Learning each day
Standing outside the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va., where he and his Republican colleagues in the U.S. House were holding their regular retreat, freshman Rep. Kerry Bentivolio was in need of a cigarette. A U.S. Army veteran and high school teacher, Bentivolio had quit for a quite awhile, he explained, but the habit has started back up.
“I started again when we went into Iraq and I went back for my third tour of duty,” he said.
When asked if he was ready to try giving up smoking again, he said he might try, but “with the stuff we’re talking about in there, I don’t think I’m going to be that successful anytime soon,” Bentivolio said.
As Florida Rep. Bill Posey, Speaker John Boehner, and other lawmakers in the “nicotine caucus” emerged from the retreat for a smoking break, Bentivolio discussed what the national press focused on most in his unique resume: how he raises reindeer on his farm and plays Santa Claus at Christmas pageants.
“Yes, I do raise reindeer—among other creatures—and people love them,” he said, noting that his farm also includes honeybees and chickens. “I have played Santa at a number of events during the holidays but not in a while. These days, I meet a lot of people who think Barack Obama is Santa Claus because he’s giving them so many goodies.”
When discussing his career in uniform as a non-commissioned officer, the Michigander recalled how he served a stint in Vietnam and was discharged as a sergeant, re-enlisted for Desert Storm in 1991 and served stateside as a military policeman, and then enlisted once more for the Iraq invasion.
“I never got overseas in Desert Storm—Saddam heard I was going back in the Army and surrendered before I could get to Iraq,” he deadpanned.
Even in a first encounter, it is obvious that Kerry Bentivolio—61 and holding his first-ever political office—does not take himself too seriously. It’s a small wonder, given the circumstances of his election to Congress from Michigan’s 11th District last year.
Was it divine intervention?
Bentivolio recalled how local conservatives were upset with Republican Rep. Thad McCotter after he co-sponsored card check and Davis-Bacon, favored by organized labor, and measures to outlaw discrimination against gays in the military.
“I didn’t enter the race with any hope of winning, but only to try to move Thad McCotter to the right a bit,” Bentivolio said.
“And then, well, you could say something akin to divine intervention occurred.”
Active as a local volunteer in Republican campaigns going back to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bentivolio’s lone journey into office-seeking before deciding to challenge McCotter last year was a bid for the state Senate in 2010. He narrowly lost the primary to State Rep. Mike Kowall.
Kowall was himself briefly a candidate against McCotter, but eventually deferred to the incumbent. Bentivolio didn’t. Soon, reports mushroomed that the five-term incumbent’s staff had forged signatures on his nominating petitions and that 85 percent of the names on his petitions were invalid. When he was denied a spot on the primary ballot, with a probe by the state attorney general’s office in progress, the embattled McCotter finally announced he wasn’t running in June of last year. A month later, McCotter resigned from Congress.
When Bentivolio realized that the filing deadline had passed for the congressional nomination and he was alone in the race, several Republicans in the 11th District explored running as write-in candidates. Finally, local party leaders settled on Nancy Cassis, a 68-year-old former state senator from Novi with personal wealth to spend on a write-in bid.
“The Republican organization [in Wayne and Oakland counties] had every right to look for a write-in candidate, but you know something? They never even bothered to invite me for an interview,” Bentivolio said.
It was at this point that rumors began to circulate about the only Republican on the August primary ballot. Because he supported abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and rescinding the extra $100 billion Congress voted the International Monetary Fund in 2009, Bentivolio was often identified as a follower of former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and supporter of his presidential campaign.
“No, I wasn’t part of his campaign and, in fact, I canvassed for Mitt Romney,” he said. “I did say we needed more politicians who tell the truth and said that Ron Paul was an honest man. And I’m happy to say that Ron and his son [Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul] supported me when I needed help in the primary.”
Detractors also put out the word that Bentivolio had once acted in a movie portraying George W. Bush as the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Shaking his head, he said, “Hey, like a lot of people, I love movies and I’ve been an extra in four movies, including ‘The Betsy,’ with Lawrence Olivier.
In ‘The President Goes to Heaven’, which is the movie I think [opponents] were talking about, I had a small part as a doctor, but it’s a satire and the president is not George Bush. I think three people saw it when it came out and, after people brought it up in the campaign, maybe another 60 rented it.”
In the primary, Bentivolio explained that he had to look at the primary in military terms.
“I had three brigades: regular conservative Republicans, who didn’t like the party leaders trying to bring in a write-in candidate and provided the artillery; the tea partiers, our armored infantry; and the pro-liberty Republicans, our special operations unit, who liked my promise never to let our rights be taken away,” he said.
Coupled with the 6,000 homes he personally visited, the candidate’s ground game overcame Cassis, winning 60 percent of the vote.
In November, Bentivolio easily defeated Democratic challenger Syed Taj, performing better districtwide than Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Bentivolio’s arrival in Washington comes at a time when spending cuts dominate much of the discussion. On whether he is open to cutting the size of government, he’s willing to have an open mind.
“Let’s look at the books and see where we can cut. We have to stop all that borrowing because we can’t borrow out way our of the debt. And we’ve got to have the balanced budget amendment—no other way,” he said.
One of the most refreshing traits of this unlikeliest of congressmen is that he freely admits when he doesn’t have an answer and wants to learn more.
“So far, I’m enjoying every minute of my short time in Congress,” he says. “I don’t know all the answers, but I’m learning, fast and furious—if you’ll pardon the expression!”