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.
It’s often hard to tell whether Bentivolio has been maligned. His records as a high school teacher, unearthed by the Detroit Free Press, include claims he exhibited abusive behavior. The records state he was reprimanded after students accused him of saying he wanted to make them cry and only taught them for the paycheck. Bentivolio says he was joking at the time. He says he never received any complaints until he announced his candidacy “with an R after my name.”
Yet Bentivolio’s account of at least one part of this controversy is inaccurate. The Free Press got his records with a FOIA request. He says that’s a lie, since he received no notice of such a request, as his teaching contract required. Instead he’s convinced union employees slipped things into his record while the school superintendent was away from his desk, and the Michigan Democratic party then gave those faulty records to reporter Kathleen Gray. He explains all this hurriedly, as his staff pulls him away to make his flight back to Michigan. “I’ll miss my flight for this,” he insists. Gray showed me the letter from his school responding to her FOIA request.
Other Bentivolio “scandals” are easier to dismiss. He drew mockery for promising to hold a hearing on “chemtrails”—a popular conspiracy theory. Advocates believe the condensation trails left by airplanes are actually laced with dastardly chemicals by the government. But the video of the town hall where he made this promise shows Bentivolio being badgered by a belligerent constituent. After resisting the constituent’s requests, he eventually gives in, appearing weary. He never held the hearing.
Last year Bentivolio was endorsed by several libertarian and Tea Party icons: Sen. Rand Paul, former congressman Ron Paul, and Rep. Justin Amash. The Tea Party Express, one of the more influential Tea Party organizations, backs him for reelection, calling him a “Mr. Smith goes to Washington story.” Bentivolio won’t identify himself as a Tea Partier or libertarian. But he says he thinks government should stop issuing marriage licenses, arguing that they are a product of Jim Crow laws and designed to regulate interracial marriages. He gleefully produces a four-foot pair of scissors from behind his desk, saying he brought them to cut spending.
But his first year was notable for the headlines he didn’t make. He hasn’t defied leadership or taken fringe positions. Instead, he’s voted with GOP leadership on key legislation, including the subsidy-rich farm bill, which was excoriated by Tea Party groups. He’s currently working on the uncontroversial Safe and Secure Federal Website Act, which would require the Government Accountability Office to review federal websites that store sensitive personal information.
Bentivolio doubled his fundraising this past quarter—$127,000 versus less than $60,000 in the third quarter. House speaker John Boehner, Rep. Eric Cantor, and Rep. Paul Ryan have all hosted fundraisers for his campaign. That still leaves him with only a quarter of challenger Trott’s cash on hand.
Trott is known to some as the “foreclosure king.” Bentivolio is often likened to Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street, but he may try to cast Trott as Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. Trott’s company once evicted a 101-year-old woman, Texana Hollis, over $60 in unpaid taxes. Hollis’s story inspired so much outrage that the Department of Housing and Urban Development eventually let her move back in.
With a strong challenger and so much bad press, Bentivolio may be a one-term wonder. Why all the trouble with the media? When I asked, a member of his staff responded that it’s because he’s so often tongue in cheek, and he’s just “a regular guy.”
Maria Santos is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.