A two-term city council member who helped implement community policing strategies in the New York City Police Department, led a U.S. homeland security and served on an expert panel of Defense at the Federal Emergency Management Agency wants to bring its experience to Washington in a special election later this year to replace the late Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).
His name is Santa Claus.
Claus, 74, is among 48 candidates who filed for the remainder of Young’s term earlier this month. He will face off against a who’s-who of Alaskan politics, including former Governor Sarah Palin (R), former Senate Majority Leader John Coghill (R), surgeon Al Gross (I), the Senator Josh Revak (R) and former Home Office official Tara Sweeney (right) in a first-of-its-kind primary election in which the top four candidates, regardless of party, qualify for a second round in August.
The others have connections and support in the small political world of the state. 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 a ballot in Alaska since the 2008 presidential election, has the backing of former President Donald Trump.
But Claus, born Thomas O’Connor in Washington, DC, before moving to New York and a boarding school in Connecticut, has a resume unlike any other.
In an interview this week, Claus detailed an eclectic professional history that began shortly after graduating from New York University, where he took doctoral courses in educational communication and technology, although he never had time to write his thesis.
He served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Commissioner of Police in New York City, where he helped implement community policing strategies under then-Mayor John Lindsay (R) in the late 1970s. Back then, New York police cars were black and white; a study in Kansas City showed that residents responded better to cars painted light blue, a scheme the city still uses today.
“At the time, they were really pushing and putting money where they were to improve community relations,” Claus said. “I was only 23 when I was appointed, so it was kind of a baptism of fire.”
He was founding director of the Terrorism Research and Communications Center, a group of volunteer scholars who sought to understand and disrupt or counter the underpinnings of terrorist groups operating both at home and abroad. As part of the job, he was appointed to FEMA’s National Defense Executive Reserve, although he said his group’s approach was not considered by security officials. national.
“We felt it was better to talk to terrorists and terrorist groups to find out why they were doing what they were doing and to see what the underlying issues were,” Claus said. “At the time, they didn’t want to hear it.”
“Everything we brought to their attention happened,” he said. “It changed my perspective on how government agencies tend to work.”
Disillusioned, O’Connor moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he secured a position as the territory’s chief port safety and security officer, overseeing two international airports and four seaports.
“We were dealing with issues like alien trafficking, drug trafficking, things like that,” he said. “A lot of illegal immigrants, a lot of other drugs would come into the United States because there was no real help from some federal agencies.”
After running a radio station in Telluride, Colorado, and serving 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 bushy white beard; friends encouraged him to play the role of Santa Claus to cheer up children.
A chance walk down the street erased all doubts.
“I was walking to the post office and praying, as monks tend to do,” he said. “I asked God what I should do with the gift, with this apparition. and about 20 seconds after I finished my prayer, this nondescript white car arrived. This guy drove by and shouted, “Santa Claus, I love you!”
That day, he called the county to find out how to legally change his name. Then he launched a bus tour of 50 states, seeking governors, senators and members of Congress to address issues of child health and welfare.
“That tour was pretty well received, so I knew I could capture the attention of independents, Republicans and Democrats, because I did,” he said. “It’s kind of a powerful tool. It sounds ridiculous on 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 ranger for the nearby borough park system and was a member of the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission. Along the way, he met Young, whom he says he admires for being a member of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, although they disagree on much else.
“He asked me at the time if I was going to run against him, because he had heard that I would. I said no,” Claus said. “It was hard to get out of there, if you will.”
But when Young died last month on a plane flight from Los Angeles to Seattle, Claus said he thought he could bring his experience to Congress. He does not plan to raise funds; his only campaign expense was the application fee he paid to be on the ballot, and he asks potential volunteers to run on their own.
“I don’t like all that fundraising stuff that anybody can do if they’re in power. Why do we pay legislators to campaign and raise funds instead of doing their job? ” he said.
Initially, Claus had only planned to run for the remaining four months of Young’s tenure. But amid what Claus called an outpouring of support, he said he now plans 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 commit to doing that without the aspect of fundraising and campaigning during the special election period. So I would just be there to represent them.
Claus describes his policy as being consistent with that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), although he did not ask Sanders for an endorsement. He supports the legalization of marijuana, which Alaska voters approved in 2014; an expanded child tax credit; a wealth tax; and the PRO law. His experience battling Facebook, which repeatedly kicked him off his platform, and Twitter, which denied him a blue tick, interested him in the power and role of social media companies.
“Social media platform issues are fascinating,” he said.
And while he opposes the war, he says Alaska’s geographic position will make it an epicenter in years to come amid growing tensions with Russia and climate change that puts stress on the Arctic Circle.
“Alaska is a pretty big center of defense here,” he said. “Alaska is going to be a big deal over the next two years, and I think I have enough experience, perspective and attitude to represent people here in Alaska.”
The state’s new multiparty runoff system of primaries and ranked choices has opened up new opportunities for foreign candidates, Claus said. Big money will mean less in a system where voters can 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 that 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 bypass the party system and vote for someone they think would do good without all that outside pressure and money,” Claus said. “Ain’t it gonna be a quick kick, you know where?”