Kerry Bentivolio is under attack. The weapon of choice for his opponents: Lies. The reality of the situation, however, is this: When he wins the Republican primary in less than a week, he will have to stand arm-in-arm with some of the very people perpetuating those lies. Such is the repulsive nature of politics; today you pose smiling for pictures with those who sought your destruction yesterday, and will seek your destruction again tomorrow.
Mr. Bentivolio doesn't seem like a man on the verge of winning a seat in the U.S. Congress He seems, instead, like a man genuinely hurt by the lies and cheap political tactics used against him by the very party he is trying to represent.
"They're spreading lies about me," he says, sitting across from me at a little family-owned coffee shop in Northville, "I don't have the time or money left to do anything about it."
The race for Michigan's 11th Congressional district seems to be getting hotter than the month of July here. Following the bizarre circumstances that led to the resignation of the seat's former occupant, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Livonia), the story takes on epic proportions as once again, the grassroots and the party establishment clash.
The implications of the outcome of this primary couldn't be any clearer. On one side is Kerry Bentivolio; a combat veteran, a former school teacher, and the only Republican whose name will appear on the Aug. 7 ballot. He is a self- professed fiscal and social conservative who has, on a tight budget, garnered TEA Party and grassroots support throughout the district.
On the other side is a slighted hierarchy within the 11th-District GOP, which doesn't appreciate a relatively unknown Libertarian-leaning candidate who may or may not toe the party line. The "Kingmakers" have decided to anoint their own candidate, and endorse her write-in campaign. This grassroots vs. establishment theme seems to be quite common this political season, but the good ole' boys from the Grand Ole Party have their hands full with this one.
It won't be an easy task to first prove to 11th district voters that their hand-picked candidate is the lady for the job, then convince those folks to write her name under the popularly supported Republican candidate, Kerry Bentivolio, whose name will appear printed on the ballot. How will the power brokers in the 11th district achieve their lofty goals, you ask? Simple: A last-minute smear campaign filled with name-calling and lies... how original.
"They're calling me an un-American conspiracy theorist!" He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a crumpled piece of paper, laying it on the table between us. It's a copy of his DD 214 form, releasing him from Military service. I spent ten minutes going over the copy his campaign manager sent via email on my tablet before our meeting began, but something about that crumpled-up piece of paper brings this race into perspective. He is real. No polished statements prepared, no assistant with a laptop and document folder; just a normal guy with a piece of paper in his pocket, trying to defend his honor against a well-funded, politically savvy foe. This is what grassroots politics is about. On that piece of paper is the story of a man who honorably served his country from Vietnam to the war in Iraq. A man with so many awards, medals, and commendations, an extra page had to be added to his release form.
I am a veteran myself, and the thought of anyone attacking this man's military career makes my stomach turn. Those who would do so had better be able to produce a DD 214 of their own. "I won't lie about her," Kerry says of his opponent, "I'll save my lies for my next fishing trip." Kerry Bentivolio obviously hasn't learned to lie like a good politician.
I sit in my kitchen as the day ends, watching a movie on my computer. It's an independent film, a hack conspiracy theory flick about 9/11. The usual tinfoil hat scenarios are well represented; the inside job perpetrated by the Bush administration, Dick Cheney the antichrist, and thousands of innocent Muslims killed because of greedy western oil tycoons. I've heard this nonsense being pushed to teenagers at coffee shops. As a veteran, and a patriot, I find it distasteful. I find this movie distasteful and offensive, but as a journalist, I'm compelled to continue watching. Kerry Bentivolio is one of the actors in this film. My thoughts go back to the coffee shop as I finish the movie and listen to the playback on my voice recorder.
"We need to talk about this movie," I say to Kerry, then brace myself for the well-rehearsed redirection I would expect from a Congressional prospect. "A friend of mine asked me to act in a movie he was making, so I did." I was not expecting a simple, honest answer. "Do you support any of the Ideas expressed in this movie?" I press him further. "Absolutely not," he answers, "If actors really believed in every movie they acted in, would you invite Anthony Hopkins over for dinner?"
Another thing I find distasteful and offensive is the use of slander as an acceptable tactic in politics. The Idea that the ends justify the means is one I thoroughly reject. In recent weeks Kerry Bentivolio's primary opponent, former state Senator Nancy Cassis, has launched a series of ads and mailings attacking Bentivolio's military record and teaching career, as well as his positions on hot-button topics like foreign policy and border security. A little research, however, makes it evidently clear that many of these accusations are flat-out lies; but with so little time left until the election, and Bentivolio's grassroots campaign low on funds, defending himself against these attacks has been difficult.
This is why he's agreed to sit down with me. He is defending himself against the lies by waving the crumpled-up proof in front of anyone who will pay attention. In this political climate, people are paying attention. An email lands on his smart phone, "Here's something from one of the Tea Parties," he says, tossing the phone on the table in front of me as he gets up to refill his coffee cup. I read the latest statement from the group. "What does it say?" He asks, genuine concern in his voice; "They're defending you, and accusing her campaign of spreading lies," I answer, handing him back his phone. "I think you're in good shape," I tell him. "Really”? He answers, as though he's unsure.
Voters in the Aug. 7 Republican primary will be faced with a decision, a choice not only between two candidates, but between conflicting ideas about the nature of political power in the country.
The attitude of the electorate is one of distrust for the political establishment. People are simply tired of business as usual from their elected officials, and that makes political tactics like the smear campaign extremely unpopular. Kerry's opponent has an uphill battle trying to win a write-in campaign, even with a financial advantage and the support of the political establishment. The decision to resort to lies and attack ads, however, probably won't help her chances of overcoming the odds. If she's a better candidate, she should run on her own record. Smear campaigns may have proven effective in the past, but this group of voters has had enough of the lies. They are so tired of lies, in fact, that they are likely to look past Kerry Bentivolio's theatrical indiscretions, because he is honest about them. The truth shall set you free... I remember reading that somewhere.
I predict a victory for Kerry Bentivolio in Tuesday's primary election, I doubt my little blog here will do anything to help or hurt his chances. I think that he made a huge mistake when he decided to act in that movie; I would have run in the opposite direction.
I would make an observation, though, before I return home to the Christian blogosphere. I have made some big mistakes in my life. We all do things we end up regretting. Integrity is forged by owning up to our actions, and learning from our mistakes. I hope Kerry Bentivolio has learned from his mistakes. All that being said, I'll take an honest mistake over lies any day. I hope Kerry Bentivolio's powerful political opponents have learned from their mistakes. These voters have educated themselves, and the lies won't cut it anymore. But hey, it's politics. We'll all be friends again on Aug. 8... right?
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