Tola Marts isn’t what you’d expect from a Congressional candidate. The Minnesota native manages a team of engineers at Intellectual Ventures Lab, where he has regular one-on-ones with Bill Gates; he was one of the first employees at space venture Blue Origin, where he reported directly to Jeff Bezos; and he sits on the Issaquah, Wash., City Council.
But the Democratic candidate doesn’t think any of that is nearly as interesting as the high-tech, vacuum-powered thermos his team is building to preserve vaccines in the developing world. He’s so immersed in the details of the science that it took some backtracking to figure out we were even talking about vaccines when discussing his day job in a recent interview about his campaign.
Marts clearly loves his work as a mechanical engineer, but he felt called to run against incumbent U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert in Washington’s 8th Congressional District. He already felt he had a real shot at the seat, given the current political climate. And then came Wednesday’s surprise announcement that Reichert will not be seeking re-election.
“I obviously feel better than I did when I went to bed last night,” he told GeekWire earlier today.
Marts is easy-going, with an off-the-cuff conversational style. He had been working in technology for nearly two decades before he began entertaining the idea of public service. He moved from Minnesota to the Bay Area to work for a startup in the early 1990s. In 2003, he was hired as one of the first employees at Blue Origin, the rocket company Bezos launched a few years after founding Amazon.com.
In his years working closely with Bezos, Marts observed a leader unlike any other. “When he turns his attention on you it’s like the Eye of Sauron,” Marts joked affectionately.
“There’s a theory that the rich are just there because they happened to be there at the right place at the right time, and certainly that’s necessary but it’s not sufficient,” he said. “There’s lots of people that were in e-commerce when Bezos got into e-commerce but he really thinks differently than other people.”
Marts spent nearly a decade working for Bezos, rising to become a high-ranking Blue Origin employee at the time of his departure in 2012. In all of those years, only once did he approach Bezos with a question about Amazon. He wanted to be sure his teenage daughter got a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as soon as it came out.
“I asked him about the best way to make sure that I got the book on that day and I said, ‘I feel kind of bad using Blue Origin to ask you questions about books.’ He goes, ‘You know the customer service thing, I live it, and so I’m fine if people have questions about how to optimize their experience with Amazon.’ ”
Marts joined the Issaquah City Council in 2009 and became president in 2012, the same year he began working for Intellectual Ventures Lab. His team works with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop global health solutions, like vaccine storage in regions with limited electricity.
“It couldn’t get further away from rockets for affluent people to vaccines for not affluent people,” Marts said. “I decided to just take a different direction, still doing engineering, still being a real engineer in but in the service of helping the world’s low and medium income countries.”
Marts believes that his engineering background sets him apart from other lawmakers. He’s a big advocate of using metrics and data to address the issues most important to him: affordable housing, jobs, and vocational training for high school grads who don’t immediately enter into four-year college programs. Education hits particularly close to home for Marts, with two teenage children at home.
“I am a metrics guy,” he said. “I’m known in the city as Mr. Metrics. The truism is if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it. I really like to see data.”
The 8th District presents a unique challenge, comprising urban areas in King County and rural communities stretching all the way to Chelan County. Reichert has held the seat for Republicans since 2004. Prior to his election, he served as sheriff of King County.
But Marts doesn’t think Reichert accurately reflects the politics of his constituents and now that he’s vacating the seat, it leaves the race wide open. Five Democrats have thrown their hats in the ring, including Marts, according to Ballotpedia. The primary is slated for August 2018, followed by the general election in November 2018. Marts expects several Republican challengers to enter the race, as well.
“I think my chances are better now than they were three hours ago because it’s always a challenge to defeat an incumbent,” Marts said after Reichert announced his retirement Wednesday morning. “We looked at the results of the special elections that were held last fall and we saw a trend line that looked really good.”
Marts’ position on the Issaquah City Council allows him to continue his work with the Intellectual Ventures Lab. But that will all change if he manages to secure the 8th District seat. The idea of leaving the tech world behind is bitter sweet for the longtime engineer.
“I love my day job,” he said, “but this national situation is such that I finally reached a point where I think it would be more important for me to go to D.C. than to keep doing what I’m doing.”