Republican nominee winner Kerry Bentivolio celebrates his win over candidate Nancy Cassis on Aug. 7. / Jarrad Henderson, Gannett
DETROIT -- One way or the other, voters in Michigan's new 11th Congressional District are about to elect a decidedly unlikely congressman Nov. 6.
Consider Kerry Bentivolio, a former teacher from Milford who once acknowledged in a court deposition that he doesn't know whether he's Kerry Bentivolio or Santa Claus.
Indeed, he takes the Santa part of his identity seriously, raising his own reindeer that pull his sleigh at holiday events. To project authenticity, he's even sought clearance from Selfridge Air National Guard base in Mount Clemens to fly his sleigh in its airspace on Christmas Eve.
Bentivolio left a teaching job last spring after complaints he bullied students, even telling one class on its first day that his goal was to make all the students cry once during the year. He's never held elected office.
His opponent is Democrat Syed Taj, a Canton trustee, an internal medicine doctor and retired director of medicine at Oakwood Hospital in Dearborn. He's a native of India with an accent so thick, he's sometimes difficult to understand.
Taj remains a long-shot in the heavily GOP-leaning district.
Just five months ago, everyone expected that Thaddeus McCotter, the incumbent in the 11th District, would be re-elected.
That was especially true after his fellow Republicans had carved a district that included more upscale Oakland County communities and fewer Wayne County communities -- a setup for an easy Republican re-election.
But then McCotter's campaign imploded in a scandal dealing with nominating petitions, leading to criminal election-fraud charges against members of his staff.
Two months later, McCotter resigned from Congress.
That left just one other Republican, Bentivolio
Information about Bentivolio has been hard to come by. He allows few interviews because he says he doesn't trust the mainstream news media.
As a result, this profile relies on public records, questionnaires Bentivolio has filled out and interviews with friends and acquaintances.
As a Milford-based builder in the 1990s, Bentivolio ran into problems. He built a Homerama, house in Brighton -- a model home using high-end materials. It didn't sell, and he was left owing $620,000 to a bank and more than 30 vendors.
There are nine district court and seven circuit court cases involving Bentivolio in Oakland and Livingston counties, most for bills Bentivolio didn't pay for his home-building business.
After judgments were ordered in many of the cases against Bentivolio, he filed for bankruptcy in 1992. When he ran for the state Senate in 2010, he acknowledged on his website that he had financial difficulties in the 1990s.
"After dusting myself off after a terrible bankruptcy 20 years ago, I created a part-time family-oriented business now entering its 18th profitable year," his website says. The business is called Old Fashion Santa.
In his first year, he aimed high, wrote to the White House and asked whether he might make an appearance there as Santa during the holiday season. The day he got the official invitation from the White House (George Bush was president at the time), he called a news conference in Milford to announce the invite. Several newspapers, including the Free Press, wrote about it, attracting attention from one of the vendors who Bentivolio had owed money -- about $2,600 that was wiped clean by the bankruptcy.
That vendor called the White House to complain and word got back to the newspapers that Bentivolio filed for bankruptcy.
A second story came out about Bentivolio withdrawing from the White House appearance. Bentivolio sued the vendor, her husband, the Free Press and the Spinal Column newspapers for slander and libel and asked for $1 million in damages. He detailed the lengths to which the vendor went for revenge, including a confrontation in a Milford restaurant and speaking to potential clients and workers in Bentivolio homes.
Santa for Congress
Bentivolio's deposition in the lawsuit is full of "Miracle on 34th Street" moments.
"I have a problem figuring out which one I really am, Santa Claus or Kerry Bentivolio," he said in his deposition. "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."
In the end, a Livingston County District Court jury ordered the vendor to pay Bentivolio $100,000, but it was overturned by the Circuit Court and the state Court of Appeals. That case finally was settled for a few thousand dollars, said Brian Lavan, an attorney for the vendor, who died before the award could be paid.
A mediation panel considered the case against the Free Press and the Spinal Column and ruled that each had to pay him $50.
The lawsuit still grinds Bentivolio. He told a Free Press reporter that was one more reason to steer clear of giving the paper an interview.
"I've already gone through this with the Free Press 20 years ago. Burned once, it's your fault. Burned twice, it's my fault," he said.
His campaign has repeatedly refused requests for interviews.
Bentivolio's attorney, Matt Able, couldn't be more different than the reindeer rancher. An avowed liberal and one of the leaders of the battle to legalize medical marijuana, Able said he always thought Bentivolio was a straight shooter.
"We got along fine," Able said. "He's a no bull---- type of guy. But when he came to me looking for support for his race, I told him unless McCotter dies, you've got no chance in hell of winning."
Then, of course, McCotter did something that amounted to political death: He resigned.
What transpired during Bentivolio's military stint -- two years as a U.S. Army infantryman during the Vietnam War and 20 years in the Michigan National Guard, including a few months in Iraq in 2007 -- is unknown because his military records are not public information.
Jeffrey Herbig also served with Bentivolio and worked as an assistant to Bentivolio's Santa. He said the older man took him under his wing and helped prepare him for battle and for life.
"He saw that I was new and needed help," said Herbig, 49, of Flint. "There's nothing phony or two-faced about him."
Richard Starkey, 52, of Farmington Hills served in the Guard with Bentivolio and said everyone called him Sgt. Gung Ho. But Starkey said fellow soldiers thought Bentivolio was like "one of those hornets buzzing around your head that you just can't get rid of."
Bentivolio earned a bachelor's degree from St. Mary's College and master's degrees from Marygrove College. He then went into education, teaching computer-aided design classes at Notre Dame Prep in Pontiac.
Because the school is private, Bentivolio's personnel records are not available.
Notre Dame Prep officials said they didn't have any problems with Bentivolio during his three years at the school.
Things were different at Fowlerville High School, where Bentivolio taught from 2004 through last spring. He had good evaluations his first few years at the school, but his last two were marred by an unsatisfactory evaluation, two reprimands regarding claims of intimidating and inappropriate behavior with students and a settlement with the district before he resigned in June.
Bentivolio said the reprimands were politically motivated.
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Read the original story: Mich. front-runner's alter ego: Santa Claus