A Kazakh-American law professor who has been nominated as the top U.S. banking regulator defended her qualifications at a contentious Senate hearing where some lawmakers, mostly Republicans, honed in on her Soviet upbringing.
Saule Omarova, 55, was tapped by the White House to be the next head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a position that has wide oversight of the U.S. banking system.
Born in Soviet Kazakhstan, Omarova immigrated to the United States in 1991 and later became a U.S. citizen. A lawyer by training, she also served briefly in the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush, a Republican, and has testified several times in Congress on financial regulations.
Critics of her nomination have pointed to past statements she has made on social media and elsewhere calling them "radical." and "socialist."
At the November 18 Senate hearing, Republican lawmakers grilled her on her upbringing, asking her about her time in Komsomol, the communist youth organization that millions of Soviet teenagers belonged to, often as a way of enhancing their employment and academic prospects.
Republican Senator Pat Toomey pressed Omarova on her undergraduate studies at Moscow State University, before the Soviet collapse, where she wrote a paper about Karl Marx. Another Republican senator, John Kennedy, said, "I don't know whether to call you professor or comrade."
Democrats rushed to Omarova's defense, saying some of the criticism bore the hallmarks of the Red Scare that plagued the United States after World War II.
Omarova responded to the comments by lawmakers that she is not a communist, doesn't "subscribe to that ideology," and "could not choose where I was born."
"My family suffered under the communist regime," she said. "I grew up without knowing half of my family; my grandmother herself escaped death twice under the Stalin regime. That is what is seared in my mind. That's who I am. That's what I remember. I came to this country. I'm proud to be an American."
Democratic lawmakers have argued Omarova is supremely qualified for the position and accused their Republican counterparts of "character assassination."
Classmates of Omarova from her hometown of Oral in Kazakhstan recalled her drive and intelligence; she graduated from high school with an academic distinction that was only awarded to a tiny fraction of students in the Soviet Union.
"She was persistent," Vlasta Kaptelova, a childhood friend, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "For example, if she started to get a bad grade in physical education, she would refocus and start to do well. She was the smartest among us, but she was humble."