In one of the more bizarre congressional campaigns of 2012, former high school teacher and part-time reindeer rancher Kerry Bentivolio was elected to Michigan’s 11th District after the collapse of former Republican Rep. Thaddeus McCotter’s effort to mount a reelection bid. Days before the election, one of Bentivolio’s brothers publicly questioned his fitness for office, but Bentivolio sees himself as a conservative political newcomer who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Bentivolio was raised in the Detroit area with four brothers. His father, a factory worker, served in World War II, while his grandfather fought in World War I. When it was his turn to serve in 1970, Bentivolio was deployed to Vietnam as an Army infantry rifleman. He would later serve more than 20 years in the Michigan Army National Guard, and do a tour in Iraq, mostly performing administrative work.
After his stint in Vietnam, Bentivolio attended Oakland Community College before transferring to Michigan State University. After college, he held a variety jobs ranging from automotive worker to educator. As a high school teacher, Bentivolio taught a computer course, American literature, U.S. history, and American government.
In the government class, he encouraged his students to think critically about their beliefs and the path of the country. But he also got negative job reviews for allegedly threatening students by slamming his fists on desks and yelling at them—reviews that were later released by the Detroit Free Press. Although Bentivolio dismissed the claims in an interview as “politically motivated,” they led to his resignation from the school in 2011.
He and his wife have lived on a small farm in Milford, Mich., for 20 years, where he raises a small flock of chickens, honeybees, and also reindeer, which every December are part of a traveling Christmas show across Michigan. Playing the part of Santa, Bentivolio started the tradition with his children in the early 1990s to attract tourists to his hometown.
After ending his short-lived run for the GOP presidential nomination, McCotter failed to turn in the necessary petition signatures to run for reelection, drawing a fraud investigation and leading to criminal charges for four campaign staff members. McCotter resigned from Congress in July. That prompted the need for two elections in November, a general election for the two-year term and a special election to fill the six weeks remaining on McCotter’s term.
The Republican primary election was contentious. The issue of Bentivolio’s sudden resignation as a high school teacher and his role in a movie that appeared to blame former President George W. Bush for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks plagued his campaign. His opponent, former state Sen. Nancy Cassis, spent nearly $500,000 on a write-in effort and dubbed him “Krazy Kerry.” Bentivolio ran as a conservative—he takes hard lines on spending, tax cuts, and abortion rights—and managed to beat Cassis with 65 percent of the vote.
In the general election, Bentivolio faced Democratic physician Syed Taj, a doctor and former Canton, Mich., trustee. Support from Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, the Tea Party Express, and the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program gave him a boost in a district that was redrawn to be more Republican. Days before the election, Bentivolio’s brother Phillip told the Michigan Information & Research Service, a political website, that his sibling was “mentally unbalanced” and would end up in jail; Kerry Bentivolio responded in kind, claiming his brother has “serious mental issues.”
Matt Vasilogambros contributed to this article.