From Coding To Campaigning — Steven Buccini On Running For Office
“I think I’m moving back to North Carolina.” We were getting lunch in San Francisco when Steven told me what he was planning. Two years later, Steven Buccini is in a toss-up race for N.C. House District 59. Lots of folks had ideas like that after the last election, but Steven actually made it happen. His story is intensely inspiring to me, and I want to share it with anyone who will read.
Born and raised near Greensboro, N.C., Steven moved to California, graduated from Berkeley, became a software engineer at Apple, Uber, and Affirm — and then gave up the comfortable tech job in San Francisco to represent his hometown in the N.C. legislature.
Engineers in the industry may bemoan our political climate, maybe some donate, but few have become as civically engaged as Steven. My own background is near-identical to his, and honestly, I’m deeply embarrassed that I haven’t done more knowing what he has achieved in so little time.
On the eve of the upcoming election, we chatted about his experience, how his tech background plays a part in his campaign and platform, and what’s at stake in North Carolina.
“In many respects, Greensboro is on the frontline of this entire battle for the direction of our country”
Why should people who don’t live in North Carolina care about your race?
Most of the states are solidly red or blue. There are only a handful of states that are truly purple, and North Carolina is one of them. And within North Carolina, Greensboro is one of the last remaining purple areas in the state. In many respects, Greensboro is on the frontline of this entire battle for the direction of our country!
The fact of the matter is government is broken in North Carolina. The GOP has a supermajority in the state legislature, meaning they can override the Democratic governor’s veto. The ability to pass whatever legislation they want, even over a veto, means there is there is no incentive to compromise whatsoever. Flipping four seats from red to blue means that Republicans will need the Democratic governor’s support to pass anything, which will result in more moderate policy.
There’s been national attention on North Carolina state politics in the past few years — campaign finance, the legislature versus the governor, gerrymandering. Has that shown up in your experience?
Absolutely! My race is fundamentally intertwined with many of these issues. Many folks, especially in liberal bubbles, do not fully comprehend the GOP’s ultra-successful effort to reshape state governments. They perfected their strategy in North Carolina — use tons of dark money to take control of state governments, gerrymander the districts to cement their supermajority, then use those supermajorities to pass very radical policies. State for Sale is a great New Yorker article that specifically looks at North Carolina’s transformation.
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. And my opponent is a textbook example of this phenomenon. He’s completely bought, he’s on the record as saying he gets most of his ideas from Art Pope’s foundation 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.
Really, this isn’t just a battle of right versus left, but about who gets to call the shots — the local voters, or the outside corporate interests?
Why did you decide to run? How did you know you were on the right track?
After the 2016 election, I felt awful. I realized that feeling was actually guilt, the type that comes with complacency. I began researching ways to get involved but none of it clicked until I went to The Arena, which is a conference for millennials who want to get involved in politics.
It can be hard to measure campaigns as accurately as startups. Money is a decent heuristic for momentum, polling gives you a general idea of where you stand a given moment in time. When we first got started, we were outraising our opponent and the early polling looked promising, so that gave me some indication my race was viable.
But politics is also an art, and there’s some stuff you can’t quantify. The energy of the volunteers or the passion of folks when you knock at their door. Seeing that with my own eyes certainly gives me increased confidence, especially as we get closer to Election Day. But, as we saw in 2016, there’s really no way to know for sure until the votes are counted.
Have you written any code for your campaign?
This is really my first time managing a team, and one of the hardest lessons to learn was delegation. I handed off the website development to a volunteer, and they did a fantastic job building our website. The bar for political websites is very, very low. I have commit and deploy permissions, so I’ve logged on to fix minor copy corrections, install some tracking pixels, tweak the CSS when needed. We use tools like Zapier so we can spend our time iterating and experimenting instead of building pipelines from scratch.
We read a lot about startups raising money in the tech press — how does that compare to your experience fundraising for your race?
The dynamics behind raising money for campaigns are very similar to the ones driving the traditional VC-backed startup lifecycle. There is the competitive advantage a large war chest provides — a sizable fundraising advantage can scare off challengers or outside groups from spending money on your opponent.
Just like VCs will want to see common metrics before making an investment, major donors may request polling data, number of voter contacts, etc. to ensure you’re a viable candidate. But more often, folks are eager to chip in because they know my character, work ethic, and passion for civic service — just like the best firms like YC invest in teams first, ideas second.
However, there are some fundamental differences, like contribution limits. Even if you convince a billionaire that you’re worth backing, they can only give you $5200. Because the pitches are much more emotionally rooted, raising money is also incredibly humbling. When a prominent business leader or a personal mentor makes an investment in your race, you know they’re really investing in you, not because of where you fit into the larger picture.