A two-term city council member who helped implement community policing strategies in the New York Police Department, ran security for a U.S. territory and served on a panel of defense experts at the Federal Emergency Management Agency wants to take his experience to Washington in a special election to be held later this year to replace the late Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).
His name is Santa Claus.
Claus, 74, is among the 48 candidates who filed to run for the remainder of Young’s term earlier this month. He will face off against a who’s-who of Alaska politics, including former Gov. Sarah Palin (R), former Senate Majority Leader John Coghill (R), surgeon Al Gross (I), state Sen. Josh Revak (R) and former Interior Department official Tara Sweeney (R), in a first-of-its-kind primary election in which the top four contenders, regardless of party, advance to an August ranked-choice runoff.
The others have connections and support in the state’s small political world. The powerful Alaska Native Corporations back Sweeney, while Young’s widow backs Revak, both of whom co-chaired Young’s campaign. Palin, though she hasn’t appeared on an Alaska ballot since the 2008 presidential election, has backing from former President Donald Trump.
But Claus, born Thomas O’Connor in Washington, D.C., before moving to New York City and a Connecticut boarding school, has a resume unlike any of the others.
In an interview this week, Claus detailed an eclectic professional history that began shortly after he graduated from New York University, where he completed doctoral coursework in educational communication and technology, though he never got around to writing his dissertation.
He served as a special assistant to the Deputy Police Commissioner in New York City, where he helped implement community policing strategies under then-Mayor John Lindsay (R) in the late 1970s. At the time, New York police cars were black and white; a study out of Kansas City showed residents reacted better to cars painted in a light blue, a scheme the city uses even today.
“Back then, they were really making efforts and putting money where their mouths were to improve community relations,” Claus said. “I was only 23 when I was appointed, so it was kind of a baptism by fire.”
He served as the founding director of the Terrorism Research and Communications Center, a group of volunteer academics who sought to understand and disrupt or counter the foundations of terrorist groups operating both at home and abroad. As a part of that work, he was appointed to FEMA’s National Defense Executive Reserve, though he said his group’s approach went unheeded by national security officials.
“We felt it was better to talk to terrorists and terrorist groups to find out why they were dong what they were doing and see what the underlying issues were,” Claus said. “Back then they didn’t want to hear it.”
“Every single thing we brought to their attention has come to pass,” he said. “That changed my perspective on how government agencies tend to work.”
Disillusioned, O’Connor moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he won a job as chief of safety and security at the territory’s port, overseeing two international airports and four marine ports.
“We were addressing issues like alien smuggling, drug smuggling, things like that,” he said. “A lot of illegal immigrants, a lot of other drugs would get into the United States because there wasn’t any real assistance from some of the federal agencies.”
After stints managing a radio station in Telluride, Colo., and as vice president of a public television station in Lake Tahoe, O’Connor was looking for something new. He had become a monk, and in 2004, he had grown a beard that came out a bushy white; friends encouraged him to play the role of Santa Claus to cheer up children.
A fortuitous walk down the street erased any doubts.
“I was walking to the post office and I was praying, like monks tend to do,” he said. “I was asking god what I should do with the gift, this appearance. and about 20 seconds after I finished my prayer, this white, nondescript car came up. This fella drove by and shouted, ‘Santa, I love you!”
That day, he called the county to explore how to legally change his name. Then he launched a 50-state bus tour, seeking out governors, senators and members of Congress to buttonhole on issues of children’s health and welfare.
“That tour was pretty well received, so I knew I can capture the attention of independents, Republicans and Democrats, because I’ve done it,” he said. “It’s kind of a powerful tool. It sounds ridiculous at some level, but it’s very, very powerful.”
Santa felt he belonged at the North Pole, and the small town of about 2,200 people near Fairbanks welcomed him. He served as a senior park ranger for the borough park system nearby, and a stint on the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission. Along the way, he met Young, whom he says he admired for Young’s membership in the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, though they didn’t agree on much else.
“He asked me back then if I was going to run against him, because he’d heard I would. I said no,” Claus said. “He was a tough one to move out of there, if you will.”
But when Young died on an airplane flight from Los Angeles to Seattle last month, Claus said he thought he could bring his experience to Congress. He does not plan to fundraise; his only campaign expense has been the filing fee he paid to get on the ballot, and he asks potential volunteers to operate on their own.
“I don’t like that whole fundraising campaigning stuff for anybody to do if they’re in office. Why are we paying legislators to campaign and fundraise instead of doing their jobs?” he said.
Initially, Claus only planned to run for the remaining four months of Young’s term. But amid what Claus called a groundswell of support, he said he is now considering a longer political career.
“They’re trying to convince me to run for the full two year term,” Claus said. “If I do that, I would pledge to do it without the fundraising and campaigning aspect to it during the special election term. So I would just be there representing them.”
Claus describes his politics as in line with those of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), though he has not asked Sanders for an endorsement. He supports legalized marijuana, which Alaska voters approved in 2014; an expanded child tax credit; a wealth tax; and the PRO Act. His experience battling Facebook, which kicked him off its platform repeatedly, and Twitter, which has denied him a blue checkmark, has him interested in the power and role of social media companies.
“Social media platform issues are fascinating,” he said.
And though he opposes war, he says Alaska’s geographic position will make it an epicenter in years to come amid rising tensions with Russia and climate change that is putting new focus on the Arctic Circle.
“Alaska’s a pretty big defense center up here,” he said. “Alaska’s going to be a big deal over the next couple of years, and I think I have enough experience and perspective and attitude to represent the folks up here in Alaska.”
The state’s new all-party primary and ranked-choice runoff system has opened new opportunities for outsider candidates, Claus said. Big money will mean less in a system in which voters get to rank candidates, and Alaskans are far less likely to follow the partisan instincts of voters in the Lower 48 — Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) won re-election in 2010 as a write-in candidate, after losing the Republican primary; two of the state’s last seven governors have been independents, and the state House has been controlled by a coalition that includes Democrats, Republicans and independents.
So now Santa sees an opportunity to bring some Christmas cheer to Washington.
“Here’s a chance for voters to circumvent the party system and actually vote for somebody they think would do some good without all these external pressures and money,” Claus said. “Isn’t that going to be a swift kick you know where?”