Representative Kerry Bentivolio once said, “I have a problem figuring out which one I really am, Santa Claus or Kerry Bentivolio. All my life I have been told I’m Kerry Bentivolio, and now I am a Santa Claus, so now I prefer to be Santa Claus.” Bentivolio, a 62-year-old freshman Republican from Detroit, plays Santa in parades and shows for his business, Old Fashioned Santa and Company, back in Michigan.
Journalists ran with this for obvious reasons, and more than one made reference to Miracle on 34th Street. But when you ask Bentivolio about this incident, he sounds not like a lunatic, but rather an oddly intense method actor. “When you’re an actor you go into character. . . . You have to believe you are the character. And I did a really great job. And, yeah, sometimes you’re in character and you really believe you’re Santa. If you saw yourself on a screen, and you go, ‘Wow, that’s me? You’re really Santa!’ ”
Bentivolio’s office is strewn with reindeer antlers, one set bedecked with flowers. He owns “six of the friendliest, best reindeer you’ve ever met in your life.” He bought them from Alaska and trained them to pull his sleigh. He tells me it’s not much different from training a horse.
Bentivolio’s election in 2012 was an accident. The incumbent, Thaddeus McCotter, submitted fraudulent nomination petitions for his reelection campaign, and resigned in disgrace. That left Bentivolio, formerly a long shot, alone on the Republican ticket. He went on to win the general election in the affluent northwestern suburbs of Detroit, Michigan’s 11th District. These are some of the richest counties in the state, and include the childhood home of Mitt Romney.
Now Bentivolio faces a formidable primary challenger. David Trott, a foreclosure attorney, raised about $1 million in his first four months of campaigning last fall. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) did not include Bentivolio in its incumbent-protection program.
There are many tales of bizarre behavior from Bentivolio. Most have been reported by the Detroit Free Press, with which he has a rocky relationship (he sued the paper for libel in a business-dispute story two decades ago). He appeared in a conspiratorial home movie about 9/11 called The President Goes to Heaven. He was accused of emotionally abusing his students when he was a teacher. He once promised to hold a hearing on whether the government might be poisoning us with airplane exhaust. But is he really “Krazy Kerry”—as former write-in opponent Nancy Cassis dubbed him—or just misunderstood?
In person, Bentivolio seems like your eccentric uncle who makes jokes nobody else understands. He’s not a polished politician, and this appears to make his staff nervous. At one point, he remarks, “I don’t use drugs, I don’t chase women, and I don’t drink too excessively. . . . I did make a mistake at the punch bowl, right?” He glances at a staffer, who shifts in his seat and tries to interrupt. “I apologized to my staff.” He then asks me not to write that down.
Before his surprise victory two years ago, Bentivolio had an eclectic career. At various times, he’s been in the military, an automotive design engineer, a homebuilder whose business went bankrupt, a history teacher, and a farmer. Several years ago he started Old Fashioned Santa and Company, not realizing how popular his Santa shows would eventually become. He also owns an apiary, some chickens, and a vineyard.
He served in the Army and National Guard during three wars—Vietnam (he enlisted in 1968), the Gulf war, and Iraq. It was after he was airlifted out of Iraq in 2007 for a neck injury that politics piqued his interest. While recovering at Fort Knox in Kentucky, a group of passing Tea Party protesters in Revolutionary War garb drew him to a rally featuring a little-known ophthalmologist and soon-to-be-senator named Rand Paul. This first gave him the idea of running to be an “ordinary guy in Congress.”
He swears he never saw the whole 9/11 movie he appears in and does not know the intention of its producers. He was just helping out a friend. In one scene (where Bentivolio does not appear), a nurse comes in to change the diaper of a hospitalized “George W. Bush.” She orders “Bush” to lie in his own excrement as punishment for killing her father on 9/11. Bentivolio’s scenes—at least in the clips released by a former opponent—are much tamer.