Ilya Sheyman, a Soviet native who arrived in the U.S. at the age of four, barely meets the age requirement to serve in Congress. But the 25-year-old Democrat, who grew up in Buffalo Grove, thinks that freshman congressman Robert Dold (10th District) can be beaten in November 2012.

An academic standout at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Sheyman’s job history since graduating from Montreal’s McGill University can be summed up in two loaded words: “community organizer.” He may be too far to the left for his North Shore constituents—he advocates raising taxes on the rich—but he argues that the 10th District is not all lakefront, big houses, and fat salaries. His campaign office and his home are in Waukegan.

The Republican Dold had barely settled in Washington when Sheyman, the first to file in April, jumped into the 2012 race. (A couple of other Democrats, including businessman Brad Schneider, have since announced.) Late last month, Sheyman received an endorsement from Howard Dean, for whom the candidate worked as field director for the progressive national group, Democracy for America.

Here’s an edited transcript of my early June conversation with Sheyman, in which he discussed the 2012 race, President Obama, Israel, and more.

Carol Felsenthal: Can’t you wait a bit? Why are you getting in so early?
Ilya Sheyman: Our campaign can’t wait. The kind of grassroots momentum we’re trying to build you have to start early, and we have to start talking right now about how we rebuild the middle class. When you look at politicians in Washington, including Congressman Dold, what you see is that they’re dismantling the foundations that have made millions of middle-class lives like my own possible. So whether it means voting to end Medicare as we know it and replacing it with a voucher system or it means voting for a budget that means zeroing out funding for Planned Parenthood, fundamentally the Republican Party is dismantling those core services. And the other piece of the puzzle is that far too often the Democratic Party has failed to stand up and fight for the progressive values that we know will make a difference in peoples’ lives.

CF: Do you think there should be a more progressive opponent for President Obama in a 2012 primary—somebody like, say, Howard Dean?
IS: I supported President Obama in ’08. I did constituent services work for him in 2005 when he was a senator, and I support his re-election in 2012. I think he’s fundamentally leading the country in the right direction. I think we could have done more to stand up to fight against the Bush tax cuts. And I think the way to provide quality, affordable healthcare ultimately is to move toward Medicare for all.

CF: How do you push these planks in your district—one of the wealthiest in the nation?
IS: The 10th is actually one of the most economically diverse districts in the country. You do have some of the wealthiest communities anywhere along the North Shore, but you also have communities like Buffalo Grove—solidly middle class—as well as places like Waukegan and North Chicago where you have double-digit unemployment. This year, the economic pain people are feeling is across the board. You have homes under water all across the 10th District. You have people worried about how they’re going to pay for college or how they’re going to pay for healthcare all across the 10th District.

CF: If you had the opportunity to vote on raising the debt limit, would you vote yes?
:  The debt is a serious problem, but we have to look at how we got there: the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and two wars fought off the books. So, yes, we need to raise the debt ceiling in the short term, but in order to get a handle on the deficit, we have to deal with the drivers of the deficit. And I think trying to do this by cutting Medicare and balancing the budget on the backs of seniors isn’t the approach I would take.

CF: If you listen to the Fox News Channel, the words “community organizer” are about as suspect as the word “communist” was in the 1950s. What kind of organizing did you do at Democracy for America?
IS: I worked with groups all around the country to help elect progressive candidates. I would help with training groups and help provide support [so] they could help take our country back.

CF: And at [Sheyman worked there from June 2009 to March of this year.]
: I was the National Mobilization Director, working on our healthcare reform campaign. [Sheyman pushed for a public option]. 

CF: What’s your relationship with Howard Dean? Is he a mentor to you?
: The first time I got engaged in politics [as a Dean volunteer in the Chicago area] was when I was still at Stevenson High School and the war in Iraq was getting started. It was a time when there weren’t enough leaders in our own party standing up against it. And so Gov. Dean at the time was running for president and making a clear case against the war, showing the kind of leadership with backbone that is a model for someone like me. I reached out to Democracy for America and let them know I was running for Congress, as well as to DFA nationwide… and to Gov. Dean personally.

CF: Have you been in touch with new head of the Democratic Party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and do you expect to have the support of the party?
IS: I was in Washington [recently] for a gathering held by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I got to meet Congressman Wasserman Schultz, and I got to meet folks in labor. The message I heard loud and clear is that this is one of the priority races in the country. This is seen as an opportunity to pick up a seat from the Republicans. Folks from the DCCC have been clear that they will be neutral in the primary—and that they are committed to winning the seat after the primary’s over.

CF: What about Israel in a district that has so many Jewish people? Are you a ’67 borders guy? [In a May 19th speech, President Obama said, "The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps….”]
IS:  My family came here as Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. Like so many of the Jewish Diaspora, some of them went to Israel, and some of them came to the States. I have family that lived in Israel, that served in the Israeli Defense Forces, and that leaves me with a deep sense and a commitment to the need for a Jewish homeland in the state of Israel, where the Jewish people can live in peace and security. And I think the only way we get there is through direct final status negotiations with the Palestinians. The role of the United States in that process has to be one of leadership—together with our quartet partners, we have to create the political will for that final status agreement. We can’t dictate the terms of that agreement because those leaders have to go back to their people and be seen as having reached a legitimate agreement. I think the next line Obama gave after that highly quoted line was—I’m going to paraphrase it—that, ultimately, the details of the agreement have to be worked out by the Palestinians and the Israelis. 

CF: Have you spent much time in D.C.?
IS: I have literally spent no more than a week and a half total in D.C.

CF: You didn’t go on the 8th grade Washington trip?
: I did not. Fundamentally, I’m rooted in the District.

NOTE: When asked for a comment on his challenger, Congressman Dold issued the following statement through his press secretary, who said that the remarks were “on the 2012 race.” With the exception of a few lines that Dold apparently added, it sounded similar—almost word for word—to the statement released last month by all 11 members of the Illinois Republican delegation. They expressed dissatisfaction with the draft of the redrawn Illinois congressional districts—a map that obviously favors Democrats and moves Dold’s residence into the 9th District. Republicans plan to challenge the map in federal court. 

Dold’s statement: “Behind closed doors the Democrats in Springfield proposed a new Congressional map that was drawn without any input from Republicans or any consideration for the hours of testimony offered at public hearings this spring. This map was gerrymandered to ensure suburban voters will have little voice in Congress. This proposal appears to be little more than an attempt to undo the results of the election held just six months ago. My Republican colleagues and I will take whatever steps necessary to achieve a map that more fairly represents the people of Illinois – they deserve nothing less. The people of my district sent me to Washington to solve our nation's serious challenges. In my first five months in office, we have put forward solutions to address those challenges but more work remains. I intend to continue to work tirelessly for my constituents and to be a Member of Congress until that work is done."


Photograph: Ilya Sheyman's Facebook