At 19, Igor Birman raised his right hand and repeated the oath of allegiance through a Russian accent that had begun to fade.
Standing beside him was his grandmother, who was 89 and blind in both eyes, a condition the family considered a consequence of the Soviet health care system. A Jewish girl from Czarist Russia, she spent the autumn of her life with a tape player pressed to an ear preparing for the naturalization test so she could die an American.
Years later, Birman watched as his boss and political mentor, Republican Tom McClintock, and his colleagues made similar pledges as members of the House of Representatives, solemnly swearing to affirm the Constitution of the United States.
It occurred to me how little that oath means to so many members of Congress Republican and Democrat alike who say the words, raise their right hand and then immediately forget the words they just uttered, Birman, a candidate for the 7th Congressional District, recently told supporters packed into an Elk Grove living room.
Birman, 32, believes he has a story to tell about the meaning of freedom because he lived in its absence. In variations of his stump speech, Birman warns audiences about the miseries of despotism: rationing and food shortages, hospitals devoid of basic supplies such as bedding, antibiotics and anesthesia. After arriving in America, Birman said, he watched his parents flourish in freedom only to see other families suffer now because the government is asserting more control over their decisions.
Its this feeling that Ive been down this road before and I want to speak up, he said. I want to warn my fellow Americans about where we are going as a nation and what painful lessons lie ahead if we continue down this road.
The floor of the House is a tremendous forum from which to do so.
His path to victory is anything but clear. Birman is one of three Republicans challenging freshman Democratic Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove. The others are Elizabeth Emken, a conservative who two years ago ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and former Rep. Doug Ose, a moderate product of the district whose personal wealth could shift the dynamics of the race.
John McGinness, a right-leaning talk-show host and the former sheriff of Sacramento County, has hosted all three Republicans on his radio program and considers Birman a bright and impressive candidate. But, McGinness said, Birman has been fairly invisible. Most of his campaign contributions come from outside the district, while Bera and Ose have raised considerable amounts from within Sacramento County.
I think his very low-profile nature in the district is probably an issue, said McGinness, adding that Ose has the upper hand among Republicans. Hes just a very familiar guy around town in general, and thats an enormous advantage.
Birman said he isnt worried. He pointed to the 1,800 signatures he collected from area residents and the numerous district events he has attended. In the 2008 primary, McClintock was vastly outspent by Ose, but the outsider from Thousand Oaks ultimately staked his claim to the area. Birman also sought to draw a contrast between himself and Ose, portraying his opponents six years in Washington as a dark time for the party despite its virtual control of Congress and the White House.
What happened when Republicans didnt bother to stop out-of-control spending, when Republicans championed earmarks, when Republicans did nothing to secure the border? Birman asked.
Weve seen with our own eyes exactly what happened. Nancy Pelosi happened as speaker of the House and Barack Obama happened as president of the United States, because Republicans lost the trust of the American people.
Birman calls for repeal of the federal health care overhaul, opposes amnesty for undocumented immigrants and wants an end to warrantless surveillance of ordinary Americans by the National Security Agency. He opposes abortion rights, says the federal government should respect state law on efforts to legalize marijuana and argues it has no business in the debate over marriage.
He says that the Farm Bill an agricultural and food policy passed by Congress and recently signed by Obama saddles families with higher taxes without providing relief at the grocery store. Its insane, he said.
Birman contends that Obama continues to overstep his authority through executive order, but he is also skeptical about the merits of Republican Rep. John Boehner remaining on as speaker of the House. Boehners deference to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid behind closed doors has harmed the United States, he said.
For what? To what end? Birman asked. It has pushed a nation toward a sovereign debt crisis, record-low labor participation and general misery.
Moving between countries and parties
At the recent Elk Grove event, where supporters noshed on stuffed mushrooms, Birman paused before describing two radically different futures for his adopted country: Will the decisions that belong to individuals remain with them, or will they be made by government? Because to him, Birman said, freedom is personal.
Growing up in a cramped Moscow apartment, he had a front-row seat to a tyrannical government. The family recalls waiting hours in line for staples such as bread, sugar and milk, and being turned away when there was no more. Birmans mother, Emily, developed sepsis and he got an infection. They survived, he said, because his grandparents were physicians with access to antibiotics. They couldnt choose a doctor, and there was one health care plan for everyone except high-ranking members of the Communist Party. He said his grandmothers blindness resulted from botched surgical procedures.
His father, Alexander, is a physicist with the equivalent of two doctorates; his mother worked as a computer scientist. At campaign events for their eldest son they talk about what it was like to live in an environment that stifled ambition and enforced their stations in life. They agree with their son that Americas new health care law is very, very dangerous. Birman wants to see it replaced with what he characterizes as competition-based reforms.
Birman said one of his earliest memories is helping hoist the dust jacket off a mechanical typewriter that was used to draft his mothers dissertation, along with letter after letter sent to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev pleading for permission to leave the country. That was politics for them: agitating to get out, he said.
By the fall of 1994, Birman, then 13, and his family had their wish.
Settling in the East Bay, they relied on food stamps. Birman said he believes such programs have grown unsustainable and must be reformed.
I certainly believe in them, he said. You want to reform them so the benefits are available to those who need them the most in a way that encourages them to find work.
Within a few months, his father got a job in his field. His mother later landed employment. The family bought a car and a house. Instead of one, older-model television, they had three new TVs. Birman attended Albany High School and cant remember ever having met a Republican there.
At UC Davis, he fell in with the Davis College Democrats. Christopher Mays, the former head of the Davis College Republicans, said they worked on a project to display the U.S. flag at a student government meeting. They met at Birmans apartment, and Mays was struck by the Ronald Reagan posters adorning the walls.
As you can imagine, as a first-generation immigrant, he had a very strong sense of patriotism, Mays said.
Birman registered as a Republican in October 2001 a few months after attending a Democratic Party state convention where a speaker discussed the miracles of Cubas health care system. It occurred to him that either she had wandered into the wrong room or he was in the wrong political party.
I realized the lady was quite certainly in the right room, he said.
Speaking firsthand of immigration
Birman became involved in conservative causes, joining the Davis College Republicans and rising through the ranks of state leadership. He also obtained a megaphone for his evolving views: The Right Stuff column in The California Aggie. Over seven weeks, he argued against reparations for slavery, declared himself a proud Zionist and made the case for the Iraq War.
Then he was abruptly fired in an email from editor Fitzgerald Vo. The editor wanted to hear more of Birmans voice, which he contended was muddled by right-wing rhetoric that I have heard before. Whats more, the columns tone seems to have a tendency to enrage members of the opposing causes, Vo wrote.
Birman, who went on to earn a law degree, called his sacking extraordinarily un-American and sued for breach of contract. He settled for $583.33, reflecting what he stood to earn for 20 columns. The case drew national attention. McClintocks then-intern could declare himself a winner in a free-speech standoff.
What I saw was a uniquely gifted individual, McClintock said, noting Birmans expertise as an instrument-rated private pilot. He is the brightest guy I have ever worked with and certainly the most tireless. He will work himself to death if you let him.
Moving to Rancho Cordova in September, Birman has set out to broaden his appeal beyond the taxpayer advocates, gun-rights groups and tea party activists that have gravitated in his direction. GOP Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Jim Jordan of Ohio issued early endorsements.
FreedomWorks PAC President Matt Kibbe cast Birman as the only conservative in the race, while Citizens United President David Bossie said he believes Birman will turn the establishment on its head and fight for the freedoms that brought him to America.
Birman said he welcomes the support of tea-party-aligned groups and candidates. He said the movement has sent champions of freedom to Congress. Luminaries like Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Meanwhile, he is engaging with people who have not traditionally turned out to the polls in high numbers or supported Republicans: recent immigrants, young people, members of Russian churches.
Asked about immigration, Birman likes to say his position mirrors the sonnet mounted on the Statue of Liberty. But it has to be done in a legal way, he said. That means enforcing the border and streamlining the process by which immigrants become citizens. Only then should the government address the millions of unauthorized immigrants living in the country. Birman would not be the first member of Congress born in Russia, but the list is short.
Look, I can relate to folks who are poor, struggling, he said. But you dont solve the problem of illegal immigration by creating more illegal immigration.
Census figures show about 16,000 people in the district speak Russian, Ukrainian or some other Slavic language at home, a possible voter base for Birman.
Close to his campaign headquarters is a Russian church with thousands of congregants. Many are not registered to vote, and he sees it as his job to encourage them to engage in the process. He speaks their language and said the bond can be deep.
They dont have many Igors come to them and ask for their vote in Russian, he said. I am someone who instinctively understands what it is they came here to find, but even more importantly that which they risked their lives to flee.
Age: 32; born Sept. 13, 1981, in the Soviet Union
Residence: Rancho Cordova
Education: Doctorate in law, Emory University School of Law, 2006; bachelors degree in political science, UC Davis, 2003.
Experience: Chief of staff, senior policy adviser and counsel to Rep. Tom McClintock, 2009-13; general counsel and finance director, McClintock for Congress, 2008-09; general counsel, Citizens for the California Republic, 2007-09.
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.