The Reindeer Farmer Congressman Who Thinks He Might Be Santa Claus
A look back on Congressman Santa Claus's short, but colorful, stint in public office.
Holiday season is in full swing in Washington, DC, which means Justin Bieber's Christmas album is back in rotation, inebriated bros think it's OK to run through Capitol Hill in red polyester onesies, and the 113th Congress has come to a close. For legislators that managed to win reelection this fall, that doesn't mean much—they'll be back whiling away the gridlock in January. But for those who weren't so lucky, last week was their final chance to breathe deep in the halls of power. Their illustrious careers in the nation's most hated legislative body will soon be forgotten, the word "former" forever tagged on to their once prestigious titles.
So what's next for these former masters of the universe? Some will start hedge funds or join think tanks. Others will return to their past lives as small-town podiatrists and stay-at-home moms. Most will fade into obscurity. Heads we've gotten accustomed to seeing bobbing around on cable news will suddenly disappear.
Michigan Congressman Kerry Bentivolio is one of those fading stars—but unlike most of his colleagues, he managed to go out with with a holiday bang. The one-term congressman gave his Republican colleagues a special Christmas gift last week when he changed his vote from a "no" to "yes," saving the omnibus spending bill and stopping a potential government shutdown. Yes, Congress's only former reindeer farmer and part-time Santa-for-hire actually saved Christmas.
If you're not familiar with Bentivolio, the Michigan Tea Party congressman has had a long and weird career, both in and out of Congress, most of it colored by failure. A veteran of three wars, Bentivolio used to be a housing contractor, but was forced to declare bankruptcy after failing to sell his development. He was also a schoolteacher, but resigned over behavioral issues that included intimidating children, grabbing desks, and, according to his FOIAed personnel file, telling his students they were "just a paycheck." In 2011, a year before getting elected to Congress, he made a cameo in a low-budget 9/11 truther film, The President Goes to Heaven.
But through all this, it's the Santa gig that has really stuck. It started in the late 1980s, when Bentivolio donned a Father Christmas costume—green robes, garland crown, fake beard—gathered up some reindeer, and jingled his way around downtown Milford, Michigan. The stunt was aimed at drawing shoppers to the town's quaint Main Street shopping district, but Bentivolio-as-Santa was such a hit, that he started getting attention from other people in the area. When someone asked for a follow-up appearance—and agreed to pay Bentivolio's $2,000 asking price—the future congressman realized he had stumbled on a business opportunity. And so he founded Old Fashion Santa & Company, to rent out himself and his reindeer for the holidays. He took the role so seriously that he even sought clearance from a Michigan Air National Guard base to fly his sleigh in US airspace on Christmas Eve.
"I don't see him as a congressman," said Chuck Rivet a stocky barber in Milford who claims Bentivolio used to call him an "elf." "He was a carpenter, he was a teacher here in the area, he was with the military. But I know Kerry as Santa."
Since arriving in Congress—the surprise winner of a fluke election in which the five-term Republican incumbent was forced to drop out of the primary after his staff forged ballot petition signatures—Bentivolio has had a hard time escaping his past life. Some of that is self-inflicted: It's hard to shake your Santa image when you take a shirtless photo kissing a reindeer, or give Michele Bachmann her own giant set of antlers for Christmas. But when I approached Bentivolio and his staff for this story, they seemed averse to talking about Santa, or really about anything at all. During a visit to the congressman's Commerce, Michigan, headquarters earlier this month, district office manager Calvin Matle explained that his boss had been burned before.
Matle may be referring to the time Bentivolio sued the Detroit Free Press and the Spinal Column newspapers for slander and libel, back before he was elected to Congress. The incident occurred in 1993 at the beginning of Bentivolio's Santa Era, when the budding Christmas entrepreneur penned a letter to then-president George W. Bush asking if he could make a Santa appearance at the White House. When the Oval Office extended an invitation, Bentivolio called a press conference in Milford's downtown. Unfortunately, the opportunity was overshadowed, and eventually cancelled, after a disgruntled former business partner informed local media about Bentivolio's checkered legal history.
Depositions from the Free Press lawsuit reveal the depths of Bentivolio's Santa complex. "I have a problem figuring out which one I really am, Santa Claus or Kerry Bentivolio," he said at the time. "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."
This is obviously still a touchy subject in the Bentivolio camp. While pressing Matle for more details about the congressman, I offhandedly referred to Bentivolio as a "Santa impersonator." To say the words didn't sit well would be an understatement.
"Impersonator? Woah, he plays Santa. I don't know about impersonator. When you take kids to the mall to see Santa do you say, 'There's the Santa impersonator?' No you say there is the guy playing Santa," Matle said, avoiding eye contact. "You don't call an actor an impersonator, you say they are playing someone. When I was a kid my parents would take me to Hudson in downtown Detroit and it was always to see Santa, the guy playing Santa. Not an impersonator. The people who say that are trying to imply something else—"
He cut himself off. Within a matter of minutes I was shown the door.
Before Matle's diatribe, I was somewhat on the fence as to whether or not Bentivolio's past hobby was all that weird. OK, so the guy sometimes plays Santa. There are definitely worse predilections to find in a member of Congress. And it's also not the most incendiary thing about Bentivolio himself. This is a congressman who spent most of his time in office trying to get a hearing on chemtrails, and who once said it would be a "dream come true" to see President Obama impeached. Not to mention that 9/11 truther movie, in which Bentivolio played the chief doctor in a hospital where the president, who suspiciously resembles George W. Bush, is forced to account for his role in the "1/11 attacks" and then convert to Islam before he can go to heaven.
All of which is to say, Congress is going to be a lot less interesting without a tea party reindeer wrangler there to make sure Big Government isn't poisoning us through airplane exhaust. And Bentivolio was nearly as excited about playing a congressman as he was about being Santa, missing just six of the 1,204 roll calls held while he was in office.
Unfortunately, not everyone appreciated this gumption. Establishment Republicans have had it out for Bentivolio almost since he took office, and spent lots of money to defeat him in the Republican primary this August. And in a neat final twist, Congressman Santa lost to real-life Scrooge David Trott, a Michigan lawyer whose law firm, Trott & Trott, has made a fortune helping banks kick people out of foreclosed homes.
"The people had a part-time Santa impersonator," Bentivolio told Bloomberg Politics' David Weigel last week, "and then they got a Wall Street foreclosure king. Well, I'm still a reindeer farmer. I still impersonate Santa. Although I guess I haven't for five years."
Bentivolio's staff wouldn't say whether the congressman plans to restart his Christmas farm now that he has left office. But people in his hometown would definitely be pleased to have their Santa back. Milford put on its 27 th annual Santa Parade earlier this month, and despite the new costumes and beards, Bentivolio still stands out as the town original.
Sitting high on the wall of Dick's Barber Shop, amongst dozens of framed pictures and knickknacks is a tiny black and white newspaper clipping of Bentivolio getting his fake beard trimmed in his early Santa days. Rivet, the shop's owner, is doing the trimming. "When he did this picture here it was great for me," he chuckles. "I think I cut every kid in town that year."
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