Meet the EECS grad running for office in Trump’s South

buccini
Ivan Saul Cutler/Courtesy

GREENSBORO, N.C. — It’s a gray and muggy afternoon at Governmental Plaza, the sprawling concrete park in front of city hall where Steven Buccini, UC Berkeley alum and Democratic candidate for North Carolina House District 59, has scheduled a press conference. It’s a Tuesday, three days after Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, and there’s a sternness in the handful of supporters flanking Buccini as he begins his speech somewhat mutedly: “October has become a difficult month for women across the nation. In October of 2016, the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape leaked. In October of 2017, the first allegations against Harvey Weinstein dropped. And this October, allegations of sexual misconduct took center stage during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.”

What follows is a pretty conventional speech, where a local activist is invited onstage to explain her support for the candidate (her name is Brandi Collins-Calhoun, and she argues for greater government accountability with sexual assault), where the opposition party is assailed for some oversight (in this case, a backlog of untested rape kits) and where the opponent is criticized for an egregious voting record (he voted against an amendment that closed a loophole for assault criminals). It’s not very innovative structurally, but it highlights something unique about Buccini’s own political style — the fact that there’s so little of it. Buccini stares down at his paper a lot. His hands stay behind the lectern. The rhetoric is nothing exceptional (“My opponent…has neither talked the talk nor walked the walk”). And according to those around Buccini, this makes perfect sense.buccini speaks to volunteers

“He doesn’t have this very slick polished speaking style,” Amy Clark, the creative director of Buccini’s campaign, told me. “He doesn’t want to come off as robotic. He wants to come off as a friendly person you’d wanna come up and talk to.” The following week, Steven Buccini would tell a forum at the League of Women Voters much the same: “I’m not a career politician, I’m an engineer by trade. That means I solve problems.” Here, in front of City Hall, that persona comes through clearly. Buccini isn’t ranting for a camera; though his anger shows throughout the speech, Buccini is there first and foremost to describe a problem and the steps he’d take to solve it. In the rest of the speech, he explains precisely that: how, in his view, the North Carolina GOP has been feckless in dealing with sexual assault, from failing to clear the backlog to an indefensible harassment process for congressional employees, and the solution is a representative who will be truly accountable to the people.

Buccini finishes in just under nine minutes. Any questions? A reporter asks which amendment Buccini was referring to. “It is Amendment A1, and I believe it is Senate Bill 768,” Buccini says (he’s right). Any more questions? He looks around for a moment, and just when the silence grows a little too long, Buccini quickly thanks everyone and steps away from the lectern.

“It’s a state house race, right? It’s not like a sexy federal race,” Clark told me on her way to lunch in downtown Los Angeles. “No one’s talking about it, it’s not in the news.” Undeniably, the worst of the nation’s political warfare can feel a long way from Buccini’s district in Guilford County, which houses urban Greensboro but is otherwise surrounded by semi-rural communities. “It’s a slightly slower pace of life,” said Kyle Gaan, Buccini’s campaign manager, describing to me the culture shock he felt when moving from Los Angeles to Guilford. “That’s not meant in a bad way, but when you go from a city where there’s cars zipping all over the place and tons of people milling about and suddenly you’re transported to a semi-rural farm community where there’s maybe a dozen cars and there’s no sidewalks…it’s just a different feeling completely.”

The issues are just as distinctly localized: Buccini is running on increasing funding for Guilford schools, expanding Medicaid and broadband coverage to the more rural parts of the county and persuading Duke Energy to clean up the county’s coal ash ponds. It’s a far cry from the clamor of Washington or California. But according to him, these are the issues closest to his upbringing in Guilford, and why he tells me in regards to his candidacy: “It’s personal.” So who is Steven Buccini anyway?

Tar Heel country

Before he ran for office, before he worked in Silicon Valley and before he graduated UC Berkeley with a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Steven Buccini was born and raised in Guilford. As the son of a Greensboro gastroenterologist, Buccini remembers going on rounds with his dad and meeting the patients. In middle school, Buccini was a Life Scout in the local Boy Scout troop, attending the World Jamboree in eighth grade; at Grimsley High School, his team’s project to bring Google Fiber to Greensboro came in 15th nationwide. Michael Courts, an epistemology teacher at Grimsley who taught Buccini for two years, spoke of him glowingly: “Really good all-around student, had a good heart…always a ‘me second’ approach, ‘us first.’”

It was within these communities, Buccini explained to me, that a deep rootedness in Guilford seeped into his personality. As he tells me, years later, it would be returning to the medical community, hearing from people with preexisting conditions who had to choose between buying medicine and buying food that inspired Buccini to declare Medicaid expansion “not only a business decision, but a moral one.” It would be returning to the Guilford public school system and hearing from struggling teachers that angered Buccini at how slowly their salaries were recovering from recession-era cuts. It would be watching environmental protections rolled back in a state he had traveled thoroughly that shaped Buccini’s position on conservation. As he told me, “When I went kayaking and canoeing and backpacking and biking and skiing across this beautiful state, that gave me some of my most formative memories in high school…so when I see billion-dollar corporations polluting our environment…it’s personal for me, because that environment was so integral to my upbringing.”

buccini talks at local event

As American electoral pandemonium drew to a close in 2016, Gaan, who was an associate at the consulting firm EY-Parthenon, was shocked by the results. And as the new administration settled in and began rolling out policies in the weeks and months afterward, Gaan grew increasingly dismayed: “It just became a little too difficult to be working a day job while also knowing what was going on in the larger society.”

It was around this time in late 2017 that Buccini, who was working for the financial technology company Affirm, started considering a return to Guilford to run for office. Gaan, who became friends with Buccini at UC Berkeley, remembers their discussions distinctly: “Speaking to [Buccini] on the phone when he first brought this up, I was like ‘Wow.’ Here’s somebody who is actually doing something, and here I’ve been feeling bad, feeling like I’m doing nothing.” And over the course of several weeks, Gaan grew progressively more excited about the race, later telling me, “the more we talked, the more I realized that I, too, needed to do something.”

But campaigning in Guilford isn’t easy, and inspiring others to a cause, as became more apparent the longer I listened to Gaan and Buccini, is astonishingly difficult. “I guess I kind of assumed, coming in here, that I would show up and there would just be an army of people who were ready to go — and even post-2016 election, that’s not the case. They’re very static,” Gaan said. The lack of attention and involvement has been particularly frustrating for Gaan; in local races like Buccini’s where the margin of victory can run under a thousand votes, real momentum can feel so close yet so elusive. Gaan gave me a short primer on the math: “Spending two to three hours on like a Saturday talking to voters is a huge, huge win. Say you talk to ten people—that’s ten potential votes in a race the winner could win by a hundred votes…just by going out that one weekend, you’ve taken care of a tenth of that difference.”

But getting those volunteers can be merciless. “If you just show up to a canvassing event, it’ll be like ‘Oh my god, thank you so much. No one comes, ’” said Clark. Gaan echoed that sentiment, saying: “A good day is where we get two or three volunteers.”

Dividing lines in District 59

Within the electorate alone, a Buccini victory would be an uphill battle. Over half of Guilford County lives in Greensboro, whose urban Democratic-leaning population carried Hillary Clinton to a ten-point sweep of the county in 2016. The eastern half of the county that includes District 59, however, has consistently elected Republican representatives, a phenomenon that Democratic officials blame on gerrymandering. As Nicole Ward, the chairwoman of the Guilford County Democratic Party, told me: “[Guilford] always goes blue. We do have some Republican representatives, but that is due to gerrymandering.”

Gerrymandering has been a decades-old issue in the Tar Heel State: as district lines drawn by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly were routinely challenged by Republicans in the years leading up to 2010, so were Republican-drawn lines challenged after the Assembly flipped later that year. In 2016, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court order to redraw both congressional and state legislative districts after finding evidence of racial gerrymandering, and in 2018, after subtracting some Republican-leaning areas of Greensboro and incorporating the Democratic-leaning town of Sedalia, the legislative lines for District 59 were allowed to stand.

Still, Buccini’s opponent Jon Hardister has crushed all prior opponents, never winning by less than ten points since he was first elected in 2012. He has only gained increasing clout since then, serving this year as his party’s majority whip.

But those around Buccini argue his campaign is about more than trying to unseat an entrenched incumbent: it’s fundamentally about ascending from a politics in which corporations, as Buccini described to me, can “pay-to-play.” Buccini outlined what he sees as an unholy process in another interview earlier this month: “If you get elected because of the dark money, they own you. If you don’t do what they say, you’ll face an incredibly well-funded opponent in your next primary.”

Hardister, Buccini argued, “is a textbook example of this phenomenon,” telling his interviewer that “[Hardister is] on the record as saying he gets most of his ideas from Art Pope’s foundation buccini with team and pretty much introduces their model legislation as-is. And many of these policies do absolutely nothing for the average citizen but are huge giveaways to special interests.” Clark had a similar summary of Buccini’s platform: “[The Assembly] is just giving corporations and rich people tax breaks, and that money doesn’t trickle down. Steven’s core message is: that needs to end. We need to be held accountable to our actual constituents.”

Yet at the League of Women Voters, Jon Hardister had glowing words for the direction North Carolina is headed under Republican Party policies. “We’re growing, people are moving here everyday…over 600,000 new jobs created since the Great Recession,” he told the audience excitedly. “We’re running budget surpluses while many states are running deficits. Jobs are coming here, we’re ranked in the top 10 for wage growth. Forbes rated North Carolina as the number-one best state for business.”

Check, check, check (though the most recent numbers rank North Carolina 11th for wage growth, and ties further up knock the state down to an effective 19th anyway). Buccini, however, argues that statewide growth hasn’t yet trickled into Guilford County. In a Facebook video recorded in downtown Gibsonville, east of Greensboro, he said job growth “is certainly not visible here when I talk to the business owners.” Indeed, according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce, state growth has mostly been driven by large urban metros like Raleigh and Charlotte, while “rural areas are still struggling by and large.” Relative to the pre-Great Recession peak of 2007, the Greensboro-High Point region actually posted a negative job growth of 3.1%, while large metros grew at twice the national rate.

‘An extreme, far-left outsider’

In an effort to protect Hardister, the North Carolina GOP has sent mailers attacking Buccini as an “extreme, far-left…outsider,” titling his push for Medicaid expansion as “THE BIG GOVERNMENT TAKEOVER.” Michael Courts explained the “outsider” label is designed precisely to inflame suspicion. “One of the things I saw was when [Buccini’s] opponent put out a campaign flyer: he wanted to characterize Steven as being an outsider,” Courts said. “And indeed, kind of tar him with a bit of a dog whistle, saying he was an outsider from San Francisco, which in North Carolina is really a code word for being gay or liberal or, you know, other-oriented.”

Though similar attacks are likely familiar to any Democratic candidate running in a Republican district, I asked Buccini if the “outsider” stamp might not be particularly charged: can a UC Berkeley student run in the South without the campus albatross around his neck?

But in Buccini’s eyes, it’s a non-issue for Guilford voters, either because they know his father and Buccini’s Greensboro roots, or because Buccini can directly dispel those doubts. “The fact of the matter is that when I knock Republican doors when I go out and canvass, and they hear my story, I get their vote,” Buccini explained. “That’s because I have a compelling story, because I am born and raised here, I know the problems.” In response to a similar question, Michael Courts told me much the same: “I think what he needs to do is just get out there and once he meets the people in the district and talks to them, they would realize pretty quickly…he’s the genuine item.”

Still walking to lunch, Clark continued: “It is easier to get involved than you think it is, but it’s difficult to get people to agree to get involved.” I was struck by her observation, which seemed to condense the challenge faced by Buccini and the staffers around him: getting people to get involved at the most basic level and vote.

To encourage further participation, Gaan often brings up what he calls the Brunch Challenge, inviting young professionals to take the money and time they’d normally spend on brunch and contribute to a campaign — even better if they recruit their brunch friends. But though that certainly makes volunteering sound effortless, so is watching a movie or procrastinating on writing a news article. And what if I’d rather get brunch with my friends?

Four months ago, Gaan received an email from a local supporter who had offered to hold a meet-and-greet at her house for Buccini’s campaign. She was writing now, however, to rescind her offer: she was in the eleventh month of job-hunting after being laid off from higher-education administration where she’d worked for almost twenty years, and was in the process of selling off her furniture. The meet-and-greet could not happen, she wrote, because there was simply no place to sit down. Her children were also gone, having left Guilford years ago because they believed there were no opportunities, and she felt it was only a matter of time before she had to leave the community and follow in their footsteps.

In his closing thoughts, Buccini told me, “when you go knock doors, or you make phone calls, and you hear some of the stories from some of these voters, it will change you…there’s just something about meeting your neighbors and getting out into your community and seeing and meeting and hearing from the folks who provide your community with such value and diversity and strength.”

Which sounds, to be fair, a lot better than brunch.

Correction(s): 

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jon Hardister never won by less than 20 points since he was first elected in 2012. In fact, he never won by less than 10 points.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Hillary Clinton won by a 20-point sweep of the country in 2016. In fact, she won by a 10-point sweep.

Contact Benson Yi at [email protected]