How old was I? I donâ€™t know how old I was when first thought about becoming an astronaut—it was pretty young. When I started thinking concretely about what it takes to become an astronaut, it was clear that becoming a pilot was an essential prerequisite for most astronauts.
When I was about 13 I started to look seriously at this–if I wanted to do this as a career, how do I get there. I was volunteering at the local public library at the time, and there was a book on the Civil Air Patrol. I had re-shelved this book and I thought, â€œthat looks really interesting,â€ so I ended up checking out the book and reading it. The organization looked really interesting.
So I convinced my dad, right after I turned 14, to take me to a Civil Air Patrol meeting, and very quickly fell in love with the organization and the people who were doing it.
Darryl: So you joined the Civil Air Patrol, and I assume you were moving up through the Cadet ranks. Did you also take flying lessons?
Darcy: I took private pilot lessons. My family didnâ€™t have a whole lot of money, so I had to eek out what I could. I took the orientation flights that the Civil Air Patrol offered. They had just started the Civil Air Patrol national soaring school in â€˜86 or â€˜87 and I went to soaring school and soloed in a glider. And then I got a scholarship that allowed me to take lessons in a Cessna 152–which was fantastic. But, before I was able to get my license, I ended up going to college, and discovered that college wasâ€¦time-consuming.
Darryl: It can also be inconvenient flying in a major metropolitan area.
Darcy: Yesâ€¦I looked at it. I still had the [flying scholarship] money, but couldnâ€™t figure out how to get to an airport to finish my license.
Darryl: One of the major objectives of CAP is to develop leadership skills in young people. What types of experiences did you get through the program?
Darcy: While I did some flying, the vast majority of my time was developing leadership skills. I had some incredible opportunities as a Cadet that went far beyond what I (or anyone) would get at that age.
I was the executive officer of the Nebraska wing, which, as far as I know is an unprecedented thing, to have a Cadet fill a wing staff command position. I ran a fairly large cadet activities [program], I eventually chaired the north-central region Cadet Advisory Council (CAC). At the time they didnâ€™t have a National CAC, but I pushed pretty hard to have one created and they eventually created one.
I had lots of public speaking opportunities, and lots of management opportunities. I had managed organizations of several hundred people, doing fairly complex things at the age of sixteen.
Darryl: At age sixteen?
Darcy: At age sixteen. Rightâ€¦that is something that one doesnâ€™t usually do until a substantially later age. And I really had the opportunity to figure out some of the things that worked and some of the things that didnâ€™t. I was given good examples. I was working for a gentleman named Rick Anderson, who was the Nebraska wing commander, became the North Central regional commander and then became the national commander of the Civil Air Patrol shortly after I went off to college. He was a tremendous example for me of what real leadership looks like.
I was also, of course, taking formal training. They do a tremendous job of gradually giving people more responsibility, and showing Cadets what it means to be a leader.
For example, it was from the Civil Air Patrol that I internalized the principle that a true leader will not ask somebody under their command to do something they are not willing to do. You have to be willing to do anything that you ask of those working for you.
Darryl: â€¦something that we arenâ€™t getting from our national political leaders these days.
Darcy: Right, exactly, there seems to be a tremendous lack of basic principled leadership right now. And being principled is something I learned in the Civil Air Patrol.
Darcy: Yesâ€¦when I was a cadet, there were only three: the Mitchel, Earhart and Spaatz. And, I did earn through the Spaatz award as a Cadet Colonel.
Darryl: I understand that very few cadets go on to win the Spaatz award.
Darcy: Yes, there are a handful earned each year.
Darryl: And then you went on to become the National Cadet of the Year in 1989?
Darryl: That sounds even rarer [than the Spaatz award] how many â€œNational Cadets of the Yearâ€ are there each year?
Darcy: One National Cadet of the Year is given out each year.
Darryl: Then, I take it there is no scandal around you failing to show up for a year or anything like that–failing to carry out your responsibilities?
Darcy: [Laughs] Quite the contrary, I lived, breathed, ate, and slept Civil Air Patrol during the period in which I was a cadet. I mean, in Nebraska, the opportunities for me to stretch my wings and do something big were limited. This was one of the few outlets I had where I could make a difference.
I was on a ground team doing search and rescue. We did a lot of disaster preparednessâ€¦a lot of disaster relief work. When aircraft would go missing we would search and occasionally find them. I not only developed my own leadership skills, but helped other cadets develop their skills as well, which for a lot of the Cadets in the program, made a huge difference in their lives. The Civil Air Patrol was the only point of civility in the lives of some of these cadets.
Darryl: So, between being a mother, having a career, and more recently running for public office, do you still get a chance to participate in CAP?
Darcy: Very little, these days. I am still a member of the organization, and I make financial contributions. I just donâ€™t have the time at the moment, though I wish I did. I am a member of the Spaatz Association; I was at the founding organizational meeting and occasionally participate.
Darryl: You talked about learning leadership skills, but how else has CAP shaped your politics?
Darcy: Most of the members of the Civil Air Patrol that I know are relatively conservative politically–far more Republican than Democrat. And I have a tremendous respect for people on the other side of the political isle who are principled, because I know a lot of them. I am not one of those people who think all Republicans are bad and wrong and all Democrats are good and right. Itâ€™s really not that simple. There are legitimate differences in perspective on how we should prioritize individual responsibility versus broad-based opportunity–that is, when these two are in conflict, which do we prioritize more. What do we prioritize more, strict fiscal responsibility or societal justice when those two things conflict? There are legitimate differences of opinion about where we draw the line. But the difference is that the administration in power right now doesnâ€™t look anything like the principled Republicans that I have met.
Darryl: This may be a more pedestrian point, but after meeting with you a number of times in small group settings, it seems you have a very smooth-running, efficient, and disciplined approach to running a campaign. Am I imagining it, or is this the same kind of disciplined approach that is used in aviation and aviation education?
Darcy: That is absolutely true. I have a set of organizational and management skills that I probably owe to the Civil Air Patrol. They trained me on how you run organizations. They, of course, approach it from a very military perspective, but everyone in the Civil Air Patrol is a volunteer–much as they are on a campaign–so, you have to be very thoughtful on how you apply that kind of leadership. And, obviously, the subsequent experiences I had–like managing people at Microsoft–enhanced and refined those management skills. But all of the foundations are from the Civil Air Patrol.
Darryl: As a congressperson will you have any particular aviation-related agenda?
Darcy: Certainly, there will be areas where I will have a very aviation-related agenda. Iâ€™ve asked that Science and Technology be one of the committees I sit on. That committee, obviously, has a big impact on aviation.
Darryl: â€¦and there will be a vacancy on that committee.
Darcy: [Laughs] Yesâ€¦and some of the issues weâ€™ve been talking about relative to national security–and that is a big, big issue during this race–some understanding of aviation is essential When we talk about what is possible and what is not possible in preventing terrorist attacks, the aviation system and the countryâ€™s transportation systems are big pieces of it.
We know that terrorists have to be able to move money, which is a technology thing. And, they have to be able to move themselves, which is a transportation–and almost always an aviation–thing. So having an understanding of how those systems work impacts your ability to understand possible solutions in terms of homeland security.
Darcy: I think I have a different view of the military than many Democrats have. Some of that is the Civil Air Patrol and some of that is my familyâ€™s military history. I am not anti-military. I think it is constructive for us to realize that there are people out there whose principle goal is to kill and destroy. The ability to defend ourselves is critical.
When we lived in Nebraska, my dad would take me to Offutt Air Force Base to go grocery shopping at the commissary. And I would pass by a sign that said â€œPeace through Superior Strength,â€ I think there is an important element of truth to that. If we want the kind of peaceful world that all of us want–at least all of us on our side of the aisle and many of the people on the other side of the aisle–the path we take to get there involves military strength in our country and military strength internationally to be able to respond to any threat, as a method of deterrence.
At this point, Darcy had reached her destination, and we concluded the interview.
I had suspected that many of Darcy’s positive attributes could be traced to her involvement in the Civil Air Patrol, and the interview showed just how formative the experience was. I think it’s fair to say that Darcy’s leadership skills were both recognized and cultivated systematically from an early age. These skills eventually took her to the position as the lead manager for the .NET initiative, arguably one of Microsoft’s most important initiatives at the time.
My initial reactions were correct: Darcy Burner really is smart, well-informed, articulate, disciplined, confident, and full of energy. I would add one attribute: integrity. One simply does not advance in CAP the way Darcy did without integrity. The Civil Air Patrol found an extraordinary young woman in their midst, they recognized this, and provided her with training and leadership opportunities.
And, I’ll bet she’ll make one hell of a political leader!