SEMINOLE — If life were a Frank Capra movie no doubt Mark Bircher would be on his way to Congress to succeed the late C.W. Bill Young.
Mr. Bircher Goes to Washington would be the journey of an accomplished patriot and political neophyte trying to overcome a system dominated by consultant-driven politicos. Guided mainly by principles and reverence for the Founding Fathers, Citizen Bircher would eschew safe sound bites and buck the odds against veteran politicians and win a seat in the U.S. House.
In reality that plot may be too farfetched, even for a commercial pilot/lawyer/scholar/retired Marine Corps Reserve brigadier general/former Blue Angel pilot accustomed to performing stunts at 700 mph. The 60-year-old general is accomplished, passionate, and idealistic. He is also breathtakingly naive about politics.
"If you ever run for office like this, you meet a lot of new people right away. Most of those new people don't get halfway through your first sentence without saying, 'How much money do you have, and how much money can you raise.' I say, 'Let's talk about my stance on the issues, and they say how much money do you have?' " said Bircher, who is far more comfortable discussing the writings of Baron de Montesquieu or Alexis de Tocqueville than what it takes to run a campaign.
Bircher, who flies 777s internationally, had little time to prepare for his latest mission of winning a congressional election as an unknown first-time candidate.
When Rep. Young announced in October he would not seek a 23rd term representing Pinellas County, Bircher and his wife Jacqueline mused about a congressional run. They decided he should create a blog outlining his ideas and concerns about the country's federal government growing out of control and straying from the ideals of the Founding Fathers.
"If, by the summer, 14 people had visited the blog then I probably wouldn't run," Bircher figured, "but I wanted to get my thoughts out there. I thought I had a year to do it all."
Rep. Young died within 10 days, however, so the first-time candidate had no time to dip a toe into the political waters. Step one? A Google search: "How to run for congress in Florida." Then he wrote a $10,400 check to qualify for the Jan. 14 special primary election against state Rep. Kathleen Peters and lobbyist and former aide to Rep. Young, David Jolly.
Peters and Jolly have veteran consultants helping guide their campaigns and political networks to tap for money. Bircher mainly has Bill, his 10-year-old son, and Jacqueline, his wife of 11 years, an attorney who used to work for the Pinellas school system.
His network of military colleagues and friends has helped considerably, though. Someone brought Bircher to the attention of Lt. Col. Allen West, the former South Florida congressman and tea party favorite.
"Brig. Gen. Bircher understands his oath of service has no statute of limitations. Americans must rally behind leaders like this warrior and send a message that we want principled men and women, those who have been willing to lay down their lives for this great nation in our nation's capital," West said in his endorsement of Bircher, which should help Bircher raise money to start paying for mail and TV ads.
Bircher's military connections also hooked him up with some prominent political consultants that met with him to offer basic, informal advice on mounting a campaign: Richard Johnston and Randy Nielson of Palm Beach County, who in turn pulled in Tampa Bay operatives Fred and Tom Piccolo and Anthony Pedicini.
Asked if he is paying any of those campaign advisers, Jacqueline and Mark Bircher looked at one another. They didn't think so, but neither was entirely sure.
"What do you think, honey? I mean it's always been a question," he said in the living room of their Bayou Club home in Seminole. "I've asked the question, and they've said we're doing this as a project."
Bircher acknowledges his cluelessness about what it takes to run for office, but friends dismiss the suggestion he's naive.
"You don't get to be a star rank in the military and not be politically astute. It requires someone with excellent leadership, which is something sorely missing in Washington," said Pat McEwan, a former Navy pilot who lives outside of Tallahassee and has known Bircher 27 years.
Joe Scotto, a retired Marine colonel and CIA officer in New Jersey who served in the Pentagon with Bircher, said he's never met a leader with more integrity.
"He's probably one of the smartest guys I've ever met. It would be nice to have a deep thinker like Mark in Washington," Scott said.
For a moderate congressional district that twice voted for Barack Obama, Bircher would bring a decidedly conservative, even radical, perspective.
He argues that America has lost its way and any true federal accountability when the 16th Amendment gave congress the authority to levy an income tax without apportioning it among the states or basing it on census information.
As Bircher sees it, the federal government's power is limited to printing money, handling foreign policy, running a postal system, and providing for the common defense. That means, not only would he want the Affordable Care Act repealed, but also federal programs like Medicare, Social Security, and more. It should be up to the states to fund such programs, he argues.
Rep. Young became a Tampa Bay icon dolling out federal pork on everything from university buildings to beach expansions. Bircher sees those as improper federal initiatives that instead should be funded by a more accountable state government.
"If people don't buy into the idea that Washington, D.C., has zero capability to produce wealth except what it takes in taxes or debt, if they don't buy into that, then I'm not their politician," Bircher said.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.