Michigan’s Thaddeus McCotter is many things — guitar player, chain smoker, ill-fated presidential candidate, and Led Zeppelin quoter — but he is not an expert at hiring competent people. This year, his staff failed to collect the requisite signatures to put his name on the Republican-primary ballot to keep his House seat. And a race that should have been over before it started got really, really weird.
When the dust settled, only one name was left on the primary ballot: that of Kerry Bentivolio, a Santa Claus impersonator and former schoolteacher who’s served in three wars and owns six reindeer. Thanks to a little help (and a lot of financial support) from his youthful Ron Paulite friends, Bentivolio — dubbed “Krazy Kerry” by Nancy Cassis, the write-in candidate many of his district’s GOP leaders supported — is the congressman-elect for Michigan’s eleventh district.
Bentivolio told me the story of his unconventional ascent to power over a breakfast of eggs over medium, bacon, and hash browns at Dimitri’s Coney Island, a greasy spoon in his hometown (technically, home village) of Milford, Mich. The restaurant’s servers and clientele graciously ignored the fact that we both smelled a bit like reindeer. It couldn’t be helped — no trip to Milford would be complete without a pit stop in the barn Bentivolio built that currently houses his fleet.
Bentivolio, who served in Vietnam and during Operation Desert Storm, spent a year in Iraq as a platoon sergeant during the current conflict there. He was medivaced out after sustaining a neck injury in 2008 and ended up at the Fort Knox military hospital in Kentucky to recuperate. One weekend, as he drove around in a rented car, he noticed a group of what appeared to be Revolutionary War reenactors. Intrigued, he pulled over.
“People told me they were the Tea Party, and I said, ‘You’re supposed to be in Boston!’” he says with a laugh. “And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean by that?’ ‘It stands for Taxed Enough Already.’ I said, ‘Well that’s a good idea!’” Rand Paul was speaking at the rally.
“They woke me up to what’s happening,” he says. And they inspired him to run for office — first in a 2010 Republican state-senate primary (he took second in a field of five) and then against McCotter this year.
McCotter’s odds of winning reelection were so good that Bentivolio was the only person who ran against him in the primary; nobody else seems to have thought it would be worth the bother. Bentivolio says that, while he voted for McCotter in three previous elections, the congressman’s support for the auto bailouts and union-only government contracting prompted him to challenge the incumbent. Bentivolio made support for right-to-work laws a part of his platform, gathered the signatures he needed to get his name on the ballot, and hoped for the best. He received word that McCotter had gotten the requisite signatures as well; he remembers thinking, “Well, I’m not going to spend any money on this election!”
Then, of course, everything changed, and Bentivolio, incredulous, realized his would be the only name on the ballot. One early morning a few days after the McCotter debacle really took off, a TV crew showed up on his porch.
“How’s it feel to be the only one on the ballot, Mr. Bentivolio?” asked the reporter.
“You folks need to get off my property!” he retorted, still bathrobe-clad. “I don’t do interviews at 7:30 in the morning!”
Bentivolio’s situation was plenty abnormal from Day One — even aside from the facts that he’s been impersonating Santa Claus for more than 20 years and once had a bit role in a low-budget independent film that seemed to suggest that 9/11 was an inside job. “It sold two copies in two years and 60 during the primary,” he says of the movie. “It’s a spoof on everything.”
“I was helping a friend,” he adds.
His primary and general-election opponents argued that his role in the film rendered him unfit for national office, but their charges puzzled him a bit. He tells me he played a North Vietnamese soldier in another independent film, 84 Charlie MoPic. “It doesn’t mean I’m a Communist,” he says.
“If you think the character in a movie’s real, then don’t invite Anthony Hopkins to dinner,” he adds.
Some of his friends who helped him on his campaign were in the movie too. “Some guys go bowling or whitewater rafting,” he says. “We said, ‘Hey, let’s do a movie!’ It’s kind of like a bucket list.”
Running for office wasn’t on his bucket list, though. “It was more of a surprise,” he says.
He’s used to being a Claus, not a congressman. He started doing the now-famous impersonation in the late ’80s as part of an effort to draw Christmas shoppers to Milford’s downtown. He and a friend put together an old-world Victorian Santa costume, complete with a wreath instead of a hat and a professional glue-on beard. (“It works so well that when you take it off — yeah, it kind of hurts a bit. I didn’t have to shave for a month afterwards, because I think we pulled out the roots!”) Some merchants bought a sleigh, and he bought the reindeer. Two hundred people showed up for his first official appearance, and over the season the crowds kept growing.
Bentivolio didn’t plan on making a business out of it, but a man from another town finagled him into it. “‘Hey, would you do this in our town?’” Kerry recalls him asking. “I just came up with a price I knew he’d turn down. I said, ‘I’ll do it for $2,000.’ He says, ‘Good! I’ll see you next week!’”
Thus, Old Fashion Santa & Company was born. The business brings in enough money to pay for the reindeer. The six current members of his flock — Aurora, Rumples, The Crazy One (“She’s a bit of a crazy reindeer, stubborn as all get-out”), Bull (“The bull is Bull”), and two fawns as yet unnamed — share Chèz Bentivolio with two personable cats and a few hives of bees. Bentivolio also pickles cucumbers; cans applesauce, strawberry jam, and peaches; and makes wine when the frost doesn’t kill his grapes.
He’s pleased with the results of his winemaking experiments — he describes his first white wine as “unbelievable.” “That was the best white wine I have ever tasted in my life,” he says. “It was a bit of a sweet wine, it had a very fruity taste, no aftertaste, it was absolutely chilled to the right temperature, it was delicious.”
Not all his undertakings have gone so well, though. “We were going to experiment to make reindeer-milk cheese, but you can’t get the reindeer to milk properly, they start kicking and stuff,” he says.
Bentivolio says he’s met people as old as 60 who are surprised to learn reindeer exist, much less produce milk. When people learn Santa doesn’t exist, they assume every detail of the story was fabricated, he says.
So he’s a staunch defender of the Santa Claus tale. He once testified under oath that he thinks of himself as impersonating Kerry Bentivolio for eleven months, rather than Kris Kringle for just one — testimony that made headlines recently when reporters learned of it. “That’s what you have to do, you get in character!” he tells me. “I think I’m Santa when I’m Santa.”
He also has strong opinions on reindeer. “There are some people that say, ‘Well, I don’t lie to my children,’” he says. “And then I have I say to them, ‘I can prove that my reindeer fly. I’ll bet you a million dollars that reindeer fly.’ And the person says, ‘Okay, I’ll take that bet.’ And I say, ‘Okay, how do you think I got my reindeer here? They came in a C-130. Pay up. Right? Pay up.’”
He’s at peace with the uncharitable sobriquet his detractors coined for him. “If somebody calls you crazy, you’re on to something,” he says. “It’s not a bad thing. Consider it a compliment. So I guess that’s why it didn’t really bother me when people were saying, ‘That guy’s kooky because he has reindeer.’ No, they’re kooky because they don’t have ’em.”
Christmas will be over in a twinkling, Mr. Bentivolio will go to Washington with a bound, and we’ll know soon enough what exactly Thaddeus McCotter hath wrought.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.