Thursday, April 19, 2018
Politics

Mark Bircher wants Bill Young's old seat, but knows it's uphill battle

Mark Bircher gets it.

Or at least he's starting to.

Bircher, a candidate to fill U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's congressional seat, has lived a fascinating life, steeped in achievement. He is a Naval Academy graduate, a lawyer, an airline pilot, a retired Marine Corps Reserve brigadier general and a former Blue Angel pilot who was once featured in a Van Halen music video.

But you probably knew none of that. And Bircher gets it — what you don't know about him is a problem.

To illustrate his understanding, he quoted 18th century English poet Thomas Gray (from memory): "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air."

People who don't know him might think he has thrown his name into the political hat on a whim, but those people would be wrong. Bircher, 60, has no desire to be a desert flower.

He even put up $10,400 of his own money to file for the job.

"I'm smart enough to know politics isn't about standing in the corner," he said, "and hoping people discover you."

On Friday, Bircher said he hopes to develop a marketing plan over the next two weeks. But two weeks may be too late. That would leave him just a month before a Jan. 14 Republican primary against a pair of much more experienced and well-known politicians: David Jolly, Young's former general counsel; and Kathleen Peters, a state representative.

Bircher is the only candidate who does not have his own website. In fact, search his name on Google and you'll find the top two entries are Facebook profiles that don't appear to be his. The third links to a high school coach, with the same name, in Snohomish, Wash.

Bircher may be new to self-promotion, but he isn't foreign to one of the job's primary requirements — leadership.

His father was a veteran of the Korean War, his mother "probably the greatest patriot I ever met." Her father was one of 12 kids and, according to family lore, he was the first born in the United States after they immigrated from Sicily.

His middle name: Americo.

Bircher inherited that love for his country. After growing up near Washington, D.C., he enrolled at the Naval Academy. He went on to serve 12 years with the Marine Corps before resigning and joining the Reserve, which he remained with for 21 years until retiring in 2009.

As a brigadier general, Bircher was in charge of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing in Louisiana and led more than 5,000 people.

In 2003, he was activated and sent to Iraq. The day he called his wife, Jackie, to share the news, she also had some for him: she was pregnant.

Gary Lee, 43, of Pensacola, had previously served under him. He remembered that Bircher, with a son on the way, had an opportunity to go home early from the war, but he refused.

"He didn't want to come back until all of his men came back," Lee said. "That's just the kind of person he is. He leads by example."

Bircher hesitated to discuss it.

"It's not a big deal," he said. "For me, that is not remarkable."

Amid his service, Bircher became an airline pilot and earned a degree from Stetson University College of Law.

Bircher had long felt the federal government was wasteful — that much of its power should be returned to the states — and he often discussed it with friends and family, especially his wife, a retired lawyer.

But he hadn't considered a career in politics until October, when Young announced that he wouldn't seek re-election. When the congressman died, triggering the need for a special election, Bircher had even less time to consider it.

He decided he would regret not trying.

"Instead of spending the rest of my life complaining," he said, "even if I were to fail, at least I wouldn't have to say 'what if?' "

His wife said she's sure he can win. She wouldn't have supported his decision if she felt otherwise.

"I think he has those skills and he has quite a focus and determination that I think is pretty amazing," she said, "and in some ways unique."

Bircher remains uncomfortable talking about his accomplishments — a trait acquired from his years in the service — but he realizes that can't last.

"I want this job. I want to do the best I can," he said. "And I know you don't stand in the shadows and get elected to things."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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