You Better Watch Out: Santa Claus May Be Coming to Congress
NORTH POLE, Alaska — It’s probably a phone call generations of children have dreamt of receiving.
For me it happened when an unfamiliar number appeared on the screen of my cell phone.
“Hello, Dan,” the voice on the other end said as I answered. “It’s Santa Claus … calling from North Pole, Alaska,” he said.
Suddenly decades of labor in the hardening game of journalism lifted from my shoulders.
“Santaaaaaaaaaaaaa …” I said.
But this was no ordinary call inquiring about degrees of naughty and niceness.
Santa Claus, a two-term councilman and current mayor pro tem of the City of North Pole, is running for Congress, hoping to fill the unexpired term of Rep. Don Young, a Republican who unexpectedly died last March.
Young had represented Alaska’s only congressional district for 49 years and was expected to run for re-election in November. His death has touched off a crowded race to succeed him, with 48 candidates making the June 11 primary ballot.
They range from what might be called a legacy candidate, Nick Begich III, whose grandfather represented Alaska in Congress before Young, to several state and local officials to gadflies and political novices.
But none of the candidates, no matter how qualified they may be, have garnered as much attention as former Gov. Sarah Palin, who entered the race in early April and was immediately endorsed by former President Donald Trump, and Santa Claus, who describes himself as an independent, progressive, democratic socialist.
“People up here characterize me as a blue dot in a Red Sea, since I’m more Bernie Sanders-esque than any other candidate in the race, and I’m in the city of North Pole, which is near Fairbanks, which is predominately very conservative,” said Claus, who legally changed his name decades ago.
“Yet, despite that being the case, I’ve been elected and reelected to the city council — this is the end of my sixth year on the council — so people must like to hear what I have to say, it must resonate, because I keep getting support,” he said.
With his entrance into the race, Claus began a journey that will see Young’s possible successor compete in four separate elections in five months.
The first is the aforementioned June 11 primary. The top four finishers of that contest will then advance to an August special election to determine who will complete Young’s term.
The same day, at least 30 candidates are expected to compete in yet another primary to determine which four will advance to the general election in November.
Finally, that contest will determine the winner of a new two-year term, who’ll be sworn in when the next Congress convenes in January 2023.
Adding another wrinkle to an already heavy schedule, state officials have decided to hold the August special election by mail because there was not enough time for the necessary hiring and training of more than 2,000 new election workers, and the time that would be needed to test and distribute voting machines across the state.
While Claus is serious about the contest, he’s also adamant that he only wants to fill Young’s unexpired term, and isn’t interested in running for an additional full term of his own.
He explained his rationale by pointing to his age, 75, and his desire “to spend my remaining years focused on things that are actually going to help, directly or indirectly, child health, safety and welfare.”
“Whoever winds up winning in this special election for that term, for the remainder of Don Young’s term, should be concentrating on representing all Alaskans then and there, not running for additional time in office and not spending time raising money or campaigning,” he said.
He also said that despite some encouragement to do so, he never actively considered running against Young for Congress because he enjoyed something of an ongoing dialogue with the late representative.
“We had disparate political beliefs and views, of course, but we found we also had some common ground on specific issues, like the Congressional Cannabis Caucus,” said Claus.
“Other people said, ‘You should run,’ ‘You should run,’ but I’d always decline, saying, ‘Well, he’s been there a long time … and he’s something of an institution,’” he continued.
“Then after he died, the same people came back and suggested I run, and I thought about it, and decided to do it,” Claus said. “The funny thing is now, the press is portraying the race as a contest between me and Sarah, because we’re the two candidates with the highest name recognition.
“But I think our goals are really different. She wants the job, longer term; I’d just sort of like to prepare a clean slate for whomever is elected after me,” he said.
Claus’s journey to congressional aspirant has been a long one, literally and spiritually.
Born Thomas O’Connor in Washington, D.C., Claus worked as a bouncer at several notable New York City bars and clubs while completing his undergraduate and graduate studies at New York University.
One of these was McSorley’s Tavern, the oldest continuously operating bar in New York City, which was immortalized in the writing of New Yorker legend Joseph Mitchell. Another was the Electric Circus on St. Mark’s Place, a haven for downtown musicians during the punk era, and the third was P.J. Clarke’s Restaurant and Bar on 55th Street and Third Avenue in midtown.
“New York City is a tough place to be a bouncer,” Claus said matter-of-factly. “Anybody who could work at all three of those places had to be fairly good at what they were doing.”
It also gave him a fleeting taste of celebrity — here today, gone in a New York minute.
One night a reporter from New York magazine was having a drink at P.J. Clarke’s and saw Claus throw a trouble-making drunk out of the bar. As it happened, the reporter was writing a series on unusual jobs, and decided to interview him.
“I remember the reporter asked, ‘What’s the last thing they hear from you before you throw them out?’ Do you argue with them or try to calm them down?’ And I said, usually it’s something along the lines of ‘What did you say?’ And I mimicked my actions at that point.
“Well, of course, it was right at that moment that their photographer snapped a picture for the piece,” he said.
Asked what he thinks of the photograph when he comes across his clipping of the article now, Claus laughed.
“Well the first thing I think is could this really have been 50 years ago? Then I think, ‘Wow, I wouldn’t want to tangle with that guy.’”
Claus went on to serve as a special assistant to the deputy police commissioner of New York City; a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Defense Executive Reserve while director of the Terrorism Research and Communication Center; and chief safety and security officer of the U.S. Virgin Islands Port Authority.
During his tenure with FEMA, Claus completed his doctoral coursework in educational communication and technology, but in his words, “timed out” of securing his Ph.D. due to the time demands of his job.
It was then that his life took a turn, though one he said would not be wholly unexpected if you knew his family history — he entered and graduated from two seminaries.
“My grandfather had been a deacon in the Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., a long time ago, and I remember, being at his funeral … and the rituals that were carried out meant absolutely nothing to me. The words sounded hollow. It just didn’t resonate with me at all. But it set me to looking into all this theological stuff.
“I mean, I came from an upper middle class, or privileged family, very loving, and I went to boarding school and off to college, but after I was sent away to school, I met a lot of people who weren’t so privileged or blessed with that kind of stuff. So I listened.”
Claus said the more he talked to people from other countries and even people right here in the U.S. who were dealing with poverty, he became more and more drawn to the issue of children who fall through the cracks and are not supported by social services.
“I was still doing police work at the time. I was the one who would show up at a scene and try to calm people through my demeanor and so on, and people started saying, ‘You should become a chaplain.’ And I thought, ‘Really?’”
Claus enrolled at The New Seminary in New York, which was founded by Swami Satchidananda and Rabbi Joseph Gelberman and is today the oldest interfaith seminary in the world. And then he went to the School of Theology at the University of the South.
It was there that Claus said he settled on a simple teaching as his guiding principle: “We are to love one another, period.”
“It’s pretty straightforward and it cuts through a lot of contradictions,” he said.
Claus realizes he is venturing into Marianne Williamson territory at this point and admits their message is somewhat similar.
Williamson, an author, spiritual leader and political activist, ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 before dropping out of the race and endorsing Bernie Sanders.
“I think Marianne and I agree on a lot of things, but we come at this from a different direction, given my background,” he said. “That said, I do think this whole love thing resonates.
“A while ago we were talking about my days as a bouncer. Well, in some ways what I’m doing with my candidacy, in the way I deal with things that come up is I’m working not to let the bad Santa emerge,” Claus said.
“Some other candidates in this race are mistaking any kind of love or kindness or whatever that I might be expressing as weakness. That’s a mistake,” he said. “Love is the most powerful force on Earth. It may not always prevail, but it’s always there. And that’s what I’m kind of tapping into with this particular candidacy.”
A case in point is Claus’s reaction when one of the other candidates in the race recently began running attack ads against him.
“Basically, because I identify with Bernie Sanders, this candidate has taken to branding me a Marxist communist, which is not what a Democratic Socialist is, but … anyway, this reporter calls me and plays me the audio from the ad over the phone and asks for my reaction.
“So I said, ‘Well, this is what it sounds like to me: Arrogance, ignorance, lies and fear,’” Claus said. “There was no point in going after him. I was just receiving and responding to what he said. And I think if politicians would spend more time addressing things like that, then our political climate would be a lot less contentious.
“The funny thing is, while his hardcore supporters loved his attack ad, there was a huge backlash because kids are seeing this, right? So here’s a candidate calling Santa Claus a communist and kids are asking their parents what he means.”
Which raises the question of how Santa Claus became Santa Claus in the first place.
“Well Santa Claus comes from the Dutch expression Sinterklaas, which means St. Nicholas,” Claus said. “The Dutch brought their tradition, the feast of St. Nicholas, to New Amsterdam, which later became New York City.
“But when they first arrived, they didn’t have any resources or anything. So they figured, well, yeah, St. Nicholas is a gift giver, and we’ve got Christmas coming up with the Magi as gift givers to Jesus, so let’s combine the two celebrations. That’s how Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus, became associated with Christmas.
“That’s a different tradition, by the way, from that of Kris Kringle. Kris Kringle is derived from Christkindl, meaning Christ child, because German children believe that the baby Jesus brings presents during the Christmas season. Two totally different traditions.
“So while I’ll answer to Nick or St. Nick on occasion, I never answer to Kris,” Claus said.
The story of how Claus became Claus is equally interesting.
“It was 2004, the winter, and I was living in the beautiful area up in the mountains around Lake Tahoe,” he said. “By this time I had let my beard grow out, and it did, just like you see it now and people said, ‘Well you should do the Santa thing.’ So I did, for about 30 nonprofits, all in the Lake Tahoe area. And it was very well received.
“And later that winter, in February, as a monk, I’m walking from my place to the post office way up in the mountains … and while I’m doing this, I’m praying. I’m asking, what should I do with this gift? This appearance? Can I use it to further the child advocacy I was doing?
“Well, right after my prayer, I see this nondescript car approaching me, with all the windows open. And it was pretty cold out,” Claus said. “So I kind of paid attention to the car a little bit, and right after it passed I heard this male voice — it sounded like he was in his 20s — shouting out, ‘I love you, Santa Claus!’ I never saw the car again. I never found out who said that. But I took it to heart and the next day, I called up the county clerk and said, “How do I legally change my name?’
“And the judge who got the petition, he’d just been appointed and wasn’t quite sure what to make of my request, so he wound up contacting the governor, who vouched for me based on a church-sponsored Santa’s Bless the Children Tour, I’d recently done, visiting governors’ offices across the country.
“The next day the clerk called and said, ‘Come down and get your paperwork, you’re good to go.’”
As one might expect, Santa Claus is running a rather unconventional campaign. He does not solicit or accept campaign donations, and his campaign has mostly consisted of Tweeting and posting videos on YouTube.
“I started on Twitter on April 1, and I have about 13,000 followers, which isn’t so bad. And then my supporters take what I tweet and repost it on TikTok or Facebook or whatever … and then people in the news media pick up on it,” Claus said.
“To me, it’s just the more appropriate way to campaign,” he continued. “I mean, I’m on some of these mailings lists and it’s all, ‘There are only four days left. We need to raise $20,000 over the next four hours.’ It’s all this fear stuff coming in. Who needs it?
“So I don’t participate in the mailings and that other stuff, and because I don’t have any campaign staff, I encourage my supporters to make up their own little yard signs and such if they feel inclined.
“I don’t direct or coordinate or control any of that activity, because that would trigger certain Federal Election Commissions’ regulations, but if my supporters want to do their own creative thing and make a lawn sign or wear a Santa hat or call their friends and canvas and communicate with people, I’m all for it. All I do is put stuff out on Twitter they might like to share, their choice.”
One of Santa Claus’s supporters, identified as “The JFC ” recently posted a mashup of news-related stories about Claus that got 133,000 hits on TikTok.
And a tweet announcing Santa’s appearance on the youtube.com/InternetTodayTV video podcast netted over 150,000 hits.
“And these things just came out of the blue,” Claus said. “I didn’t ask them for any of this … it’s just kind of become this organic sort of self-perpetuating system. But it’s like I said about my elections to city council: Apparently I have a message that resonates and people, in their own way, independently, are being very creative in how they support the campaign.
“I’ll probably never know the half of it, but I’m very grateful for it,” he said.
As far as his position goes, Claus, who has also been a member of the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission, president of the North Pole Community Chamber of Commerce, and and senior ranger for the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s Chena Lake Recreation Area, supports government policies that protect child health, safety, and welfare; the environment; the weak, poor, and underprivileged; and the Roe v. Wade decision.
He also supports policies that recognize that science, education, and religion can coexist; unite, rather than separate; promote peace, not war; favor natural remedies, not pharmaceutical sales; and demonstrate compassion.
Before we let Claus go, we just had one more question for him— how much does he have to do to keep his flowing white beard in such spectacular Santa-perfect shape.
The question elicited a bellowing laugh.
“Well, I have a wonderful hairdresser up here who trims it up for me and another in Lake Tahoe who would do the same. So I’ve had only two people that have cared for it since I changed my name all those years ago and I’ve been very blessed to have these people help keep it in good shape.
“Other than that, all I do is wash it, condition it, and comb it out and brush it and that’s about it. I’ve been very blessed with this particular look,” Claus said.